TIME Technology & Media

This Small Cable Operator May Help Unravel the Pay TV Industry

Obama Appears On Daily Show With Jon Stewart
President Barack Obama chats with Daily Show host Jon Stewart during a commercial break in taping on October 27, 2010 in Washington, D.C. Pool—Getty Images

Suddenlink has dropped Viacom channels from its lineup, perhaps permanently. That's a cardinal sin in the world of pay-TV.

A cable company and a TV network have been in a dispute over how much the network’s content is really worth. This may sound like a familiar tale, but there’s an unusual ending this time. Suddenlink, a St. Louis-based operator with more than 1.1 million subscribers, dropped Viacom’s collection of well-known TV channels from its lineup Wednesday, and they’re probably not coming back anytime soon.

Negotiations over carriage fees, the amount that pay-TV operators pay network owners to carry their channels, often turn into very public spats. Time Warner Cable kicked CBS-owned networks off its channel lineup for a month in 2013, and The Weather Channel went so far as to lobby Congress to force DirecTV to keep the channel on its airwaves earlier this year. In both instances, the two sides eventually reached a truce.

That doesn’t appear to be in the cards this time. Because Suddenlink couldn’t come to an agreement with Viacom on appropriate carriage fees, the cable company has replaced mainstays on the channel dial like MTV and Comedy Central with new additions such as FXX and the Hallmark Channel. Suddenlink thinks its customers won’t miss Viacom’s offerings much. “It’s unfortunate we could not reach agreement,” spokesman Pete Abel said in an email. “But we have moved on and are excited about the new channels we’re adding and our customers have told us they would like to have.”

In the traditional pay-TV model, a cable company dumping Viacom’s channels could be viewed as a cardinal sin. Historically, network owners and cable operators have worked in lockstep to keep their highly lucrative system intact. Operators agree to buy up channels from media conglomerates like Viacom in unwieldy bundles, which means a 26-year-old bachelor is stuck paying for Nickelodeon. Network owners in turn make sure that having a pricey cable subscription is pretty much the only legal way for viewers to see TV shows as they’re airing. Content creators also charge new entrants to the pay-TV space a higher carriage fee for their channels, according to Erik Brannon, a TV industry analyst at IHS Screen Digest. Intel had been planning a pay-TV service that would deliver live television content over the Internet, but the costs of acquiring programming were prohibitively high.

Suddenlink tried to upend this long-standing formula by asking Viacom to sell just a few of the channels that are popular with its customers, like TV Land and Comedy Central. Suddenlink says that Viacom responded by increasing its price demands even more. On a website about the dispute, Viacom says that Suddenlink abruptly stopped negotiating and reneged on a last-minute proposal that met the cable operator’s demands. “We remain committed to reaching a deal so that our viewers will be able to watch their favorite shows,” Viacom wrote on the site. Viacom did not respond to an email from TIME seeking further comment.

The Suddenlink decision could inspire other small and mid-size operators, already being squeezed by subscriber declines, refuse carriage fee increases from media giants. Sixty smaller cable companies, including one with half a million subscribers, lost Viacom’s channels in the spring and haven’t yet restored them. “Mid-tier operators and small operators are going to have to look at the profitability of carrying networks vs. their viewership,” Brannon says. “When you’re in the position of Suddenlink . . . you absolutely do not have the buying power that Comcast or DirecTV have.”

At the same time, channel owners are becoming more receptive to the Internet-based TV services of which they were once wary. Viacom has agreed to offer 22 of its channels on a new, Internet-based TV service that Sony is launching later this year, the first such deal the media giant has made public. The revenue generated from that deal, which Brannon says probably included a guarantee by Sony of a minimum number of subscribers, might make Viacom less concerned about the activities of the smaller traditional cable companies.

Whether these strategic shifts will benefit consumers, networks or cable operators remains to be seen. Suddenlink is hoping that losing Viacom won’t hurt its subscriber numbers, but Cable One, the largest of the sixty cable companies to dump Viacom in the spring, doubled its subscriber loss the quarter it removed Viacom’s channels. And while Internet-based pay-TV services like Sony’s promise an improved user experience, no one has yet broached the topic of offering channels “a la carte” and allowing customers to pick exactly what content they’d like to buy.

