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The show then known as NBC's Saturday Night debuted in October 1975, and ever since, the series it became has been measured against it . . . and usually found wanting. That is part of the legacy of Saturday Night Live: Its past will never be equaled.

Now anyone who wonders what all the fuss was about - or who was there for it and wants to refresh a dimming memory - can roll back the years with a DVD set released Tuesday.

SNL: The Complete First Season reunites the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. It reprises comedy classics such as Land Shark, Baba Wawa, Bass-O-Matic and the Killer Bees. It tracks a groundbreaking series in its formative phase. And it does all this in context, with the 24 shows preserved intact.

Guest hosts include Candice Bergen, Rob Reiner and Elliott Gould, as well as more novel choices such as Racquel Welch, Dick Cavett and Ron Nessen, press secretary for then-President Gerald Ford. Musical guests include Jimmy Cliff, Simon & Garfunkel, Patti Smith and ABBA. Andy Kaufman makes several comic appearances, and Albert Brooks contributes a number of short films. Even the Muppets are on the bill.

Viewers who have never heard the latest update that "Generalisimo Francisco Franco is still dead" will be richer for the experience.

But this collection packs a greater payoff for vintage fans, who back then greeted each show as an event and lived it right along with the performers. With those shows as their ideal, those fans are the stubborn traditionalists always carping, "They just don't make 'em like they used to," while dismissing the SNL of modern times as an ever-deepening rut.

Maybe that's harsh, but there's no question the series (officially christened Saturday Night Live in its second season) was born to lampoon cultural institutions, yet itself has become such an institution that today it's spoofed by one NBC series (30 Rock) and glorified by another (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip).

It's easy to argue that now, under the continuing rule of 62-year-old creator Lorne Michaels (who in 1975 made noises about hiring no one much past age 30), SNL stands for nothing other than its accumulating years. But here's a chance to cut through three decades' distance for a clear-eyed reappraisal: Once and for all, just how good was that inaugural season?

In retrospect, the complexity, irreverence and liveness of SNL made it revolutionary for a time when little, if any other, topical comedy was on the tube. But week to week, and sometimes moment to moment, that first season, the shows were wildly uneven, and some of them were real dogs - just as in all the years since.

But something special drove it back then: an unruly effort to surprise its viewers along with making them laugh. But SNL long ago lost its capacity to startle, abandoning that mission to repeat itself, simply catering to viewers' well-entrenched expectations.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

On TV

Saturday at 11:30 p.m. on WFLA-Ch. 8. Annette Bening hosts; Gwen Stefani and Akon are musical guests.

On DVD

The new eight-disc DVD set is $69.98; Universal Studios Home Entertainment

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