The Simpsons, The Simpsons

The annual “Treehouse Of Horror” Simpsons is exempt from the critical and creative grind of its season. An outlet for genre parodies and premises too outlandish for even Springfield’s elastic reality, these episodes form a reliably playful cul-de-sac where the show and its fans can unite in a love of inventive, ghoulish silliness. Tonight’s 25th installment doesn’t contain any all-time classics, but is nonetheless an especially confident Halloween outing.

The “Treehouse” recipe of specific movie references, strong voice work, attention to detail, and just a soupçon of heart is best realized in the opener “School Is Hell,” where Bart, left to his own devices in the detention room (always a bad move, Skinner), finds a portal to Hell, only to discover that, in the infernal Springfield Elementary it leads to, his genius for li’l bastardy makes him a star student. Sure, Lisa, sucked into the Hellmouth along with him, finds momentary solace when an indoor snowfall proves that “it’ll be a cold day in Hell when Lisa Simpson is popular,” but once she and Bart find a way out (via the Burns Hell-port, a division of Gulf & Western), only Bart longs to return to the place where his mischievous spirit lends him peerless skills of ironic damnation. (A perpetual torture machine consisting of piranhas, a fan, and aquarium underwear being his masterstroke.)

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Throughout, the segment looks great—from the shading to the coloring to the character design, there’s a cinematic quality that renders this scholastic Hell especially rich. There’s a Futurama-style inventiveness to the other student hellspawn as well—from the millipedes to the tooth-heads, to the “bleeding eyes with finger legs,” to (my favorite) the screaming torsos. The Skinner/Chalmers two-headed administrator make a formidable team, with Chalmers’ “Skin him!” vying with his fury at eternally damned Noah Webster (he changed the spelling of “theater” from “-re” to “-er”) for their biggest laugh. The quick-hit nature of any “Treehouse” segment necessitates that any nod to emotion be a passing one, but both Bart’s self-esteem at being thought smart for once (he’s Hell’s Lisa), and Homer’s willingness to be tortured as part of Bart’s final exam manage to squeeze in enough resonance to round the bit off satisfyingly.

There’s precious little room for heart in “A Clockwork Yellow,” the signature “Treehouse” movie parody, this time a Simpson-ized A Clockwork Orange. Which is fine, leaving as it does the story free to simply pile on the Stanley Kubrick gags aplenty. While such specific parodies tend to truck more in quantity of allusions than in insight, there’s enough inventiveness in the enterprise to carry things along nicely. Having Moe as the leader and narrator frees up Homer’s Dum to pick up Marge and decide to retire from the droog (here “glug”)’s life of beating up other gangs and causing Simpson-scaled mayhem. (While the implied rape reference of the glugs looking for “some of the old in-and-out” is necessarily queasy, their interpretation of the phrase as triggering a convenience store’s automatic door pays off in the gang’s extended, grinning repetition.) Amidst the sheer volume of Kubrick references, there are enough odd touches that get laughs on their own—I’m always a sucker for Hank Azaria’s “wise guy” voice, so having the glugs whomping on the “West End Wiseguys” who all object with phrases like, “Hey, pally!” got a laugh, as does Moe’s Ludovico technique method of forcing himself to watch the Fox network. And Marge’s admonition to Homer not to engage in any more “glugging, shin-slicing, or eye-groining” is amusingly specific.

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Again, the episode looks great, with the meticulous animation and judicious sound design both mirroring the film and enhancing the segment’s atmosphere. And when the Kubrick references do start piling up, there’s a density to them that film geeks everywhere can appreciate, especially once the glugs crash an Eyes Wide Shut-style masked orgy at Mr. Burns’ mansion. “Even I don’t know what this is a reference to,” complains Comic Book Guy, after having his leg shot off during the segment’s climactic fight scene. (It’s Barry Lyndon.) Any parody can simply reference something and call it a joke (hereafter known as “Friedberg/Seltzer syndrome”), but “A Clockwork Yellow” utilizes energetic performances and enough off-kilter spin (like an iPhone/monolith perspective 2001 gag and Harry Shearer’s Burns urging the Eyes Wide Shut “sex blockers” to continue holding potted plants and serving trays over everyone’s naughty bits) to keep the gags from curdling into a perfunctory checklist. And Kubrick’s final, anticlimactic “ow” punctures the predictability of the final movie reference with comic aplomb.