Still, the once-sacred marriage between cable operators and network owners is under obvious strain. That leaves room for new entrants to claim a piece of the market—hopefully for many, with business models that are more in line with customer preferences. “Carriage fee negotiations are going to become increasingly contentious,” warns Brannon. “Not only at Viacom but other channel groups.”

TIME Television

Big Remake Heading to the Small Screen

Fox is planning a half-hour comedy series based on the 1988 Tom Hanks movie

Fox has Big news: The broadcaster is developing a television series based on the 1988 Tom Hanks film about a boy who wants to be “big.”

Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce, the pair behind short-lived sitcom Enlisted, have signed on to write and executive produce the half-hour comedy series, which The Hollywood Reporter describes “as an event series based on the movie that explores what it means to be an adult and what it means to be a kid — and how in today’s world, those two things are more confused than ever.”

The original movie, which was directed by Penny Marshall, featured Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who offhandedly wishes he was an adult and then is horrified (and later delighted) to discover his wish come true. The movie was nominated for two Oscars.

There’s no word on whether the TV version will include a giant piano, but here’s hoping.

[Hollywood Reporter]

TIME Television

Lea Thompson on “The Power of Love” and Dancing with the Stars

ABC

Thompson recreated her Back to the Future dance on the show last night

There was a Delorean on the set of Dancing with the Stars last night and that could only mean one thing: Lea Thompson was going back in time to go Back to the Future.

Ever since it was announced that Thompson would be joining the cast for season 19 of DWTS, fans had been waiting for a routine set to Huey Lewis and the News’s Back to the Future theme song, “The Power of Love,” and last night, Thompson delivered.

“Lorraine McFly is one of my favorite characters. She’s the best and it was fun to revisit her in a cha-cha skirt,” said Thompson after the routine. It was a thrilling moment for fans, who had been yearning for a throwback moment since Elizabeth Berkley Lauren recreated her Jessie Spano “I’m So Excited” dance on the show.

It’s all part of the fun for Thompson, who is simply enjoying being back on the dance floor after a years-long hiatus. “Being on the show is all about revisiting my first love. I really loved ballet, but I wasn’t good enough to be a ballet dancer, “ said Thompson. “This is about enjoying the joy of the dance and not being so uptight about it. I feel revitalized by this. It’s so much fun.”

Thompson may be having fun, but she’s also doing very well in the competition. She was at the top of the leaderboard last week after her fast-paced jive wowed the judges — so much so that Carrie Ann Inaba fell out of her chair. “We were so surprised. I had no idea that we were the top of the leaderboard,” said Thompson. “It was awesome.” That said, Thompson claims she’s just on the show for the love of the dance. “I don’t care about winning, but I do care about staying on the show, because it’s so much fun!” she said.

She noted that contestant Janel Parrish beat her in one of the show’s so-called “Twitter-offs,” where the contestant who gets the most votes on Twitter earns a valuable repeat performance. “She’s my best girlfriend on the show,” said Thompson, “But she did beat me for the Twitter-off, because she has about a billion more Twitter followers than me!”

“It’s not how much younger they are than me. It’s how many social media followers they have — that’s what’s stacked against me,” said Thompson. “I need more Twitter followers!” (If you want to help swell her numbers from the 78,000 followers she already has, her Twitter handle is @LeaKThompson.)

It’s not just social media that causes Thompson some concern, though. “I worry that people won’t vote for me, because they think I’m safe,” said Thompson. “I’m not safe at all.”

Part of Thompson’s concern stems from the fact that she’s paired with a brand-new pro. While Chigvintsev has earned his stripes and laurels on the UK’s version, Strictly Come Dancing, he’s new to U.S. fans. “We come in with a slight disadvantage, because Artem doesn’t have an American fan base like Val [Chmerkovskiy] or Derek [Hough],” said Thompson. It’s clear that Thompson thinks Chigvintsev deserves his fair share of fans: “Artem is like the perfect guy — funny, smart and caring. And he has abs,” she laughed. “We’re great buds. We’re having a great time working on this.”

While Thompson is proud of her past, she does hope to incorporate something from her present in a future dance — sign language, a skill she earned on the set of her ABC Family drama Switched at Birth. “I am hoping to incorporate sign language into something. It’s just so beautiful,” she said.

