This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 6
Double-dipping on the darkest of chocolate, The Simpsons season 34 presents a mixed bag of goodies for is annual Halloween offering. “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” is the second “Treehouse of Horror” production this year, after the full-episode parody of Stephen King’s It, called “Not It.” This is not a complaint, season 31 carved out a very welcome Thanksgiving of Horror, and as Matt Selman asked us, “Who doesn’t want more candy?” The biggest treat is the segments err on the side of frightening, but the trick is most of them involve some kind of book.
The first page jumps right up at you, as does Marge and Maggie, who recognizes the malevolently inviting finger from Jennifer Kent’s 2014 popup-book horror flick The Babadook. Confined to the familiar household on Evergreen Terrace, the atmosphere does the source material justice. Maggie’s bedtime story is not one to fall asleep to. The segment is legit scary, much more than funny, but with a tender hand holding to the family ties.
“The Pookadook” inserts itself onto the family consciousness in a very clever mix of playful gaggery and ominous foreshadowing. Still, it’s probably the better choice than “Harold the Delusional Vandal,” which may have been Bart’s favorite bedtime story. Maggie is usually a very brave pre-verbal toddler, but her vulnerability is never far away, even when she becomes the heroes she imagines in her head. This makes it very easy to be scared for her.
The monster isn’t really in the book, it’s merely a parable for Marge’s resentment. The bad ceramic coffee mugs and old photos which Maggie uses to bring her beloved mother back to reason provide for monstrously sad punchlines, all of which register on suspense and comic levels. There are no real laughs, as much as painful winces, like when Maggie is yanking at Homer’s hair in an attempt to keep him from leaving her alone with mommy. It’s frightening because he only has three hairs. This becomes much more apparent when he is rendered as an anime.
The Caged Cutlet – Extra Cute Veal truck which establishes Springfield in the world of manga foretells a dystopia that vegetarians like Lisa live every day. The city scape is awash in extremely well-rendered dark gloom, especially for all things cute and edible (even the perfume is made from baby seals), or planet-sustainable. Why do good people do bad things? In the “Treehouse of Horror” universe, it’s usually because it’s funny. You might think Lisa would have a problem saving the planet through an anime murder spree, but some of the best bits come from how easy it really is, the rest come out of how lazy she becomes. Death by toilet-gator? Come on. Although, Lisa may be aiming more toward MAD magazine style ecoterrorism than Sharknado retaliation.
“Death Tome” parodies Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga series Death Note, and the first thing which becomes apparent is Moe missed his calling. Even as a terrifying figure, Steve Johnson is the dive-bartender of Shinigamis, serving death-collection notices, and back-handed insults, like they were Unhappy Hour Specials. The origin of his name can probably be traced back to the ancient scrolls of the Yellow Pages, but The Simpsons is having much more fun with mythology to call ahead. The segment gets going when a notebook with a foreboding title unexpectedly drops from the sky. Lisa has never passed up a book in her life. The scholarly environmental vigilante really only thinks of the trees when Mr. Burns brings his low-key maniacal evil to the family kitchen.
The animation affords “Death Tome” a wide range of visual gags, even as the more realistic renderings find subtle self-caricaturing flaws for character recognition. While we recognize Snake from his tattoo, it’s not the forehead moles which give away Mr. Burns, but his side project, Globo-Warm. He threw extreme shade on Springfield in the season 6 and 7 two-parter “Who Killed Mr. Burns.” Now he is turning up the heat on the polar ice caps, just so he can be closer to the beach. The most self-referential clue is how a giant magnifying glass appears to have taken the place of Springfield’s biggest sun-blocker. It works so well in cartoon-logic, Wile E. Coyote would be proud. Dazzling to look at, and dire to digest, the segment successfully merges Simpsons culture with manga sensibilities, and throws in some unexpected twists we probably saw coming.
A sentient Homer Simpson? Springfield has been afraid of that since he stuck the crayon back up his nose in season 12’s “HOMR.” While that episode’s revelations may not be one of the exhibits in Treehouse of Terror’s take on HBO’s Westworld, there are many other fun things to do at Simpsons World. You can take a selfie with a monorail conductor, get high and shoot Mr. Burns, or give Homer a hard reset with a finger up the nose. It’s a theme park featuring all your favorite Simpsons characters, frozen in time recreating classic bits. Simpsons World is like Disney World, only not quite as frightening. That doesn’t mean the segment doesn’t bring on the thrills.
The Simpsons are always at their best when picking on themselves, and as the animation pans past Kamp Krusty, Mr. Plow trucks, and a Simpsonizer, which makes amusement park attendees look like a Simpson, we see a theme park stuck in the past. The newly-intelligent robotic family tries to wedge themselves into the catchphrases of former glory only to become further imprisoned by them. Having a police force of young Ralph Wiggum is an inspired breakaway, mixing claustrophobic innocence with ridiculous creepiness.
The Simpson family’s escape jumps through many prior episodes, so it is hard to tell when they actually make it to safety. The audience doesn’t get the sense the sentient robots are out of danger until they make a distinct crossover, one of the most frightening things to happen on The Simpsons. It turns out to be scarier than promised. John Roberts’ Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers drops some sweaty cheese on an already cheesy return to reality.
“Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” puts the cabbage in this year’s cabbage night. It is better than candy corn, and won’t spoil dinner, but it’s not the horrifically hysterical Halloween treat past tricks have turned. The Simpsons continues to push their animators into new creative visions, and the episode highlights a versatile display of darkness. It begins on a distinctly dark note, broadens to international coloring, and ends by chasing the series itself into its own worst nightmare. It hits all the beats, misses some of the bumps, and makes social commentary without taking itself seriously. But is never quite as frighteningly funny as the classics we’d find still running at Simpsons World.