Thursday, October 16, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror (I-XXIV)

 This originally appeared in TV Talk as two parts in 2011.

  I am both old enough to remember a time before The Simpsons and still young enough not to have understood its impact on television or, eventually, on the show itself. At the time, anyway. Now it's easy to look back and understand why I stopped watching the show around season 12, then would check in sporadically, only to eventually give up around season 17 or 18. The show just wasn't that funny anymore. A brief flirtation with The Simpsons Movie and the show's shift to HD collapsed midway through the Blu-Ray of season 20, and I'm fairly content saying that I don't watch The Simpsons anymore. They recycle their own jokes now, unironically aware of what South Park already knew: "The Simpsons did it!"

 You can actually trace the downward trajectory through the first ten Treehouse of Horror's (which, oddly enough, are all called The Simpsons Halloween Special on the title card, but not on IMDB or the boxed sets). For those not familiar with the concept - in season two, The Simpsons introduced a yearly Halloween special. It was always a triptych, and they all typically involve the following: 1) a Twilight Zone redo, 2) a film parody, 3) a literary interpretation, 4) Some variety of social commentary (this happens increasingly as time goes by).

 People tend to be hard on the first few seasons of The Simpsons, but the first Treehouse of Horror isn't actually all that bad: there's "Bad Dream House," a Poltergeist/Amityville homage; "Hungry are the Damned," a Simpsonized twist on "To Serve Man," and an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," wrapped around by a story of Bart and Lisa trying to scare each other.

 From there on out, there are a number of great moments: send-ups of King Kong, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Fly, The Omega Man, Godzilla (kind of), and The Indestructible Man; versions of The Monkey's Paw, Frankenstein, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Dragonwyck; and Twilight Zone episodes Little Girl Lost, It's a Good Life, Living Doll, Terror at 20,000 Feet, and The Little People.

 What I noticed though is that there's a steady decline starting with Treehouse of Horror VII (season 8), which stands out for an otherwise pretty stellar season (Hank Scorpio, Mr. Sparkle, Larry Burns, the Insanity Pepper episode): I could have sworn the "Hugo" evil twin segment happened later in the series' run, the "Little People" segment runs out of steam, and the Bob Dole / Bill Clinton Kodos and Kang story is a non-starter. It hints at the dull-witted political commentary to come, reaching a nadir in the late 2000s with a "War of the Worlds" / Iraqi Invasion segment.

 Treehouse of Horror's VIII, IX, and X are all hit and miss, but indicate a downward trend: for every "Homega Man" and "Fly vs. Fly," there's a pointless cameo by Jerry Springer or Regis Philbin (the Springer being a serious low point in the show's pop culture commentary), and things just fall apart in season 11. Again, I'm a little surprised by this because while it's nowhere in the same league as season 8, the next-to-last season of The Simpsons I watched entirely had at least given up on a semblance of plot, instead trying to out-surreal itself with each successive episode.

 It turns out that when that's the case, when making Santa's Little Helper say "Chewy?" and introduce Tomacco into the mix, that a Treehouse of Horror is going to struggle in comparison. Not only is it the first time the show directly references Kodos and Kang as not fitting into the Halloween milieu (something they would continue to do from what I've seen), the segments just aren't any good. The parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer sputters to a conclusion and is more fixated on the developing "Jerkass" Homer that characterizes seasons 12-onward. "Desperately Xeeking Xena" is a dumb comic book parody that also doesn't know how to end, so it settles for random: see, Xena can't fly, but Lucy Lawless can! That's the joke! The only thing funny about the "Y2k" segment comes in retrospect: notice Mark McGwire and Mel Gibson on the "best of humanity" rocket.

After Treehouse of Horror X, I can only say I remember parts of XI and XII: I'd honestly thought "Day of the Dolphins" came sooner than it did, the Ghost Dad parody doesn't stir much other than Homer dying on a piece of broccoli twice, and I have vague memories of Pierce Brosnan as the voice of a house that hates Homer. I don't recall the Harry Potter parody at all. From there on out, I understand they've spoofed Transformers, 28 Days Later, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, The Dead Zone, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game, A.I., The Blob, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Twilight. Mmmhrm...

Believe me, I'd love to jump on them for more movie parodies, but going back and looking at it, the Bram Stoker's Dracula send-up was right after the movie came out, and they weren't wildly removed from A Nightmare on Elm Street's sequels at the time either. What I can say is that I laughed less and less from Treehouse of Horror VI to X, and I laughed quite a bit during VI. The episodes are a fine time capsule of where The Simpsons was, what the writers found amusing, and which elements were emphasized - story, character, parody, or randomness.

 At a certain point, I simply stopped watching The Simpsons - it was likely in the early 2000s, when the repetitiveness of the stories became too taxing and I just gave up. Every now and then, I'd notice a Treehouse of Horror episode (in particular, ones that aired after October), but didn't pay them much mind. However, it seems unfair to start reviewing these episodes and not try to cover them through the present, so the Cap'n soldiered on. I was left with a "good news, bad news" scenario: the good news was there were flashes of my favorite Treehouse of Horror's, but the bad news was they were often fleeting, and a rarely did one of them lasted for an entire segment of its episode.

 Things get off to a shaky start in Treehouse of Horror XI with a parody of the Bill Cosby movie Ghost Dad, but evens out with the final segment, the aforementioned "Night of the Dolphin," which manages to fit in nods to Jaws and The Birds and has a fitfully dark ending. The middle segment, "Scary Tales Do Come True," is symptomatic of a problem that plagues the latter Treehouse entries: many of the parodies are tangentially (at best) tied to horror.