Despite the greatness of the Back to the Future dance, fans will still have to wait for the inevitable moment when Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star and current Dancing with the Stars contestant Alfonso Ribeiro pulls out The Carleton.

TIME Television

Ben Affleck Cannot Sing ‘Let It Go’ From Frozen

To his son's disappointment

Apparently being Batman isn’t enough to appease Ben Affleck’s son, who would much prefer his dad to perform the song “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen.

Unfortunately, the actor is no Idina Menzel — as he demonstrated when he tried to sing a line from the famous song.

Affleck is soon to be seen in Gone Girl, and will be playing Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is set to be released in 2016.

TIME Television

Season Review: Transparent Is a Change for the Better

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Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. Beth Dubber / Amazon

After I saw the pilot, I called this the best show of the fall. It turns out it's the best show of the year.

The following review discusses plot points throughout the entire first season of Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent. So, spoilers. Don’t read it unless you’ve watched, or don’t mind learning what happens. It will still be here for you later. (In the meantime, you can read my non-spoilery praise for the show from earlier.)

“It makes the prayer more powerful if we’re all connected.”

You’ve probably already heard, before you even watched Transparent, what a revelation Jeffrey Tambor’s performance as Maura Pfefferman is. It is; he deserves every award he collects over the next year for it. His gift here is not just impersonation–“acting like a woman,” in crude terms–but wholly, soulfully becoming this specific person who’s been acting like a man for decades. His performance is stunning without being loud; some of Maura’s most powerful lines are barely whispers, like her urgent, “please, God, let me do this” when Sarah interrupts her as she’s coming out.

So too does creator Jill Soloway, for imagining Maura down to the merest detail, knowing where she’s soft and where she’s hard, imagining the special challenges and risks of coming out as transgender as a senior citizen. (It’s awful enough if your parents reject you, but your children?) And for making Maura a person first–sympathetic, warm, but far from a perfect spouse/dad/Moppa–rather than a figure in a Very Special dramedy.

To borrow a phrase from Alan Sepinwall befitting this most Jewish of current TV shows: if Transparent were only the story of Maura Pfefferman, dayenu.

But it turns out to be so much more. Over five hours, as it goes broader and bigger and deeper into the past, it becomes a story of the Pfeffermans as an organism, each member bound by a shared history so that you can’t entirely tell where one character’s issues end and another’s begin. (Not unlike Echo Park and Silver Lake.)

Transparent understands that families are not simply collections of personalities but have collective personalities themselves. It means something to be a Pfefferman. Secrets, for starters, that go well beyond Maura’s big one. Secrets are traded like a kind of currency in this family, with Maura–who sometimes maybe loves too much–handing out gifts with the tag “Don’t tell your brother or sister” attached. The way they connect around food–joking about coming from “shtetl people,” passing samples of deli coleslaw from a serving spoon–suggests a lifetime of fractious closeness.

It also understands that the way to get to the universal is to be specific. This is, no getting around it, a show about privileged people: a particular, safety-netted privilege in which there happens to be a spare multi-million dollar modernist crash pad to create King-Lear-in-the-Palisades tensions among the heirs. It’s a particular kind of Jewish progressive academic-intellectual family, where copies of Dissent are lying around and bat mitzvahs are optional. (“Are Jews more anxious than the average person? Or do I just notice it more because I’m Jewish?” Yes and yes!) And it’s lovingly shot in a lived-in looking L.A. of mid-century apartment buildings, deli counters and the hipster-bourgeois enclaves around Griffith Park.

Thanks to this–and spectacular casting up and down the list–Transparent often feels like it was transcribed more than written. You could compare the show to Zwick-Herskovits dramedies, or Soloway’s former show Six Feet Under, or Parenthood, but there’s also a strong hint of PBS’ An American Family, the proto-reality show where another southern California clan changed before our eyes. So even as we watch Maura become a trans-parent, each of her kids is also in some state of personal-sexual transition. (Maybe the most interesting is Ali’s wrestling with her gender presentation, which just sort of quietly evolves over the season.)