The most anticipated segment is marginally the weakest, with “The Others” seeing the Tracey Ullman Show versions of the Simpsons haunting their present-day incarnations. It’s not bad, but the showdown doesn’t do as much with the comic premise as its potential suggests. While the reappearances of worn-out old motifs like “frosty chocolate milkshakes,” Bart’s incessant catchphrases (and unmotivated belching), and poor Dr. Marvin Monroe make for some nostalgic chuckles, the main action of the plot, with present-day Simpsons killing themselves and each other on sketchy motivation, happens too abruptly. It’s a “Treehouse Of Horror,” sure, but even in that streamlined format, if the internal logic doesn’t hold up, the segment fades in the memory. (Great short stories are harder to get right than novels.)

All sniping aside, seeing—and especially hearing—the evolution of these characters is evocative, and instructive. (Hearing Dan Castellaneta wheel out his old, Walter Matthau-inspired Homer voice is especially jarring—and remember when Homer was the grumpy but responsible one?) Watching, as most Simpsons enthusiasts did, the FXX marathon this summer was to see a series find itself creatively (and then lose itself at times, but that’s a discussion for another day). Seeing these primitive versions of the characters interact with selves refined over a quarter-century of creative evolution can’t help but be thought provoking, even if, like much of what the series has become, vaguely disappointing. Still, as present Marge’s case to Homer sums up nicely (“I know everything you’ve done and yet I still want to be with you”), loving what The Simpsons has become is a lifelong project.

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Stray observations:

  • The opening gag kicks things off in appropriately ghoulish fashion, with our new alien overlords spelling out the name of the show using the bodies of Earth celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Taylor Swift, George Clooney, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, James Franco, Kanye West, Leonardo DiCaprio, and John Travolta, who gets his head blasted off to start the show. Aliens have no concept of the A-list.
  • “Stop laughing. I said ‘penal,’ not ‘penile.’ It’s not like you made me say ‘penis.’”
  • “And parents get 20 emails a day and everyone hits ‘reply all’ to everything!” Someone in the Simpsons’ writers’ room has kids.
  • Homer describes Hell as “like Arizona without the golf,” to which the Skinner demon principal head replies, “We do have golf—but all the greens are tricky.” Diabolical.
  • In one of the episode’s three Fox slams, the Literature Of Hell curriculum includes The O’Reilly Factor For Kids. Funny enough reference, but the random gag of a John Irving novel plaintively entitled I’m Not Even Dead Yet has a delightfully random brilliance to it.
  • To Hell-Skinner’s pitch that allowing Bart to remain in Hell will “nurture [their] child’s passion,” Homer cajoles Marge with, “That is the kind of nonsense you’re always falling for!”
  • “Haw-haw! Your heresies were venialized by the Council of Palermo!”
  • Ohhh—Hot Stuff burn! Take that, character a 10-year-old would know about somehow!
  • “You went to Hell and came back a winner—like Jesus!” Homer’s theology continues to reveal new levels.
  • In the record store scene Homer/Dum walks by Kubrick references the rest of the segment couldn’t squeeze in, including Dr. Strangelaugh, Paths Of Gravy, D’oh-lita, and Full Milhouse Jacket. (Although Private Pyle does show up later, which freaks out even Moe.)
  • “Welcome to the most frustrating, befuddling, and, yes, erotic book release party you’ve ever attended!”
  • Unless I missed it, the episode missed an easy The Killing reference. Just throw one of the racetrack heist masks into the orgy scene.
  • Kubrick’s editing suite has a film can labeled “faked moon landing” and a scrap of tape with “237” written on it.
  • “There’s no reason to be jealous, it’s just younger you.”
  • Strange that the House of Groening couldn’t get Katey Sagal to voice Peg Bundy for the Married…With Children gag.
  • “Homer, to the ghostly, handsy Marge levitating the bed: “I demand you put me down right after the sex!”
  • “Don’t yell at me, I’m a double widower.”
  • “I feel like a ghost the way you haven’t been paying attention to me! Plus, I’m dead.”
  • All right commenters, help a guy out—in the gathering of Simpsons knockoffs at the end, I spotted: Anime Simpsons, Adventure Time Simpsons, South Park Simpsons (who seem to have adopted their Maggie from Canada), Archer Simpsons (with Santa’s Little Helper as the late Duchess), the grotesquely Gallic Simpsons from Sylvain Chomet’s couch gag last year, Lego Simpsons, and Despicable Me minions Simpsons. The 3-D Simpsons seems to be a more specific reference I couldn’t spot, while there’s a barely glimpsed family including a spider Bart, walrus Homer, eagle Lisa, and some sort of blue sea monster Marge.

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