By Ken Tucker
Updated March 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

”Old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone…unspeakably horrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked….”

Thus wrote D.H. Lawrence of the great white talk-show host Larry Sanders — oh, I’m sorry, of the great white whale, Moby Dick. Surely my confusion is understandable, however, since the drama of persecution and obsession that fills this week’s four-hour adaptation of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick so closely resembles (if you add laughs, flirty guest star Winona Ryder, and Hank ”Hey, now!” Kingsley dressed as Little Bo Peep) the premiere of the new season of Garry Shandling’s great sitcom The Larry Sanders Show.

The USA Network’s Moby Dick is rigorously faithful to the book; the script adaptation by Anton Diether and director Frank Roddam is loaded with repetitive Melvillian paraphrases about the immensity of both the whale (impressively real-looking) and his pursuer, the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. As the latter, Patrick Stewart delivers an admirably livid performance, stumping around the deck of the Pequod on his ivory peg leg. His crucial counterpoint, however, the brooding young narrator, Ishmael (Henry Thomas), is all but lost. Thomas, who faced down a much smaller mythical creature in E.T., opts for blank-faced, earnest callowness rather than attempting to convey the inexperienced yet smart and skeptical fellow we come to know in reading the novel.

To be sure, it’s tough to make a good movie out of what is, as Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature, ”a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance and of considerable tiresomeness.” John Huston tried manfully in 1956, with a terribly wooden Gregory Peck as Ahab. (Peck pops up here as Father Mapple, wooden again in the role played with droll wit by Orson Welles in Huston’s film.)

But director Roddam gives it a good shot — a noble attempt to bring awe and the unknowable to the small screen. That, combined with Stewart’s full-force-gale acting, gives this Dick a lift it would otherwise lack.

Certainly our beleaguered Larry Sanders (Shandling) could use a similar lift. In the vibrant season opener, a listless, embattled Larry is under an attack as vicious as any launched against Moby Dick. The premiere finds him punctured with Nielsen harpoons: Everyone from Jay Leno to Keenen Ivory Wayans is eating away at his audience. And his inadvertant Ahab is comedian Jon Stewart, who haunts Sanders as the show’s regular substitute host. As the episode begins, we learn that network execs are openly discussing Stewart as a permanent replacement.

Meanwhile, Larry remains the devious devil he is, energetically trying to elude the changes the network representatives want to foist upon him (the ”18-to-34s” want a ”snappier theme song” say the suits, one of whom is played with expert oiliness by The Sweet Hereafter‘s Bruce Greenwood). And Larry is a sperm whale in jeans in his clumsy attempt to beguile Ryder into dating him.

Larry Sanders has always contained an undercurrent of tragedy in its portrait of a pathetically insecure man whose work is his life, and whose life is one long, uncomfortable commercial break. Fearlessly, Shandling and his cowriters are pushing Larry to the edge. There’s a beautifully somber scene near the end of this episode when Larry and his stalwart producer, Artie (Rip Torn), acknowledge just how much trouble Sanders’ show is in and how powerless they are to prevent network meddling. Shandling and Co. are setting up a season of confusion and doubt (it’s been rumored in the real-world press that Stewart may take over the HBO production when Shandling exits at the end of this season, a notion lent credence by Stewart’s new ”creative consultant” title in Sanders’ credits).

Artie tells Larry that he’s always been able to protect him from the network, but says ”I can’t anymore. You’re gonna have to decide this for yourself, sonny boy.” In other words, our lovable but craven, wily but self-absorbed Larry will have to prove his mettle, and, as Ahab says in the book, ”I would rather feel your spine than your skull, for much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone.” Ishmael proves to have a strong spine in Moby Dick. This season, we’ll get to see just what Larry Sanders is made of. Moby Dick: B The Larry Sanders Show: A