The throughline, of course, is Maura’s journey, and it’s fascinating to see her, with seventy-odd years of history on Earth, learning to be a new person: popping an estrogen pill like a teen taking her first sip of beer, or discovering that a “free” mall makeover means you need to buy a lot of stuff, or attending a trans yoga class. (“Namaste.” “Hey, girl, hey!”)

And as the show delves backwards, into the ’80s and ’90s, it only gets more twisty and complicated. In the stunning eighth episode we find 1994 Mort identifying as a cross-dresser, some of whose fellows have their own issues with trans folks. (“Transvestites are not transsexuals,” says Bradley Whitford as Mark, “and never the twain shall meet.”) Being marginalized yourself doesn’t mean being perfectly enlightened; even Maura, home at her noisy new apartment after a lousy day, screams “Turn it down, you faggots!” at her partying neighbors.

That last is one of many humanizing, uncomfortable moments in Transparent, which has already raised the question of whether the Pfeffermans are “likeable.” Which maybe just proves how useless a term “likeable” is as a measure of art. Who needs likeable? Vanilla ice cream is likeable.

These characters are fascinating, and they can be terrible. The kids are just as selfish as Maura says in the pilot–walking out on her talent-show act was the height of oblivious egocentrism–but of course she helped make them that way. As the family debates euthanizing Ed, Ali makes a strong point that being “done” is not reason enough to end someone’s life; Shelley (Judith Light, a goddamn national treasure in this role) makes the anguish and deep empathy behind the decision palpable. The show immerses you in the moment without rendering a verdict. Ditto the supporting characters–Tammy, Len, Rabbi Raquel–who each can be a piece of work or a mensch. Every person here can be a burden, and each carries a burden. Transparent doesn’t judge or justify them; it just paints them in full.

And God, does it look and sound gorgeous doing that. The episodes, directed by Soloway and Nisha Ganatra, are visually haunting and intimate from the opening credits; there’s a remarkable sequence at the end of episode 9, for instance, where we see Ed’s last moments from his own disoriented perspective–the lights and geometric shapes of the retirement community at night, the ducks leading him to the water. The music, too, is curated in a way that would make Joshie proud, down to teenage Sarah singing The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” to herself in the family car. Transparent is a deeply nostalgic show, but not in a cheap way. It wants to dig into the Pfeffermans’ pasts and find both the heartbreak and the Michael Jackson gloves. It wants to remember what it was to be four years old, listening to Jim Croce and Heart; its vinyl-collector’s heart is full to bursting.

I make Transparent sound emotional and bittersweet. It is. But did I mention that it’s freaking hilarious? It’s serious about its gender themes, but serious enough to know how funny they can be, as when Ali audits her gender studies class (“Exclamation points themselves are small rapes”) and accepts a date with her TA (“Politically, I’m basically a lesbian”).

If I reach, I could find a few quibbles with the season–mainly that it began to throw in twist after twist, as if trying to fit a few seasons’ story into one. (Josh discovering he fathered a son with his babysitter; Syd confessing her feelings for Ali; Sarah nearly re-cheating on Tammy with Len.)

But big picture: this is the best thing I’ve seen on TV–even if it’s not “on TV”–this year. Maybe in more than a year. And we’ll be damn lucky if there’s anything as good next year. Yes, with the $99 annual Amazon Prime fee as the price of admission, it’s one more line item on your cultural budget. But this is TV to get excited about, that makes you think anything is possible in the medium, that expands TV’s range of subject matter, style and tone. It’s a big-feeling, effusive, life-and-sex-filled show that wants to push your buttons and fight with you, and kiss and make up and ask you if this coleslaw tastes all right.

And it ends damn near perfectly, with the Pfeffermans, exhausted and hungry after a day of mourning and fighting, circled around a table–Mama and Moppa, old family and new. (At the last line–Maura answering her new Christian grandson’s appeal to Jesus with an “Oy gevalt”–I laughed and clapped and got a little verklempt.)

Beyond sexuality, beyond identity, this is a great show about the many different ways there are to be a human being. It’s fitting, I think, that Maura, who has transitioned to life as a woman, uses that specific term to talk about Ed at the end: “We’re going to ease Ed into the next transition.” Death may be the last transition. But as long as there’s life, Transparent tells us with humor and heart, there is always the potential for change.

