This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 4
Halloween is the special time for many series, giving them the chance to throw logic and canon out the window to plumb the fantastic for fearful flights. But The Simpsons season 32, episode 4, “Treehouse of Horror XXXI” opens with the scariest of all fantasias: Reality.
The episode begins a short while after Halloween on what looks to be the most frightening day in recent memory, the upcoming election between Trump/Putin and Someone/Anyone. The sequence includes a list of reasons to vote against Trump (Made it okay to shoot hibernating bears, put children in cages, called Mexicans rapists, imitated disabled reporter, looks lousy in a tennis outfit, can’t get wife to hold hands, called third world countries **** holes, called Tim Cook ‘Tim Apple’ …). Each more surrealistically real than the last. The list is long, so long you can’t make them all out during the crawl. They are detailed, amazing, includes one that is made up, and thorough. Homer’s commentary is priceless. But so are the rest of the political barbs in the pre-segment, such as when a heavily medicated octogenarian tells a potential voter he needs two forms of ID. “Twelve if you’re a Democrat.”
The opening segment isn’t all blatant politicking. Some of it is strictly silly. Homer understands and knows where he stands on all the judges and propositions, but when it comes to the presidency, he can’t pick. It’s not like he has to choose between beer, pretzels and donuts. Of course, the dire predictions of doom are slightly exaggerated in the animated, and Halloween-infused, world of “Treehouse of Horrors,” but it’s probably scarier than the entire season of The Walking Dead: World Beyond. The rest of the episode plays it for laughs.
The first segment is a parody of the children’s classic Toy Story. Marge is a loving mom, giving Bart his last moments with his toys before he gives them away to charity. But we learn from the cleverly worded and Disney-sonic opening song this is not a kid who plays well with others, breathing or plastic. “You put a dent in me, you broke my head in three,” a sorrowful and scornful Randy Newman knockoff sings in a throaty nasal. Bart is apparently the rotten kid next door in this tale. Is it any wonder, though? His new Radioactive Man action figure comes with real radioactivity. The Simpsons likes to play with the after effects of atomic energy. The box warns about keeping the toy away from users’ scrotums, Abe thinks he left his in his other pants and Homer’s had a long history with the atomic effect.
Speaking of effects, the imagination captures the 1995-era computer-animated look and feel of Toy Story with subversive intent. Krusty the Clown, Bart’s most beloved toy one imagines, is the Woody in this. He is also the one who fosters dissent and leads the revolution. Ultimately, Bart becomes the perfect toy owner, but it’s not exactly a happy ending. Dr. Hibbert’s X-ray of Bart comes straight out of the Operation game. Hibbert explains Bart’s bones are Tinker toys. He has a Build-A-Bear heart and his brain is pop rocks and silly putty. He also has tennis elbow, hoof in mouth, frog in throat and is limited to only one semicolon. Not only that, he now stoically appreciates bad puns like “Don’t ask, don’t Mattel.” The Simpson family lost Bart at “I love you” and the message of the segment is don’t buy toys. It is perfectly chilling.
Into the Homer-Verse
The Simpsons go full on Homer-Barbera for this tough-loving tribute to the classic cartoon studio. A search for Halloween candy leads Homer on a hunt through the nuclear plant in search of giveaways sweeter than Advil. The bit where Homer is actually going through all the N&Ns and Rhesus snacks on his desk is a highlight, reminiscent of when Elaine ate a centuries-old, and terribly expensive, wedding cake on Seinfeld. Burns, who has Hansel and Gretel caged in a secret lab, prefers his snacks stringy and tough, so there wouldn’t be any sweets there. While he doesn’t find candy, Homer does cause a quantum flash of celestial energy which bursts a hole into an unstable universe, one where no one knows what a Murgatroyd is. The other realm is filled with cartoon Homers, from his Snaggle Puss counterpart through his noir version to a gaming animation pixilation. Disney Princess Homer brings new tonal beauty to the word “d’oh.” It sounds confusing, until Lisa sings it.
The best exchange of the Homer-Verse is when Homer walks past security in a restricted area. The guard says no one is allowed back there. When Homer asks what the guard is doing back there, logic and tasers go flying. It is a surrealistic solution to an abstract problem. The Krustyburger solution of having to find “other sources of meat” to contend with the six new, and hungry hungry Homers is equally surreal, but far crueler, which makes it just as funny. Until Gil gets there and you realize someone might lose their lunch.
“Eat the bacon, victory is mine,” we hear as Japanese Anime Homer sits down with the rest of the misplaced beings to a hearty breakfast. It is a very short segment but exquisitely executed. The Homers overwhelm Marge’s kitchen and threaten the delicate balance of interdimensional relationships. The portal they opened also affects labor relationships as the Burnsiverse knows where to get cheap, undocumented labor and the Smithersverse takes copious notes. Each of the Homers will die over and over again, which isn’t a horrible problem, except they will also die again. Lisa, of course, solves the problem using Harlon Ellison’s law of circular storytelling, as the episode exits, stage left, to run a circular saw over the same premise from a different angle.
Be Nine, Rewind
The Groundhog Day sendup begins with Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” the song, which was also featured in Russian Doll, grows more frantic as days and things get pounded like so many bubbling waves. It’s Lisa’s 9th birthday and she’s not sure if she’s ready to be halfway to adulthood. She doesn’t even want to put “Night Night Moon” in the hand-me-down box. The box is for Bart, who is actually ahead of Lisa in school, making it an eye-roller of a bit. Everything is fine until Homer steals frosting from the birthday cake with his finger. The many deaths of Lisa which follow are a tour de farce. Almost every line and sight gag builds on the ones before it, although the most specifically funny death involves a vanity mirror and is both the most and least expected of the lot. It is a millisecond of comic transcendence.
That can’t be said for Krusty’s balloon animals: a cigar, a snake, a worm and a 2×4. He gives out the same unimaginative throwaways at every party, and most Krustyburger grand openings. It’s a running gag that his jokes are all stolen, so feel free to read into the clown’s less than stellar performance. The closing scenario is the most hopeful. Probably just because we lose Gil, again, during it. He generously gives Patty a great set up. He kills a kid on the road test for his driver’s license. He’d better make it up on the written portion. It’s funny because, in many states, it’s relatable enough to be true.
The Simpsons season 32 has been offering consistently satisfying episodes of straight and subversive humor. “Treehouse of Horror XXXI” is the best of the season so far, but the Treehouses are always season highlights, and more reliably than Christmas episodes. No character is safe on Halloween. You can kill Gil as many times as you like. The Simpsons always packs a devilishly delicious trick or treat bag, with nothing so frightening as razor-blade-concealing apples, or anything else remotely nutritious. The opening segment is a political thriller, but the segments themselves are classic comedy.