Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“This’ll be the last word I ever say—C-minus!”

As tempting as it would be to echo the being-pod-ified Comic Book Guy’s final pronouncement about the hackiness of redoing Invasion Of The Body Snatchers yet again, sadly, I remain a professional. So here’s your annual “Treehouse Of Horror C-plus,” Simpsons. I hope it goes down smoother than a potful of oysters in an oyster-eating contest against Cthulhu.

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That’s the intro to this year’s quartet of spooky, non-canonical Simpsons horror and sci-fi shorts, as Homer winds up dueling stomachs with the unholy Great Old One after the Simpsons unwisely choose the isolated new England hamlet of Fogburyport for their summer getaway. (Marge’s guidebook, 10 Places To Visit Before You Mysteriously Disappear, also suggests the visitors’ section of a Raiders game.) Told by the crusty and secretly fishy denizens that he’s to be sacrificed to their ancient and unspeakable god, Homer demands a trial by gastronomical combat against said Ancient One, wins, and demands that the family be allowed to eat Cthulhu as reward.

There are a few decent touches. Cthulhu’s spurting ink sac splashes out the opening credits. The Lovecraftian touches in the villagers’ Innsmouth look are suitably icky, and Lisa’s gets Cthulhu worried by telling the unholy evil deity that Homer skipped breakfast that morning. As with the three stories that follow, the opener here forms an exercise in plucking out a handful of mildly clever references, a description that’s fit most every “Treehouse Of Horror” for a long time now. Sure, you get an exception once in a while, like Guillermo del Toro’s affectionately encyclopedic and visually striking opening segment from season 25. And I thought season 28's “BFF/RIP” managed the near-impossible-in-six-minutes feat of squeezing an equal portion of character and horror into its ghoulish tale of Lisa’s resentful, forgotten imaginary friend. But more often than not in these late days, the yearly “Treehouse Of Horror” functions less like a gleefully disreputable comedy recess for writers looking to experiment with their less-reputable ideas than just another obligation to fill out The Simpsons’ never-ending 23-episode season mandate with some genre-specific pop culture references.

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Part of the reason for the bloodlessness of the comedy in “Treehouse Of Horror” comes from how the “anything goes” mentality has seeped into the show proper over the years. Just last week, the show did an anthology episode on religion told from god’s point-of-view, for crying out loud. Throw in the Simpsons actually meeting Kang and Kodos, or the Futurama crew, or gimmicky throwaway outings with the family as Game Of Thrones-style serfs, and the whole “Treehouse Of Horror” brand tastes pretty diluted. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem for the Halloween institution if the mini-movies therein were sharper then they have been for a long time. To wit:

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

“Intrusion Of The Pod-y Snatchers” sees Springfield taken over by spore-spawned simulacra with some leafy aliens unleashing a hostile, tentacled takeover of Earth. When grafting a segment onto an existing story, the test is whether the writers (this year’s outing credited to Joel H. Cohen as “Jor-El H. Krypton”) find more to do with the premise than point and say, “Look, it’s just like the original, but, you know, with Simpsons characters!” On that front, this one had two whole non-Snatchers jokes that were cleverly specific on their own. As the whole episode eventually hinges on how those darn cell phones are making everyone oblivious to their real lives, there’s a return of the whole Apple/“Mapple” conceit that someone at The Simpsons seems to think is solid gold. But, as a posthumus recording of Mapple founder—hold onto your sides—“Steve Mobs” introduces his successor as someone just like him but far less interesting, current Mapple CEO (I’m assuming named “Tim Mook”) happily announces, “I’m wearing your pants, Steve!” And later on, when the pods are running wild, Willie attempts to discern whether Chalmers is still human by asking him, at hedge-trimmer-point, the lineup of a particular Scottish football team. “I don’t know!,” the panicked Chalmers exclaims, “Is there a Rudy?” “There’s always a Rudy!,” answers Willie.

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Other than that, we see Otto reconstituted as a pot plant, Lisa questioning once more why aliens in movies never use contractions, how sci-fi/fantasy series overextend their source material, and that’s about it. (Apart from some corporate synergy with Matt Groening’s Disenchantment and Fox’s The Orville, sticking out like, well, corporate synergy.) Whisked away to a plant-based planet by the, it turns out, benevolent aliens in order to save humanity from being enslaved by their hand-held technology, the aliens are dismayed when it turns out their new human pals have cell phones again. Darn those cell phones.

“MultipLisa-ty” recasts Split with a dissociative Lisa chaining Bart, Milhouse, and Nelson in a dank basement lair in response to Bart screwing up her perfect grade point average with some prankish li’l bastardy. All the beats are there from the 2016 film, indifferently handed over to Lisa for no particular thematic or character reason. The show’s enduring, creaky love of showtune jokes sees the tortured Lisa tormenting her captives with a song, which Yeardley Smith belts out as gamely as she does the mad Lisa’s various personas. Here, too, actual jokes are subsumed in the segment’s checklist of references, while the merest kernel of a unifying motivation (“Sometimes, Mom, a woman gets pushed so far she just snaps.”) is tossed away at the very end. The one spark of a clever joke comes from Bart, begging his sister for his life, promising, “I’ll humanize your campaign biography!”

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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The concluding segment, “Geriatric Park” is a riff on Jurassic Park. But with old people turning into dinosaurs. You get it. A long helicopter ride with the Simpsons going to visit Grampa at Mr. Burns’ scientifically unsound old age home/DNA nightmare exemplifies the recycled nature of present-day “Treehouse Of Horror”’s unnatural horrors, as it inevitably recalls the same ride from “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” but with all the invention leached away. They cruise over the ruins of all the various Jurassic Parks over the years on their way, which counts as a joke only if nodding in blank recognition counts as laughter. Once inside the park, Homer screws up the all-too-easy safety protocols, turning every aged Simpsons character into an unimaginatively animated dinosaur before good old Lisa manages to tame the thunder lizard that was her grandfather by promising to pay attention to him.

Once more, you pluck your actual jokes where you can find them amidst the prosaic box-ticking. I laughed when Frink (naturally Burns’ right-hand mad scientist) is spared by the advancing dino-codgers for proclaiming himself their creator. Only then is he set upon and killed by his slighted assistants while he cries, “You were listed in the footnotes!” And Burns introductory spiel announces that the park’s motto is “No further questions.” That’s about it, really.

It’s tempting after a dully serviceable outing like this to say it’s time to bury the “Treehouse Of Horror” concept as an unnecessary annual disappointment. But then you’d have to say that of the series itself, which, okay, some of you do. I’d maintain that The Simpsons’ decades-long role as pop cultural “not as good as it used to be” punching bag could be reversed with some new creative blood in the form of those writers raised on The Simpsons who want nothing better than to jolt the lumbering comedy behemoth back to life. But, as the show plods on, it seems that that’s the one thing those in charge of the shambling enterprise are truly afraid of.

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Stray observations

  • Speaking of old guys running things, the annual parade of opening tombstone jokes include one reading “Winking at work.” Because those darn ladies today can’t take a compliment, right?
  • Among the other cemetery gags, the show mourns: ESPN(?), “American exceptionalism,” Toys ‘R’ Us, “slow news days,” and “thinking Nazis are over.” There’s also a mustachioed man weeping at the grave of Watermelon-flavored Oreos which could be legendarily weird and reclusive Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, if I had to guess.
  • The criminal Lisa got her captives into her clutches by spiking their “Sunny D with Special K.” “You K-ed our D?,” exclaims Nelson.
  • Apologies: It’s next year’s “Treehouse” that will be episode 666. Rest assured, I have been fired for that blunder, etc.

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