TIME Television

Jon Hamm to Appear in Dystopian British Drama Black Mirror

Celebrities Visit SiriusXM Studios - May 9, 2014
Jon Hamm visits the SiriusXM Studios on May 9, 2014 in New York City. Taylor Hill--Getty Images

The Mad Men star has signed on to appear in a Christmas edition of the critically acclaimed anthology series

Jon Hamm is leaving retro behind for the time being and delving into the dystopian. The Mad Men star has signed on to appear in the upcoming feature-length special of Black Mirror.

If you’re unfamiliar with the British anthology series, which takes a dark, satirical look at society and where it’s headed, now is the time to catch up. The upcoming holiday special, which is slated to begin filming in the UK this week, will show three inter-woven stories of “Yuletide techno-paranoia,” according to a release about the episode. Though details are still sparse, Hamm’s character will appear in all three stories.

Also appearing in the special will be Oona Chaplin of Game of Thrones fame and Rafe Spall, who appeared in One Day.

The series was created by writer and broadcaster Charlie Brooker, who said in a statement, “I’m revoltingly happy that Jon, Rafe and Oona are participating in the horrible pageant that is Black Mirror. As far as I’m concerned their presence is a huge Christmas present that’s arrived early.”

For his part, Hamm said that he’s long been a fan of the series, which premiered in 2011, noting that “[i]ts dark humor and intelligent observation of our society and values hooked me deeply as a viewer and I’m honored that Charlie and the rest of the creative team have asked me to participate in wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas.”

TIME Television

Dancing With the Stars Watch: It’s Movie Night With Kevin Hart

ABC

The stars dance to big hits from the big screen

Great news, everyone: Dancing With the Stars is back down to one episode per week. That means we get a full night of performances with the cherry on top of an elimination. While fans may appreciate having their Tuesday nights free, for the stars of the show, it means getting all dolled up in their finest Spanx and spray tans to flash their best jazz hands and tango elbows knowing that they might get kicked off at the end of it all. Fun, right?

While Len Goodman is off judging Strictly Come Dancing, the panel of judges is inexplicably joined by comedian Kevin Hart. While everyone loves Kevin Hart, there is no reason for him to judge a dancing show. If we’re going to nondancing professional judges, how about Mindy Kaling, Jane Goodall or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

While we compile a wishlist, it’s time start the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to get things started with a giant Marilyn Monroe–inspired floor show set to the very literal song choice of Pharrell Williams’ “Marilyn Monroe.”

Here’s what happened on Dancing With the Stars:

Randy Couture and Karina Smirnoff: MMA fighter Randy thinks it is “pretty cool” to dance a paso doble to his friend Sylvester Stallone’s movie, Rocky. Shouldn’t make poker night awkward at all. Randy hit the floor shirtless save for a vest that revealed not only his chest, but also a giant tattoo. Julianne Hough, whose title card has been updated to include the fact that she’s a two-time champion, wasn’t wild about his timing. Carrie Ann loved the power in the performance, but wants some finesse the next time around. Kevin Hart is too scared of Randy to give him a bad score. 26/40 and the couple already knows they are in jeopardy.

Alfonso Ribeiro and Witney Carson: The always dynamic duo did a quick step to Austin Powers: Goldmember, but before they could get to the ballroom, Alfonso had to not kill millennial pro Witney during rehearsal. It was a challenge after she pointed out that she was “literally carrying his fat ass” across the floor. He managed not to murder her or have a meltdown, though, and delivered yet another solid routine. Julianne encouraged him to “get low” on the dance floor, while Kevin Hart ogled his velvet suit. 32/40.

Betsey Johnson and Tony Dovolani: Before their contemporary routine to that song from Ghost, Betsey said the routine was “like the skydiving I never wanted to do.” The audience loved the fluid routine, but Carrie Ann thought watching Betsey dance was confusing, because she was simultaneously elegant and sloppy. Kevin Hart informed the designer that she “dropped it like it’s hot,” and Bruno announced that “no one can bend it like Betsey.” 29/40, including a 9 from Kevin Hart, which was counteracted by Julianne’s 6.

Lea Thompson and Artem Chigvintsev: When it’s movie night and Lea Thompson is in the house, there’s no doubt that she will be busting a move from Back to the Future. The routine started with a Delorean ride and ended with a fast-paced cha-cha that got the crowd cheering and the judges jeering, well not really, but it rhymes. Carrie Ann didn’t think it was her strongest routine, but Kevin Hart loved her smile, and that was enough to earn her a decent score. 31/40.

