Last year we reached a momentous occasion - with 32 seasons of The Simpsons, we finally had enough Halloween Specials that you could watch one every day for the entire month of October! I forgot to do that, but THIS year I watched every single Treehouse of Horror, 1-32, plus Season 27's "Halloween of Horror," which is the only canonical episode to actually take place on Halloween.
Now, I'm not going to rank the shorts or anything, because there's 96 of these, and that's always kind of redundant. The classics are better, what do you want from me? But I'd like to dig into some trends I noticed.
So, we all know that there were a handful of traditions that were dropped because they became too exhausting, like the amusing tombstones and the wrap-around stories. The scary names have actually come and gone a handful of times, but seem to have latched on. But what's weird is that the on-screen title was "The Simpsons Halloween Special" and then the roman numeral up until Season 14. That's crazy long.
Regarding the wrap around story, this was actually an interesting departure. Leaving it behind freed up the writers to dive more into parody, often generic (and tragically dated) parody. The first few episodes were ostensibly stories told in-universe by the characters themselves. I found myself a bigger fan of this kind of groundedness. The best stories felt like they could have happened in the actual Simpsons universe, just one step removed. Like, Homer could have bought a homicidal doll, or yeah, there was a space between a bookshelf no one explored before, or suddenly sounds in the attic.
There are obvious exceptions - "The Raven" of course, which is an extremely bold choice that you can believe would never have been done today (or at their peak for that matter). "King Homer" in Season 4 is the earliest movie parody that takes place in a wholly separate universe until "Easy Bake Coven in Season 9. To contrast, we don't get another until Season 12. So we had four in the first twelve seasons. That doubles in seasons 13-24, Season 25 has two in the same episode, and then we get eight more from then to present.
I'm not sure if any Simpsons writer is as big of a fan as the fans are. I don't mean this negatively, just that I think we tend to get obsessive. The writers may not necessarily realize the similar themes they use over and over again. There are a handful of odd ones.
Maggie gets possessed in three segments, which would be less jarring if it weren't in Season 29 and 31, which is almost back to back. In XXX, she is in an extended prologue parodying The Omen (1976), which went so long I thought it was the first short. She's also a victim of attempted kidnapping by a demon in Season 24, which feels a lot like "The Exor-Sis" segment of 29. And for the record, I find listing by season a bit easier than deciphering the roman numerals, so that's what I'll go with.
They really like people with two heads. There's "If I Only Had a Brain" early on in Season 3, which ends with Burns' head attached to Homer's, which inverses slightly at the end of Season 16, where Homer growns large inside of Burns, but they still share a body. Then Bart's head is attached to Lisa's body in Season 25. It's largely bizarre how often they revisit this.
It also seems to be a requirement that large figures eat people. King Homer does it, Homer as the Blob does it, the 50-foot eyesores do it. Stampy does it. The Grand Pumpkin. I guess it makes sense, but it seems like they specifically always eat people instead of just stepping on them or something. It's definitely funnier.
I also generally enjoy the trend that whenever they have an alien movie to spoof, they always use Kang and/or Kodos, which is great because of their intrinsically awkward design. They substitute for ET, Na'vi, War of the Worlds, and the Gillman from Shape of Water (2017). It's a solid consistency that I really enjoy.
Zombies appear early on in Season 4, then again in Season 21, but the presentation is radically different, and I consider both to be pretty strong. It's actually pretty fun to see how they adapt to how Zombies have shifted in pop culture during that time to fast Munchers instead of the classic Return of the Living Dead (1985)-style campy shuffling dead.
Likewise, I enjoy how the did King Kong early on, and then Godzilla 23 years later. The Godzilla parody gets real weird, though, and ends up being a film that is then re-made, but then a real Godzilla wakes up? So many of these just...don't know how to end. Let's get into that stuff:
Trends Through Time
The Treehouse of Horrors have always been a nice check-in on the general attitude of the show through time. The early years during the classic seasons are reliably great. There isn't really a bad segment from Seasons 2-9. I think the Itchy & Scratchy segment in Season 10 is a little weak, although it has its share of great gags. Like the show itself, these still have plenty of classic moments but the cracks are starting to show.
The first straight up bad sketch is undoubtedly "Wiz Kids" from Season 13, which is their Harry Potter parody. A lot of that stems from the fact that the writers admittedly just straight up didn't read Harry Potter beforehand. So it's a parody, but doesn't actually know anything about the source material, so it's more a parody of what they thought Harry Potter probably was. It ends up being generic magic jokes instead of making any interesting connection between Hogwarts and Springfield Elementary, which should have been ripe territory. I still like that Death Frog.
