This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 31 Episode 4
The Simpsons, season 31, episode 4, “Treehouse of Horror XXX,” is the 666th episode of the series. This bodes well for their annual Halloween extravaganza. Not because it proves they sold their collective souls to a devilish cooperative to have lasted this long. But because it promises the most evil of offerings. Sadly, the episode gives us a very happy ending, which works as diabolical subversion.
The opening sequence, prior to the three official horror stories, is the most evil. “Treehouse” Maggie’s mother died during childbirth and her father is listed as 10,000 maniacs, none of whom showed up at the hospital to claim her. This makes excellent use of a horror reference to push a punchline. Maggie’s only drawback is she tested positive for evil. Dr. Hibbert’s made that diagnosis before, on a Bart of a different “Treehouse” episode. Marge just gave birth to a baby boy and Dr. Hibbert offers her to Homer who is sick of sons. Adding another boy to the Simpson family, which already contains Bart, is a frightening prospect, as harrowing as “introducing Dracula to Frankenstein, Bush to Cheney or Ben Affleck to anyone.”
The segment is a takeoff of The Omen which, we realize in a mirror scene reminiscent of The Shining, is Nemo spelled backwards. It is loaded with visual gags, one of the best is that her dolls’ heads spin and puke stuffing, and her talking clock says “your mother sets clocks in hell,” which references The Exorcist. After Ned reveals her devilish nature by showing the mark of the beast, the beast is Mickey Mouse, and Marge tries to find solutions in a book called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting the Antichrist.” The segment works and, as short as it is, it is fully satisfying, frightening and funny.
The second segment takes on Netflix‘s Stranger Things with Millhouse as Will Byers and Lisa incarnating as Eleven. Her first psychic episode is very subtle. It only takes a moment for her to realize a phone call portends danger, too quick a moment, unless she is truly gifted. The gang of boys is Bart, Millhouse, Nelson and Martin. Mr. Burns’ nuclear plant takes the place of the government facility which breaks through the dimensions in search of monsters. Of course they’re looking for monsters. Burns isn’t the type of guy who hides his true intentions, especially when they are at their most nefarious. The segment also recreates the time period, which confuses Chief Wiggum. Disco Stu is Millhouse’s breakdance tutor. Instead of Dungeons and Dragons, the gang is riveted by an early model computer game based on E.T. The Springfield boys look a little alien in the period clothing, but Marge shines in a Farah Fawcett hairstyle.
The section assumes a familiarity with Stranger Things, or at least that Millhouse’s parents, transformed into Yuppies, saw the first season because Kirk assumes the alternative dimension premise immediately. Comic Book Guy is little changed as he critiques the goings on as behind the times as far as binge-watching. The details are finely tuned, and skewered into working spoof. The Over Under, their version of the Upside Down, includes a very dark and foreboding Springfield inhabited by the most frightening of replicas: the Simpsons as they were originally drawn when they were part of The Tracey Ullman Show. Moe, however, is completely unchanged and contemporary, easily fitting into any alternative twist.
The alternative Springfield isn’t so bad. Housing is more affordable and the school system is pretty good. It makes you wonder where The Simpsons make a better fit. In the inside out of a perfect world, the “Treehouse of Horror” reality would outweigh standard episodes. The series hasn’t done a historical or biblical recreation in a while, which would count.
Heaven Swipes Right
This takeoff of Heaven Can Wait brings Homer back from the dead in the body of a fit and trim football player, a perfect reversal of the film. Warren Beatty played a football player in the original, and after incarnating as an old man, he begins an exercize program to get in shape for the big game. Homer goes into the newly dead body mere moments after he begs to be sent back to finish leftover lasagna. One of the best sequences of the installment is the bloated corpse bit, which begins with Homer being told his body was too heavy to lift at his normal weight and ends with Bart happily posing on top of his waterlogged dad. These kinds of jokes work on the “Treehouse of Terrors” episodes because the audience has already bought into the much darker premise of the characters, but in Bart’s case we’re not so sure he wouldn’t respond much the same way under normal circumstances.
A very subtle highlight is getting to hear Homer do Porky the Pig. Dan Castellaneta could have been a generation’s Mel Blanc if his career hadn’t overlapped with June Foray’s. The vast expanse of where he takes Homer sonically is enough for several different characters. From his singing voice to his attempts at charm or doing mimicry, Homer is the most verbally acrobatic character on the series. Hank Azaria’s Professor Frink does similar leaps, but doesn’t break the laws of physics Homer leaps in single bounds. It is also heartening to hear any reference to Looney Tunes on The Simpsons. They tribute them as often as they ridicule Walt Disney’s alter ego.
Heaven itself is pretty high tech. While the episode credits this to God selling out to Amazon, the final resting place is routinely depicted as mechanically contemporary in most entertainment. The Good Place and Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life both depict the fantasy of where we’re going as keeping up with where we’re at. This includes the glitches. In the “Treehouse of Horrors” case, this is God not taking global warming into account when he gave opposable thumbs to apes to create Adam.
The segment is very light, considering how many characters have get killed off before Homer finds the right fit, after stretching out his first host body with funeral leftovers. Maggie’s voice in the ending is truly disconcerting on many levels.
When Hairy Met Slimy
While Patty Bouvier, Marge’s sister, appears to get married at least once a season, her twin has yet to settle down. Selma Bouvier pretended to be married to Homer once, in order to adopt a baby in China. That only reinforced her sister’s life choices. Selma finally finds love in the “Treehouse of Horror” tribute to Guillermo del Toro‘s The Shape of Water. The twist on the premise is that the laboratory is housed by Mr. Burns and, from the evidence we see when Selma sneaks her first cigarette, it is create flesh cages for the old buzzard. His DNA is being tested in test tubes and on buzzards, the closest living creature available to act as guinea pig.
The little world Selma destroys with her cigarette ash reminds me of Lisa’s science project in the “Treehouse of Horror VII” segment “The Genesis Tub.” Kang the Conqueror is the perfect match for Selma, the available. He can smoke four times the cigarettes she can. The best exchange of the sequence is Burns hastening Kang’s dissection because the alien life form boasts the secret to clean energy. Another piece of social commentary is that there is another earth where the south won the Civil War and there are less Confederate monuments there.
Julie Kavner excels in Patty’s pleas for Selma to stay on earth and not be shackled like a lion to a Sagittarius. For a horror entry, “When Hairy Met Slimy” ends the episode on a very optimistic note. Not only because both Selma and Patty find happiness in a galaxy far, far away, but because Kodos boasts 32 sexual identities. The roll call of interstellar intercourse which closes the segment is one of the best pun factories of the series. Kodos is Klingon-curious, always up for Wookie nookie and an R2-threesome, and is no stranger to deep space nining.
The Simpsons‘ Halloween treats are consistently among any season’s highlights, even if they usually have one segment which isn’t as good as the others in the episode. All three “Treehouse of Horrors XXX” stories are equally funny, though the best is the short homage to The Omen opener. The passing gags all connect, such as including the Rolling Stones in the old people Homer passes on in his quest to find the perfect body to inhabit, or Ned deciding to dig three graves after one of his sons decides he likes Morrissey. The episode turns tricks into treats and is a worthy addition to the frighteningly funny side of Springfield.
“Treehouse of Horror XXX” was written by J. Stewart Burns (as J. Stewart’s Urn), and directed by Timothy Bailey (as Grimothy Bailey).
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Krusty the Clown and Groundskeeper Willie, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Comic Book Guy, Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Pamela Hayden voices multiple parts.
The Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror XXX” aired Sunday, Oct. 20, on Fox.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.