Michael Waltrip and Emma Slater: The NASCAR star is safe this week, but still reeling from the fact that America didn’t like his dance routine to “Girls in Bikinis.” For his waltz this week, Michael is doling out the NASCAR metaphors and stepping on the gas for his romantic routine to Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You).” The judges loved the Robin Hood–themed routine with even stickler Julianne dubbing it his best routine yet. 28/40.

Antonio Sabato Jr. and Cheryl Burke: Thus far in the competition, Antonio has had a hard time acting like he’s having fun. This week he almost managed to smile during his foxtrot to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from Guardians of the Galaxy. The judges appreciated the effort. 29/40.

Sadie Robertson and Mark Ballas: Dancing a Viennese waltz to the theme from Up is adorable, just so long as they end the routine before the part where they find out they are barren and then the wife tragically passes on. Aside from that: so cute. Carrie Ann said it was her favorite dance of the night, it made Kevin Hart a fan, and Julianne loved the choreography, restraining herself to only a few criticisms and pointers. 32/40.

Jonathan Bennett and Allison Holker: On a smoke-filled floor, Jonathan and Allison delivered a proficient tango to Beyoncé and Andre 3000’s “Back to Black” cover from The Great Gatsby soundtrack. The judges appreciated it, 32/40, but the couple knows they are in jeopardy.

Janel Parrish and Val Chmkerovskiy: It’s rare that the ABC legal department gets a moment in the spotlight, but when Val and Janel wanted to do their jazz routine to a song from West Side Story, the legal types got in a huff and earned a spot on the show via a very dramatic phone call. The end result was that they could use the song “America” but couldn’t use any of the choreography from the show. Val was up to the challenge and they delivered an amazing routine. Bruno called it her “star turn” and Julianne was on her feet to applaud and called it perfection. It’s one of the rare DWTS routines that is worth googling the next day, just to see the skill with which they brought a Broadway show to life in three minutes flat. 40/40.

Tommy Chong and Peta Murgatroyd: Tommy knows how to tango, and he has no problem telling Peta how to do her business. They set their Argentine tango to the theme from the Al Pacino film Scent of a Woman, which Tommy uses as an excuse to sniff Peta, strictly for professional purposes, naturally. The judges were very impressed with the routine, but none more than Kevin Hart, who gave Tommy a 10. 34/40

Bethany Mota and Derek Hough: Gene Kelly’s wife Patricia stopped by the set to give Derek some encouragement before his jazz routine to Singin’ in the Rain. They made it rain inside the ballroom, but it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The judges were stunned into submission by the routine. Kevin Hart admired the homage to Derek’s hero. Julianne said tonight Bethany “became a woman,” which may require a review of the tape, and while it probably killed Julianne to do it, she couldn’t help but give her brother a 10. 40/40.

Who Went Home: MMA champ Randy Couture, Mean Girls supporting actor Jonathan Bennett and professional hunk Antonio Sabato Jr. were all in jeopardy. At the end of the show, Randy was sent home to add some paso doble twists to his signature anaconda choke.

TIME Television

The Simpsons Watch: Heaven, I’m in Jewish Heaven

FOX

In a much-hyped Simpsons episode, one character dies and another one tries to figure out life

In end-of-life care, there’s a concept known as “the good death.” Depending whom you ask, it might mean dying without prolonged discomfort, or in the company of loved ones, or after achieving a feeling of meaningful closure.

In the case of TV death, especially one trumpted in advance publicity, “a good death” has a somewhat different meaning. Is it resonant? Does it close the character’s story well? And–let’s be frank here–did it actually live up to the hype?

It’s possible that on that last score, the death of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (voiced again by the great, gravelly Jackie Mason) will disappoint those amateur Reapers who were laying odds that Krusty would be leaving us, largely on the basis of the episode title, “Clown in the Dumps.” It wasn’t an Earth-shattering death–and I’m glad, if it means Krusty lives to peddle trayf another day. Because overhyped or not, the episode showed that Krusty is valuable to The Simpsons, not just for the showbiz jokes, but as an entree to a certain kind of story about disappointment and living with one’s limitations.