  A Hansel and Gretl meet other fairy tales would make sense in the context of other Simpsons anthology episodes (which have covered works of literature, myths, or Biblical stories), but it begins a trend of moving away from Twilight Zone stories and horror films to other parodies - some of which don't even make sense. But Transformers? Mr. and Mrs. Smith? The Harry Potter spoof doesn't even get a pass because if you took that, "Scary Tales Can Come True," and "Four Beheadings and a Funeral", a Sherlock Holmes / Jack the Ripper story, and put them into their own anthology.

  I'm more willing to give the Mad Men-esque spoof "How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising" because it at least continues the trend of zombie celebrities, even if it is just a variation on the Homer the Grim Reaper segment from XIV. However, "Bartificial Intelligence" doesn't make any sense in a Treehouse of Horror, and a Golem story (like "Hex in the City") eventually shifts from possibly horror related to cheap ethnic jokes. A Fantastic Voyage (really?) spoof turns it self around into a variation on Treehouse of Horror II's "Homer and Burns share a body" joke, followed by a song-and-dance vaguely reminiscent of the "Bart Simpson's Dracula". "The Ned Zone" never really goes anywhere, and "Married to the Blob" starts great but falls apart long before Dr. Phil appears as himself. A Tales from the Crypt-style opening sequence falls apart as soon as Smithers appears, which is a shame.

 The nadir of the latter Treehouses is"The Day the Earth Stood Stupid," a segment that seems to be a take on Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" hoax, but then devolves into a boneheaded (and woefully unfunny) critique of the War in Iraq, with Kodos and Kang arguing about who said they would be "greeted as liberators" and ends with an awful "hearts and minds" gag. Of course, if you like Kodos and Kang, then stay away from "E.T.: Go Home" which seems promising but quickly goes south.

While there are some serious lowlights, it is fair to mention that there are some sporadically clever segments: there's the spot-on Hitchcock homage "Dial 'M' for Murder or Press # to Return to Main Menu," a pretty good take on Dead Calm (although I can't imagine most fans getting that reference) marred only by a pointless A Clockwork Orange reference ("Simpsons did it!"), the Twilight parody actually has a few good jokes, as does Pierce Brosnan's evil house in XII. While I don't love "Frinkenstein", it was amusing to hear Jerry Lewis as Professor Frink's father gleefully collecting organs at the Nobel Prize ceremony. "The Island of Doctor Hibbert" and "Survival of the Fattest" are pretty good, and the 28 Days Later "tainted Krusty Burger" segment is great but drops the ball at the end.

 The closest thing other than the Hitchcock segment is an almost perfect send-up of Charlie Brown cartoons called "It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse." For a while, it sustains the animation style, but overuses a few obvious gags (Marge's trombone, for example) and breaks the tone with Nelson and the bullies before halfway redeeming itself with a racist pumpkin ("all pumpkins are racist; the difference is I admit it!"). The Grand Pumpkin and Tom Turkey's screams of "Revenge!" still make me chuckle.

 At times, the choices of Treehouse of Horror movie references boggles the mind, as is the case with XXII, which opts to parody 127 Hours and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, turning the latter into a series of fart jokes involving an incapacitated Homer. It then closes on a pot shot at the already forgotten Spider-Man Broadway musical. The final segment turns Ned Flanders into Dexter in "Dial 'D' for Diddly," which I guess they chose the title for after forgetting they'd already used that Hitchcock reference. In truth, I'd just as rather not mention Treehouse of Horror XXIII, which I had to look up to remember - the Paranormal Activity is borderline unbearable, and the Back to the Future-inspired "Bart and Homer's Excellent Adventure" doesn't remotely qualify as horror related. The inclusion of a Mayan calendar joke to open the episode and a totally forgettable "black hole" opening segment are best left to be recalled

 Perhaps the most notable element of Treehouse of Horror XXIV is the extended opening directed by Guillermo Del Toro: it manages to include references to all of his films (closing with a couch gag that ties directly into Pan's Labyrinth) and a number of horror films that influenced him. It does set the tone for what is (at times) a disturbingly violent episode, perhaps no more so than during "The Fat in the Hat," a Dr. Seuss inspired story of trick-or-treating. Take your pick at what's more upsetting that Homer as the titular character does, but I think killing Mr. Burns (as a vulture) and feeding him to the homeless (uncooked) might do it for me. Or skinning Moe and wearing him as a coat. It's surprisingly dark, even for The Simpsons. Comparably speaking, the parodies of Freaks and The Thing with Two Heads are tame, if also violent. Unfortunately, "Dead and Shoulders" is likely to remind you of not one, but now two other similar stories (Treehouse of Horror II and XV).

  Watching the back stretch of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, I can see many of the things I've noticed while popping in on The Simpsons over the years after no longer being a regular viewer - jokes are periodically funny, but often are followed by something that reminds me of a better Simpsons episode. The "jerkass" phase of Homer Simpson is abundant in many of these episodes, and it's more grating than hilarious. The pop culture references become more obvious and get lazier as time goes on, and much of the sharp writing of earlier years is undermined by lazy shortcuts or, worse, an inability to stick the landing. While I don't plan on watching the show regularly again, it was nice to catch up on what used to be a Halloween institution, and I'll try to catch XXV (airing this weekend) to see if an upswing is ever in the cards. Call me hopeful - it might be...

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