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The XXXth/666th "Treehouse Of Horror" is just The Simpsons' wheezy annual horror exercise

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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At its best, the annual “Treehouse Of Horror” episode gives The Simpsons an opportunity to bust loose of the admittedly elastic laws of its animated universe to treat us with some loopily inventive genre tales. If an outing manages to ground its trilogy (or more, in this case) of comic terrors in some established character beats, that’s a bonus, but, really, we’re here for the gags.

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There aren’t many other metrics that matter for a good “Treehouse,” which is sort of unfortunate, since this landmark 30th installment (not-so-coincidentally falling on unthinkable episode number 666) doesn’t have many particularly inventive or straight-up clever laughs along the way. And since every “Treehouse” is a goof, let’s goof around.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

First up—and ditching the sometimes-fruitful framing device entirely—is a super-timely Omen parody, in which Homer takes up Dr. Hibbert’s offer of an orphaned Maggie in place of a very alive newborn Simpson son. (Looking out at Bart spray-painting “BON” in front the sign for the ER clinches it.)

Reference BINGO: The Omen, obviously, as adopted baby Maggie has a supernatural bad attitude, causes Shauna Chalmers, Kearney, and Jimbo to hang themselves from the Simpsons’ upstairs window, and has the mark of the beast on her scalp. (Right next to a picture of Mickey Mouse—one of several Disney slams tonight in advance of that whole streaming service deal everyone’s going to have to pay for.) She also uses her evil to impale Flanders, Homer, and Marge right before the opening credits. As for random other horror gags, Hibbert calls Maggie the spawn of “10,000 lunatics,” referencing the distastefully horrific legend of the conception of one particular movie monster. Plus, she’s got telekenesis, glowing red eyes, and she makes her plush toys’ heads all spin while vomiting out their stuffing (nice animation, that), bringing Regan MacNeil to the party.

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Actual funny gags: Homer, spotting the mirror reflection of Maggie’s (Finding) Nemo poster, shrieks “Omen!,” before replacing it with one whose “Racecar” title causes him to double-shreik, “Palindrome!” (Throw a Shining reference up there, while we’re at it.) He also well-meaningly tells Maggie that Nemo is perfect for her room, since Nemo’s mother “dies at the beginning, too.” Flanders is only convinced he has to kill Maggie when she transforms Rod and Todd into slacker types, with the disaffected Rod’s newfound love of Morrissey clinching that deal.

Grade: Eh, B-minus. That palindrome joke was classic Homer stuff and, like much of the episode that follows, this intro looked great.

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Next up is the long-in-coming Stranger Things parody, “Danger Things.” (Note that that title isn’t going on the “actual funny gags” scorecard. A little effort, huh?) Straight-up parodies of other movies or TV shows are any “Treehouse Of Horror”’s silver bullet/stake/cross/wolfsbane, as the compressed time frame (and easy template) tend to turn them into more of a checklist than an inventive mini-story of their own. Still, this was the most ambitiously vivid short visually, with Lisa’s Eleven-esque trip to “the Over-Under” encountering a suitably eerie, tendril-twined simulacrum of Springfield.

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Reference BINGO: The opening legend that the episode is set in “the ’80s” about covers most of the jokes, although the very, very, very long time spent on the legendarily interminable E.T. Atari 2600 game rings a bell with anyone old enough to still carry the scars of trying to get that little bastard out of one of those goddamned pits.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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Actual funny gags: Milhouse, naturally the story’s designated Will/victim, complains as he’s menaced on his lonely bike ride home, “I never get to finish my ‘safely’ song.” And, forgive me, but I liked the chalk outline gag deliniating the enormous amount of terror pee the abducted Milhouse left behind. Luann and Kirk can’t touch Winona Ryder’s Joyce for affectingly harried parental panic creativity (their haircuts and a closet-ful of 80s references are all they’ve got—take that Swatches!), but the joke that Luann is having an affair with Milhouse’s breakdancing teacher Disco/Breakdancing Stu made me chuckle. Homer, rushing in to flamethrower-save Lisa and Milhouse form all the demogorgons and whatnot, got me to laugh for the second time of the night, explaining that, of course, it’s Mister Burns behind the sudden influx of monsters, since his was part of a “secret government program to find monsters.” And I’ll give it up for the twisted version of Springfield being home to the pre-season-one versions of Lisa and Bart—they just seem at home there.