If “Clown in the Dumps” is not a classic on the level of season three’s “Like Father, Like Clown,” it was still a fitting, sweet conclusion to the story of Hyman and Herschel. There has always been a special darkness to Krusty’s stories–as Lisa once said, he’s like a black-velvet painting come to life–and it’s been rooted in both running from and aching for the approval of his father.

In a TV-sitcom medium that often ignores Jewish experience or writes it in as subtext, that relationship and its details were something special. And there was a brilliant absurdity to leaving Krusty with that Talmudic, torturously ambiguous “Eh”–that most malleable of Jewish judgments–leaving Krusty to decide, on his own, whether his life has been worth it.

What does the “Eh” mean? Over time–with the help of a whiskey funnel, a dream sequence and a comedy rabbi–Krusty finds an answer: that his father really approved of him, even if he could never express it. It’s an answer; it’s not the answer, which Krusty will never get any more than the rest of us will. There may be other answers, maybe even more believable ones (as Lisa suggests, that the rabbi didn’t care for his son’s delivery), but they don’t really matter. The solution–the episode suggests with understated profundity–is in taking the effort to try to find the answer, not in the answer itself.

Meanwhile, the episode tried to parallel the rabbi’s death with the Simpson family by having Lisa become justifiably worried about her own father’s health. It’s heavy stuff, but not too heavy, historically, for The Simpsons. (The first time Homer’s mortality was connected with the rabbi was in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” back in season four.) There was a lot of potential in linking an older child’s acceptance of his father’s mortality to a younger child’s just becoming aware of it. But as for the execution and payoff of the subplot? Eh. Krusty was the star of the show this time out.

And as for you, Rabbi Krustovski, we’ll see you in non-existent Jewish Heaven. Save me an egg cream and a giant slice of dill pickle.

TIME Television

The Simpsons Kills Off Krusty’s Dad in Season Premiere

Krusty the Clown The Simpsons Season 26 Premier
FOX

An obituary for the father of beloved entertainer Krusty the Clown, who died in Springfield this weekend

Fans of The Simpsons will be sitting shiva tonight for Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, father of chain-smoking children’s entertainer Krusty the Clown and the first fatality of the show’s 26th season.

Voiced by comedian Jackie Mason, Pa Krusty died on Sept. 29. He was born and raised in the Lower East Side of Springfield, where he became “the most respected man” in the community. It was there that he raised a son, Herschel.

Rabbi Krustofski intended for his son to become a rabbi like himself and Herschel’s grandfather, but the boy’s desire to become a clown came between the two. Herschel grew up to become Krusty the Clown, a figure of joy to kids in the town of Springfield (State Still TBD) and beyond. But the Krustofskis were estranged for many years, and only reunited with the help of a couple local children: Bart and Lisa Simpson.

Late in life, Krustofski reunited with his son again when Krusty decided to finally have his Bar Mitzvah. But the rabbi was again disappointed by his son when, after Hyman taught his son about Judaism, Krusty decision to televise the event, in a comeback bid after his show was canceled.

Although “Krusty the Klown’s Wet ‘n’ Wild Bar Mitzvah” was a hit, it again damaged relations between the pair. But Krusty finally decided to have a second, more traditional Bar Mitzvah at a Jewish temple, to the delight of his father. The rabbi was also due to preside over his son’s 15th wedding, to “Princess Penelope,” until Krusty ditched her at the altar.

Rabbi Krustofski’s fate had been in question ever since Simpsons producer Al Jean said during a publicity tour last year that a character would meet his maker in the season opener. “I’ll give you a clue that the actor playing the character won an Emmy for playing that character, but I won’t say who it is,” he said. Mason won the award for playing the role of Krustofski in 1992.

Krustofski is not the first semi-regular character to die in the otherwise ageless universe of The Simpsons. He will join Maude Flanders, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Mona Simpson (Homer’s mom), Amber Simpson (Homer’s Las Vegas wife), and Edna Krabappel in the Springfield graveyard.

