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The Simpsons does better Thanksgiving horror than Halloween horror

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“Mmmm . . . chilingly plausible.”

With apologies to Marge, who justifies The Simpsons wheeling out another “Treehouse Of Horror” just a month after the “Treehouse” proper, “Thanksgiving Of Horror” represents the show’s writers tossing out a “Why not?” non-canonical scary story do-over. And, oddly enough, I’m fine with it, especially since this second, Thanksgiving-themed horror outing is scarier, meaner, grosser, and all-around better than this year’s original.

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In that opening, Marge comes out on stage to give us her traditional content warning, explaining that, since “real life has gotten so darn scary lately,” the “grim specter of, well, everything” might as well seep into the next holiday on the calendar. I missed the fretful Marge cold open in this year’s “Treehouse.” Having her emerge to warn families not to watch that week’s pressure-release from writers frustrated with being penned in by the show’s (relatively) normal sense of propriety and logic (again, relative) has always been a necessary admission that, yeah, things are gonna get weird. And things do get delightfully, ghoulishly weird in ways recent “Treehouses” haven’t bothered.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Up first is the tortuously named “A-Gobble-Ypto,” where Mel Gibson’s tale of bloody sacrifices and invading jerks becomes a first Thanksgiving tale of pilgrims massacring a flock of happily oblivious turkeys, told largely in un-subtitled gobble-speak. That last conceit isn’t as funny as it’s meant to be, although it sounds like the regular voice cast had some fun translating, say, Homer’s murderous Bart-rage into strangled turkey-squawks. What sets the tone for the episode, and buys it some patience from those of us who crave the good old days of the family being turned graphically inside-out for a gross-out laugh, is how bloody the whole enterprise gets once a colonial Chief Wiggum and company attack the turkey village.

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Heads (Barney, Patty an Selma, Carl and Lenny, and finally Grampa-turkey) are bloodily lopped off. The pilgrims’ feast preparations are portrayed as a savage orgy of dismemberment, plucking, and stuffing. And, once pilgrim Milhouse sets the joint on fire in religious panic after Grampa’s headless body flees, spurting all around the courtyard, human bodies burn. (And, in the only really funny gag of the piece, Lou and Eddie are immediately pecked to pieces by the crows that swarm them immediately after they fail to reassemble the town’s toppled scarecrows.) There’s not much done with the whole Apocalypto concept besides Homer-turkey, Bart-turkey, and Lisa-turkey taking turns heroically saving Marge’s newly-laid Maggie-egg (and all the gratuitous gore), but it does at least stay committed to its principles, as the day is saved when a kill-crazy Wiggum is torn to gory pieces by a bear.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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Better is “The Fourth Thursday After Tommorrow,” even though its genuine chills and twists stick so close to its Black Mirror source material that it’s more of a Simpsons skin-swap than an actually exercise in dystopian originality. Homer buys this future’s version of an Alexa, a cylindrical prison for a tiny virtual Marge he created by stealing some of his wife’s DNA and handing over to Williams Sonoma. The segment takes its cues from Homer’s unknowingly knowing asides about movies where A.I. runs amok and robots murder everybody, as his efforts to help Marge in the kitchen wind up tearing the family apart. (Figuratively, this time.) Like its source, the piece puts us directly on the side of virtual Marge over the flesh-and-blood Simpsons, who naturally begin to treat this simulacrum of a loved one like the electronic slave she was designed to be.

Again, there’s not a lot of innovation brought to the original story, although I did like the way tiny Marge finally goes all Pickle Rick in her desperate attempt to get past the A.I. firewall (literally, the wall’s on fire), and into the family’s router. But, in the one truly poetic twist of the segment, she eventually succeeds because she’s able to win over Maggie by playing her the first sound Maggie ever heard—Marge’s heartbeat. When The Simpsons does a straight-up genre parody, the tail tends to wag the dog more often than not, but this twist works splendidly in its ironic visualization of how the “real” Simpsons’ increasing heartlessness toward virtual Marge (who is Marge in all but the flesh) is undone by a virtual replication of the heart that flesh-Marge has lost. Neat.

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Ballsines and atmosphere help overcome the direct-reference blues in “The Last Thanksgiving,” which also benefits from tossing a few disparate space-horrors (mainly Life, with some Pandorum, and a dusting of the Alien franchise) in the old Frink-ian replicator and seeing what slithers out. A future space-ark defrosts all Springfield’s kids in time to prep for their parents’ un-suspended suspended animation. (Earth was destroyed when humanity caused an Ice Age while fighting global warming, because screw caring about stuff, I guess?) Bart and Milhouse immediately fulfill their roles as supposedly smart future folk who do the first, dumbest thing possible by first jettisoning the ship’s supplies of unappetizing vegetables and then trying to clone the last known can of canned Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. When the seemingly curious little glob responds to Milhouse’s touch by dissolving the bones in his arm, we’re off and running, with a relentlessly gloopy ship-wide massacre (of children), as the gelatin-based cran-o-morph slurps away every tiny skeleton in sight, leaving Springfield’s supporting kid cast flapping limply as empty skin-bags.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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It’s not every Simpsons horror spoof that’s so blessedly dedicated to gruesomely slaughtering children, so points there. And the reveal that Martin has gone all Ian Holm and betrayed Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse in order to become one with the creature is improbably sort-of chilling, as the late Russi Taylor (in her final voice role as Martin) finds just the appropriate tone of misguided science geek madness in Martin’s messianic mission. (That’s two Taylor characters graphically killed off in two straight horror anthologies.) The final twist—that the crash-landed creature was just trying to fulfill its destiny as side dish at an alien Thanksgiving—also has just the right note of Hitchhiker’s Guide cosmic-comic justice, too. Again, neat.

Best of all, weirdly, is the final tag, slowed-down real-world footage of the leering Bart Simpson Thanksgiving parade balloon, being tethered in worshipful attendance by shivering actual human acolytes. As the ominous score thrums over the slow-motion advance of the wobbling, grinning specter of art-turned-consumerism, The Simpsons finally achieves, in avant-garde miniature, it’s own, Black Mirror-worthy original image of technological future-horror.

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Stray observations

  • Black Mirror references: A poster on a wall; Quimby warily approaching a pig on the TV; Marge’s disappointed Thanksgiving guests down-rating her immediately on their ubiquitous social media.
  • The turkey idea would have been more effective if it didn’t hedge its bets by having the humans speak. Especially since it was mostly really labored wordplay like Wiggum railing “Free birds—Skynyrd them!” against the fleeing turkey-Homer and the like.
  • Kang and Kodos make their appearance in the cold open, with Marge mistaking their pilgrim garb for them getting in the Thanksgiving spirit. “Isn’t this how oppressive colonizers dress?”
  • Homer, after “real” Marge asks if it’ll hurt to deactivate her tiny twin: “Oh yeah—I paid extra for it to feel pain.”
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.