In the early years of The Simpsons, the annual “Treehouse Of Horror” outing was a fun contrast to most of the show’s episodes. There was no warmth, no subtlety, no lessons learned, and no attempt at a coherent story—just a lot of gross-out humor and a chance to see Springfield stretched even further past reality. Now that entire show has adopted these qualities, the Halloween tradition doesn’t seem as special. But, like the couch gag at the start of each episode, “Treehouse Of Horror” tempts us with the chance to see something that doesn’t feel borrowed (and a bit dumbed down) from the show’s glory years.
I doubt we’ll ever return to the sustained movie parodies of the early seasons, and certainly not to an atmosphere-over-humor segment like “The Raven” in the first edition, but the 23rd “Treehouse” has four amusing tales, counting the introductory sequence that plays off the ancient Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. We get to see Mayor Quimby, Chief Wiggum, Bumblebee Man, etc. in fabulous headdresses, and Homer being fattened up (with live-cricket fajitas) to serve as a sacrifice to the gods. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and Professor Frink calculates that the mistake will lead to Armageddon in 2012. (“And it will be Obama’s fault!” accurately predicts Quimby.)
“The Greatest Story Ever Holed” begins at the Springfield Subatomic Supercollider, a disappointment to all until it produces an adorable little black hole. (“Can we call it that?” politically correct Homer nervously whispers.) Its gravitational pull first targets Groundskeeper Willie’s willy, causing the biggest cartoon erection I’ve seen since the “The Belchies”—a.k.a. the “penis pills” episode of Bob’s Burgers. (“Take the mop!” Willie offers instead.)
After it hoovers a few citizens, starting with Ralph Wiggum, Lisa hides the hole in the Simpsons’ basement and warns against feeding it. After a couple of mishaps, Marge puts her foot down: “That’s it! I’m putting a baby gate across the black hole.” But in a typical logical-but-nonsensical move, she secretly disposes her cooking grease in it, so as not to attract raccoons. Soon everyone wants to toss things in, and the hole gets bigger and bigger… (If I’m correct, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are singing “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” during this sequence.)
The tale isn’t scary, and it’s a tame satire on our throwaway consumer culture, but how can you not be charmed by Bart’s luring Mrs. Krabappel to her doom, or various Springfieldians being swallowed whole? (Eventually we do see someone going in skeleton first, with the skin soon to follow.) I also like the visual gag of Marge and Lisa’s pearls, as well as the two hairs on Homer’s head, constantly being pulled toward the void.
Next is “UNnormal Activity,” which starts out in the style of Paranormal Activity (nighttime spookiness seen through surveillance cameras) and turns into a make-a-deal-with-Satan story. This segment certainly doesn’t need to be any longer than it is, but it’s always nice to see Patty and Selma, and the closing gag outdoes South Park in its smuttiness. Also, Homer pees continuously from 4:32 to 5:14 a.m.
“Bart & Homer's Excellent Adventure” is a Back To The Future spoof in which Bart travels back to 1974, courtesy of a Professor Frink invention. “It’s Homer, before his boobs came in!” he exclaims upon seeing his father. When he gets back to the present, Bart finds that his meddling had caused Marge to marry Artie Ziff (Jon Lovitz in his recurring role), which has the disconcerting effect of giving Bart and Lisa curly hair.
There’s not much to do with this story, so we get 1974 Homer also traveling to the present, then versions of himself from various historical periods teaming up to win back Marge. As with the characters being pulled out of shape in the black hole story, this is just an excuse to go wild with the visuals, and it is fun to see the multiplicity of Homers. Any chance we can follow one of them back in time instead of returning next week to regular old Springfield?
- I never get tired of Homer growling, “Why, you little…!” while choking Bart, maybe because it’s a vestige of Homer’s original character (going all the way back to the Tracey Ullman Show shorts) as more hot-tempered than moronic. His heavy-lidded stupidity vanishes whenever he does it. In “The Greatest Story Ever Holed,” he gets elongated fingers as a result of getting too close to the black hole, giving him more flesh to wrap around Bart’s neck. In the time-travel story, he breaks out his signature move when Bart introduces himself with “I’m your unwanted son from the future, who killed all your fun!” (Actually, this time he is being stupid, as Marge witnesses him strangling a strange little boy and, for some reason, decides he’s not dating material.) The joke of Homer wishing Bart had never been conceived is getting a lot of use so far this season.
- Here’s another old bit that I still laughed at. Homer: “Lisa, do you have a stray dog down there?” Lisa: “It’s a lot worse than a stray dog.” Homer: “Two stray dogs?”
- Lots more sex than I remember from the early Treehouses, including Moe's taste for the rough stuff and Homer's approval of “cinnamon” as a safe word.
- A decapitated head being kicked around by Bart and other kids during the Mayan story: “Man, soccer is even boring for the ball!”
- 1974 Homer to present-day Homer: “What happened? Was I in a forest fire or something?”
- The “United Federated Homers of History” includes a pope who says “in the name of Jeebus,” a Kang or Kodos cousin, and someone who looks like he got into goth in 1993.
- The episode includes jokes about how the Zune is a piece of garbage and the Segway is lame. As with last week’s episode, not many fresh cultural references.