TIME Television

Chris Pratt Hosts SNL: Best, Worst, and Weirdest Moments

Saturday Night Live - Season 40
Chris Pratt on Saturday Night Live on Sept. 27, 2014. Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images

Host Chris Pratt lacked good material, but not enthusiasm

Here is a question that I didn’t think I’d have to ask: Did anyone at Saturday Night Live know who Chris Pratt was before he agreed to host last night?

The season premiere, SNL‘s 40th, played way more to the idea of Pratt (handsome, open-minded blockbuster-er) than to his human Slinky strengths, which kept being hidden behind wigs, like the wigs were the joke. He is the joke! But too many of the sketches expected him to do so much with so little; or, worse, didn’t expect anything much from him at all. (When his chest flashed across the screen in the final sketch, the audience roared.) That said…

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

The best joke came in Pratt’s monologue, otherwise an affair not quite louche enough to be lovable. After a word or two, he pulled out a guitar, but warned the audience: “I know I’m not half the singer that Ariana Grande is, but I am technically three times her body weight. So the math works out.”

The best sketch, and Pratt’s best moments, played expertly on two things: 1) that everyone in America has seen Guardians of the Galaxy and 2) that we all love the same two things about it. SNL puréed that into a marketing video touting a new slate of films under the banner, “Marvel Can’t Fail.” Coming soon: Bus People, Marvel’s Pam, Pam 2: The Winter Pam, and Some Shopping Carts, with the footage all cued to the strut down the hallway from the original Guardians trailer, with “Hooked on a Feeling” playing in the background. It’s a joke that’s easy to over-explain, but funniest — like here — in endless variation.

The worst sketch was the second of the night, which saw toys brought to life by a young boy’s wish, like Toy Story only with loincloths and genitalia. And I do mean only those things. Taran Killam, as ThunderCats leader Lion-O, discovered the joys of cake and self-pleasure. Pratt, as He-Man, swung his sword and kept swinging and then smashed through a kitchen wall in pursuit of a teenage girl. The sketch had the night’s first Ariana Grande appearance, as He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra. (She was definitely there! Is the thing that you can say about it to all of your friends.)

The weirdest sketch came late in the episode, as they almost always do, this one more thought experiment than pay-off. Imagine: Everyone on Friends had been swapped out with the cast of Lifetime’s TV movie The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story — and you’d be about halfway there. Pratt, et al. played three roommates driven apart when Pratt is seduced into a dark friendship with a group of young boys. Everything is styled and shot like a classic, learn-your-lesson sitcom of the ’80s and ’90s.

Other Things

Weekend Update returned with a new co-host, Michael Che, alongside head writer/and more Colin Jost. The segment lacked for zingers but not cast members, bringing in Cecily Strong, Pete Davidson, and Leslie Jones as respectively experts on Ebola, teens, and singledom. Bringing back Strong, Che’s talented predecessor in the Update chair, so quickly could have been just a make-nice moment, but she’s too funny away from the desk not to use.

Don Pardo, SNL’s longtime announcer, who died in August, was remembered during the episode with a title card and moment of silence.

Ariana Grande sang two songs, with one surprise each: First was “Break Free,” which started as a piano-backed cabaret piece before halfway through transforming into its original version, as a full-on Zedd-sterpiece. Her “Love Me Harder” nearly ended the episode, with The Weeknd dropping by to duet. (Have you seen his hair lately? We’ve all been talking and we think you should say something.)

Aidy Bryant was the night’s workhorse, a crucial part of no fewer than four sketches, including a standout that saw her spitting Nicki Minaj-style come-ons to Pratt, as the object of her affections. (That sketch, playing out a theme for the night, involved more twists and turns than it involved Pratt.) Bryant’s joke is still usually her volcanic charisma, how her voice is like a roller coaster blowing out syllables into triple entendres, but that isn’t automatically a bad thing. It’s a well the show feels inspired to tap.

If You DVR’d It

Skip: The episode’s NFL jokes, including a Candy Crowley-themed cold open, which took almost 90 minutes to hit anything like humor.

Do not skip: new cast member Pete Davidson’s appearance on Weekend Update. As a teen expert called to comment on the recent case of a Pennsylvania boy facing jail time after simulating a lewd act with Jesus statue, Davidson instead plows into a winding digression about the moral economics of fellatio. Bottom line: “If you don’t go down on a guy for $1 million, you obviously don’t care about your family.”

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