Grade: B-minus. If you’re going to rush through a series’-worth of references in a few minutes, the jokes should be a lot more clever and rapid-fire than the few recognition chuckles mustered here.

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

Next, I should have been a sucker for “Heaven Swipes Right,” since I remain a sucker for Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s deliriously romantic afterlife body-switching comedy remake. Hey, if the creative gatekeepers of The Simpsons’ world are all getting old, at least they get points for diping into a movie this old-ass reviewer is into. The worst thing about this squander (although not the only thing) is that Archer already did this gag in recent memory, and smashed it into the heavens. (Not having Peter Serafinowicz’s James Mason on hand is a crippler, so the quick jettisoning of this version’s heavenly Mr. Jordan was no great loss.)

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Reference BINGO: The hotdog-choked Homer first swaps bodies with a hunky quarterback (before immediately eating his new body into Homer proportions), since his old body is inconveniently unavailable. But there’s shockingly little done with the whole Heaven Can Wait conceit otherwise, as Homer’s heavenly guide switches to a nondescript Google type (God sold heaven to Google), and his subsequent body-hopping (Chalmers, Mr. Teeny) carries no emotional or comedic weight behind it, since the quickly adjusting Marge is hustled through her new husbands’ with hardly a blink. She does end up married to a chimp, right? And the tag—Moe is now in Maggie’s body? Demanding to be breast-fed?—is even grosser than the monkey thing.

Actual funny gags: The Google heaven halos being replaced by the computer “on” symbol is at least a neat little margin-doodle of a joke. Homer is also shown some other candidates, including Hubert Farnsworth, Gritty, and all the surviving Rolling Stones, leading to his third good line of the night, “It’s a real tragedy more young people don’t die.”

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Grade: B-minus, graded on a curve because everyone should really watch Heaven Can Wait, y’all. (“She loves me, Mr. Jordan!” That line alone.)

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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Finally, we get The Shape Of Water parody that, sure, exists now in the form of When Hairy Met Slimy.” The hairy is Selma, ultimately adding the Burns-imprisoned (and slimy) Kang to her long and eclectically ill-chosen list of husbands. (Non-canonically, of course, since Kang and freaking Kodos do not exist outside of the “Treehouse Of Horror” reality, I don’t give a damn what The Simpsons claims.)

Reference BINGO: Elisa Esposito (or someone like her) is there, but just for the joke that she’s not actually a deaf-mute, she just doesn’t want to talk to Selma. The actual fishman pops up, just to be fire-roasted by new lovebirds Kang and Selma. The joke about Patty urging Selma to ditch Kang as a Sagittarius (“I’m from Sagittarius,” Kang responds) almost but not-quite redeems the parade of sci-fi groaners that Kodos pitches to Patty when entreating her to join the interspecies love-fest. (I hope whomever came up with “wookie-nookie” is having a really nice time.)

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Actual funny gags: Homer, at first annoyed by Selma calling him for help, pops into frame with a perfectly timed “You rang?” when Selma promises her romance will mean moving right out of the galaxy altogether. Kang gets the biggest laugh, responding to Selma’s suspicions about him wanting her for food, a human zoo, or a green card with an indignant, “Two of those are ridiculous!” Kodos apologizes for being late, blaming the delay on accidentally going to the Earth where the South won the Civil War, where Kodos notes, “there are far fewer Confederate monuments.” And here’s to the show for maintaining/expanding the Rigellian sexual spectrum by having the previously established-as-female Kodos pair up with Patty, assuring her that her sexuality actually includes some 32 sexual identities.

Grade: Yup, B-minus, although the reference to sex actsR2-threesome” and “Jabba the Butt” puts this last segment on very thin ice. Again, I hope you sleep well, Simpsons writer.

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Stray observations

Call me squeamish, but why have Üter’s corpse rotting on the street in the “Over-Under”? I get that it’s likely an in-joke about Üter being (I believe anyway) the one character introduced for a “Treehouse Of Horror” who ended up in the Simpsons universe proper. (Again, Kang and Kodos do not count.) But since Russi Taylor just died, maybe snip that one shot out? It’s a real bummer.

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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