This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 31 Episode 8
After 31 seasons, The Simpsons is more in need of innovative programming than any of the shows it’s inspired. If “Thanksgiving of Horror” is a clue to a new direction, it is a step in the right direction. Non-canonical fright fests in the style of their most popular episodes, the annual “Treehouse of Horrors” event, are the way to go. Christmas episodes are still chestnuts, but I hope we can look forward to “Memorial Day of Horrors” and “Arbor Day of Horrors” before they hit us with a spine-tickling “Inauguration Day of Horrors.”
Marge lays it all out in the preamble. Everyday events are under the grim specter of everything. And Thanksgiving is no less frightening. No one knows when to serve the next course. You might be seated by a relative woefully uninformed about politics. The giblets. The Simpson family carves up three satanic butterballs and serves them with living canned jam.
A Gobble-Ypto, a fowl takeoff of the 2006 Mayan empire adventure film Apocalypto, works without dialogue. Most of the segment is pure gobbledy-gook. Half the residents of Springfield are transformed into turkeys, including Lenny, Carl, Dr. Hubbard, and the Simpson, and extended, family. The other half of the town is throwing the first Thanksgiving bash which will spawn a dark era for our limited-flight feathered friends. The voice actors imbue their bird-selves with instantly recognizable warbles, and the pantomime becomes a revolutionary caution tale.
The episode opens with hope, as turkey-Marge recently laid an egg in what appears to be an idyllic setting. The peril comes quickly, and with gory consequences. The carnage begins with turkey-Maude Flanders, one of the few characters on the series who were actually killed off. Why does god let bad things happen to good turkeys? The best takeoff line comes from the colonial version of Helen Lovejoy, who wonders “who will think of the Pilgrims?” One of the best things about non-canonical episodes are the self-referential twists.
Turkey-Homer is forced to watch as his fellow coopers get culled for beheading. Barney is the first on the chopping block, and seeing the bloody trailer his turkey head leaves while rolling is even more mood changing than the initial slaughter in the yard. Turkey-Abe turns chicken in one of the many sad farewells which follow. Turkeys-Patty and Selma don’t quite get the dignified end of the other menu items. They end up as a punchline to one of the best gags of the segment. We have to know how much tension there is between Homer and his wife’s sisters for this to work, so newer viewers might get lost in the sauce. But after 31 seasons, is there anyone left who don’t know these characters?
Chief Wiggum goes full Terminator by the end. He may look like the face of colonial oppression, but underneath he is really just a hungry man looking for a drumstick.
The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow
Charlie Brooker isn’t the only person who thinks we should learn more about A.I. before jumping into the technological void. Marge has also been giving it a lot of thought. At least, her virtual helper has. She’s got a lot of time for reflection as one of the recurring gags on this Black Mirror homage segment is to keep resetting her timer to a week in advance throwing her into prolonged sessions of solitary confinement.
Homer buys Marge a thoughtful gift to make her life easier: Kitchen A.I., a virtual assistant who thinks it might be a real person. That’s not how it was advertised of course, but the warning label says it is chillingly plausible. Our introduction to the character is intensely heartwarming, as Homer tries to comfort the newly conscious cooking aide and winds up overheating her mind with the truth about her virtual reality. Virtual Marge finds a soft place in the hearts of the whole family until she runs into a literal firewall, which is actually a very clever visual gag in the sequence.
This is one of the best Marge-centered stories of the series’ recent entries. She plays both the heroine and the villain, and we feel for both. We see the real threats Marge feels, the splintering of her already fragile ego. We also get how she feeds into the very troubles she fears. We start to root for her computerized counterpart early in the segment, and by the time Maggie has to choose between her real mother and the one in the metal cylinder we have been fully won over. That is, of course, a core modern dilemma which will only get stickier as a post-modern quandary.
The ending is quite frightening, not because of the ultimate glitch in the machinery, but for the moralizing. One of the most foreseen consequences of Artificial Intelligence is worrying about the unforeseen consequences of A.I. Even Homer becomes concerned. It also has a twinge of the “Gift of the Magi” to it, as the perfect coupling is onscreen the whole time, but we don’t know until the frightening reveal, which doesn’t capitalize on it. The artificial portion of the segment has a happy ending, however, as the tube-wife finds heaven at Etsy which even the real Marge would envy. It’s scary how much her virtual self knows about her.
The Last Thanksgiving
According to the ship’s log, the people of earth are shuttling through space in search of a habitable planet after anti-global warming measures caused an ice age. Their home planet is 1,000 light years behind the space ship, but the astronautic Springfieldians have learned nothing in the icy cold of space as they leave a path of waste in their wake. The Simpsons plays up all the ironies of personal ecological responsibility, both by making the solutions problematic, but also by showing the audience that it’s human nature to continue destroying whatever habitat we find ourselves in with our habitual disregard for the detritus we create.
Cranbury sauce hasn’t been this frightening since the fadeout of the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields.” Some people thought John Lennon buried Paul McCartney in the fruity mix. Here, the canned fruit becomes a combination of the blob from The Blob and the alien from Alien. In a very funny gag, Bart ignores a warning which the hologram of Professor Frink left about a particle replicator. Bart fast forwards through it like an ad on YouTube, but we get the drift: The living will envy the dead. Millhouse gives his right arm for the story, or at least all the bones in his arm as the sentient cranberry jelly can’t digest skin, even though everyone knows the skin is the best part.
The segment revisits the first with a reprise of garbles, in this case only the syllable blarg. Again, the story is told without dialogue through the wondrous magic of a horrific Thanksgiving. Nelson’s patented “Haw Haw” also ties the two segments. The first one ends with his turkey self hurling gobbled derision towards the Simpson family, the ending sequence finds Millhouse mocking Nelson after he has been deboned.
But it is Martin who surprises us. The smartest boy in Bart’s grade weighed all the factors and comes to the conclusion that the jelly is superior to man. Maybe it’s the space fever talking, but his final attempt at a communal merging only adds flavor to the sweet side dish.
The end credits is brilliant, completely made by the music. It perfectly captures just how frightening The Simpsons can be. We wait for El Barto to break free and wreak havoc on Macy’s most famous department store. All three segments of “Thanksgiving of Horror” work, and it is a full and filling cornucopia of comedy. The jokes are served regularly. Horror satires free The Simpsons to wallow in the chaos of the Matt Groening universe in ways they can’t during regular episodes. Characters can be killed off, histories and canon can be ignored altogether. The series’ social commentary also has more bite when the laughs can come at a devastating price. The installment doesn’t quite measure up to the classic “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, the show overall has undergone a loss of edge since becoming more streamlined. But it is a very good entry for the season.
“Thanksgiving of Horror” was written by Dan Vebber, as “Dan Novebber,” and directed by “Corn on the” Rob Oliver.
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. Guest voice: Charlie Brooker, Werner Herzog as Walter Hotenhoffer.
The Simpsons episode “Thanksgiving of Horror” aired Sunday, Nov. 24, 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.