In which Ah! A coffin!…
A thought struck me while watching “The HΩmega Man,” the first and funniest third of The Simpsons’ eighth Halloween special. No, not “Hey, this is totally the missing link between the ‘Not if you were the last man on Earth’ joke and The Last Man On Earth,” though the “I can do everything I’ve always wanted!” montage plays like a condensed version of that show’s pilot. Rather, it was this: Was The Simpsons really changing during season nine? Or is it just that the world of 1997 was different than the world of 1989?
To the first question: Of course the show was changing. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein had officially turned showrunning duties over to Mike Scully by the time of “Treehouse Of Horror VIII,” so there was a different set of hands on The Simpsons’ wheel. To the second question: A lot had changed in those eight years, on TV and off, and The Simpsons had a lot to do with that. The back half of season eight was the first set of episodes to run concurrently with King Of The Hill, a show made possible by the two strongest forces in primetime animation in 1997: The Simpsons and Beavis And Butt-head. And while Greg Daniels and Mike Judge were preparing Arlen, Texas for its second go-round on Fox, the biggest-ever threat to The Simpsons’ adult-animation primacy emerged on Comedy Central: South Park premiered on August 13, 1997. Only three days after Scully and company blew up Springfield with a French neutron bomb, Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed “Pinkeye” on South Park. In “The HΩmega Man,” the mutants merely talk about eating skin. In “Pinkeye,” a Worcestershire sauce-embalmed Kenny devours plenty of onscreen flesh, while one of his friends dresses 1) like Adolf Hilter (intentionally), and 2) like a member of the Ku Klux Klan (accidentally).
The Simpsons never aimed to shock in the manner of South Park’s earliest installments, but the “Treehouse Of Horror” franchise had an establish tradition of non-canonical scares and gore. In the fall of 1997, the shows’ Halloween specials engaged in a dialogue that “Cartoon Wars” would bring to life several years later. “I used my dad’s matter transporter to merge my DNA with a fly once,” says “Treehouse Of Horror VIII.” “Wow, that’s pretty hard core,” “Pinkeye” responds. “Geez, that’s like this one time that I had to end a zombie plague, so I ran him through with a chainsaw.”
While other cartoons were busy sawing its edges off, “Treehouse Of Horror VIII” confronted another obstacle: By 1997, you didn’t have to turn to The Simpsons to see mid-20th-century sci-fi schlock like The Omega Man being spoofed on TV. Earlier that year, Mystery Science Theater 3000 opened its eighth season with an extended riff on another Simpsons favorite starring Charlton Heston: Planet Of The Apes. As “Treehouse Of Horror” worked its way through the classics of horror cinema, TV, and literature, the genre gained increased legitimacy in the world outside of Springfield. It wasn’t quite the never-ending Comic-Con of 2015, but the former provinces of real-world Comic Book Guys were going mainstream, if only through sheer force of volume: The X-Files entered a period of peak viewership (while significantly fewer viewers watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer kick to life on The WB), while Will Smith topped the summer box office for two consecutive years by fighting off Kang and Kodos’ live-action counterparts. Comic Book Guy’s famous last words in “The HΩmega Man” still landed—“I’ve wasted my life”—but more and more people were willing to admit they understood the rant that preceded them.
But even with that wealth of contemporary fodder, “Treehouse Of Horror VIII” opts for source material of a Cold War vintage. All three sources draw from anxieties prevalent during the Atomic Age: man-made apocalypse in The Omega Man/The Last Man On Earth (the Vincent Price this time, not Will Forte)/I Am Legend, science run amok in the many incarnations of The Fly, and McCarthyist paranoia in The Crucible. This might seem like the spot where the world of 1997 has most obviously lapped The Simpsons, but period roots don’t rule out timeless themes. The end of the world is frightening no matter when it’s being depicted.
How else to explain how I Am Legend, The Fly, and The Crucible have survived so many different incarnations before The Simpsons even got to them? Of the three, I Am Legend fares the best in this translation, because its premise is such a snug fit for Homer Simpson: He lives every other part of his life like he’s the only human being on the planet, so what would happen if the show took that literally? The at-home portions of “Homer The Heretic,” essentially, but with a crazed band of mutants in place of a house fire.
Homer’s post-apocalyptic life kicks off a running theme in the episode, all three chapters of which subject a member of the Simpson family to a primal fear: isolation. Bart cuts himself off from human contact when he becomes a common household pest in “Fly Vs. Fly,” the creepiest bits of which have nothing to do with the Bart Fly’s Cronenbergian slobber—it’s all about the panic Bart experiences when he realizes he can’t communicate with Homer and Marge. Marge is the one cast out of society in “Easy-Bake Coven,” but she shouldn’t want to be a member of any society that would have Puritanical versions of Springfield residents as its members. A pat “story of the first Halloween” conclusion weakens the Crucible send-up, but like “The HΩmega Man,” it gets solid laughs by drawing upon the kinds of things that would fly in any given Simpsons episode. Springfield’s habit of rioting translates smoothly into the religious hysteria of a witch hunt. (Cue Mayor Quimby, circa 1649: “People, let us not turn into an angry mob!”)
“Easy-Bake Coven” may mash on the seasonal-theme buttons, but that mashing brings with it an excellent sense of autumnal atmosphere and mood. Working within the limited color palate of the segment’s colonial setting (a backdrop against which Marge’s Margaret Hamilton greens can really pop), the overcast skies of the early scenes set a late-October chill, giving way to a festive, violet twilight while the witches invent trick or treating. The other major contributor to this ambience is Alf Clausen’s instrumental score, its mournful oboe like a fall breeze shaking the last leaves from the branches. The “Treehouse” franchise is a yearly showcase for Clausen’s work, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
In DVD commentary, the Simpsons writers discuss the inspiration behind “Treehouse Of Horror VIII”’s cold open, which finds a Fox censor stabbed to death by the squeaky-clean, “No raunchy NBC-style sex”/“senseless CBS-style violence” rating he’s created. They recall the introduction of the TV Parental Guidelines and the V-chip, two TV innovations of the mid-1990s that, from the perspective of a writers’ room, also looked an awful lot like government-mandated censorship. However, both the ratings and the chips turned out to have minimal impact on TV production, a fact that doesn’t escape the writers assembled for the “Treehouse Of Horror VIII” commentary.
That cold open says a lot about the state of the culture and the state of The Simpsons in the fall of 1997. But as a piece of the television establishment, The Simpsons was running out of targets like this. There will always be stupidities, panics, anxieties, and fears for The Simpsons to lampoon, but they weren’t arriving as frequently in 1997. And all the while, a different show was spending every week doing the types of things The Simpsons could only do at Halloween—and it didn’t have to stab its way to a TV-MA.
This week in Simpsons signage:
- To be honest, I would’ve taken an entire segment about that heroic hippo’s rise through the ranks of the Springfield P.D.
- The Santa’s Little Helper/Snowball II hybrid created in “Fly Vs. Fly” predates Nickelodoen’s Cat Dog by nearly six months.
- Nice background/wardrobe touch in “Easy-Bake Coven”: Mrs. Krabappel’s scarlet A.
- Excellent sound-effect joke: The cracks of the bats (and the single whiff) when Homer is remembering little Bart, little Lisa, and little Marge in “The HΩmega Man.” The whole joke is just so inventively out there; I have to assume “and the rest” is a riff on the original Gilligan’s Island theme, which omitted Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson from its roll call with the same curt dismissal.
- It’s so stupid, but I love, love, love Patty’s “I got a caramel cod!” exclamation. It’s all in Julie Kavner’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown-style reading.