Around this zone The Simpsons always seemed to be trying to prove itself. Suddenly the genre it had created was becoming saturated and they were trying really hard to stand out and be relevant. There are a lot of forced jokes and frankly sloppy attempts at political satire (looking at you Season 18 / Iraq War critique). It took them awhile to get out of their own way and settle into the legacy they assuredly had established.
Then we get to Season 21. Treehouse of Horror XX is fucking spectacular. There are individual segments that stand out in later seasons, but from start to end, XX is just an amazing feat. It ignores trying to live up to legacy and just concentrates and writing and every short stands out.
As the 20s go on, it occasionally gets really weird, they get into super body horror with "Coralisa" and "Mmm...Homer" which I still have difficulty watching. These were actually from the same episode, in Season 29. "Coralisa" is good but it ends so abruptly and without catharsis. More episode analysis later.
They seem to be even more cavalier with casual violence than the early years. Looking back, there really aren't that many episodes that feature massive deaths until Season 4 with "King Homer" and the zombies. But there is more casual violence played for laughs in "Mr. & Mrs. Simpson," "Telepaths of Glory," and jeez, all of Season 28.
To be clear, I'm not making any kind of moral judgment, but it does feel odd that they swing so hard into torturing their characters without a ton of motivation or more importantly, humour. These segments definitely get rough and most of them end up not going anywhere, which is typical for short sketches that can't get all they want in, but again, somehow those classic seasons condensed The Shining (1980) into seven minutes.
"Mr & Mrs Simpson" is probably the first really random parody, spoofing Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), which is just not a horror movie...at all. It's also two years late. Then they did a Transformers parody the next year, Jumanji (1995) a few years after that (15 years after that movie came out, which is bizarre), AVABAR (2009), Back to the Future (1985), Chronicle (2012), The Hunger Games (2012), Kingsman (2014), Jurassic World (2015), The Shape of Water, Into the Spider-Verse (2018), and the worst of all, Toy Story (1995), which I guess is still culturally relevant through its sequels, but still feels so damn out of place in an episode coming out in 2020.
Also as we go on, I was surprised about how often Homer took on the villain role when needed, especially in later episodes. He's the assigned big bad in the parodies "Freaks no Geeks", "Moefinger", and "Oh The Places You'll D'oh" in addition to being the general focus of evil when he becomes the blob, Godzilla, kills celebrities, or eats himself.
Stand Out Segments
Fine, you want a ranking? Let's do a quick Top Five. Listen, it's not fair, because the Classic Episodes are going to win. Let's break it down by era with a quick synopsis so you remember:
Classic Years (Season 2 - 8)
#5: "Citizen Kang" The Clinton / Dole Kang and Kodos
#4: "The Devil and Homer Simpson" the one with devil Flanders
#3: "Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace" Willie the Freddy
#2: "Dial Z for Zombies" "He was a zombie?
#1: "The Shinning" Don't be readin' Willie's mind between 4 and 5 THAT'S WILLY'S TIME
Transition Years (Seasons 9 - 14)
#5: "Hell Toupee" Homer gets a Snake hair graft
#4: "Send in the Clones" Homer has a hammock that clones him
#3: "Life's a Glitch, then You Die" Tom Arnold eating peaches
#2: "The Homega Man" Homer is the last man on earth
#1: "Night of the Dolphin" snorky
Crap Years (Seasons 15 - 20)
#5: "You Gotta Know When to Golem" the one with that golem
#4: "I've Grown a costume on your face" The town of Springfield becomes their costumes
#3: "The Ned Zone" Flanders can foresee deaths
#2: "Frinkenstein" Jerry Lewis is Frink's wacko father
#1: "Stop the World I Want to Goof Off" Bart and Milhouse have a watch that can stop time
Redemption (Seasons 21 - 25)
#5: "Freaks no Geeks" 1930s carnival parody
#4: "Master and Cadaver" Homer and Marge are on a boat and kill a guy - whoopsie!
#3: "The Greatest Story Ever Holed" There is a black hole in Springfield
#2: "Don't Have a Cow, Mankind" Munchers!
#1: "Dial M for Murder or Press # to Return to Main Menu" Criss-Cross!
Eating Itself (Seasons 26 - 33)
#5: "School is Hell" Bart excels in Springfield Hellementary
#4: "BFF RIP" Lisa's imaginary friend kills people. Sergeant Sausage!
#3: "Be Nine, Rewind" Lisa is Happy Death Day
#2: "Multiplisa-ty" Lisa is Split
#1: "Wanted: Dead, then Alive" Sideshow Bob Halloween!
General Episode Thoughts:
Here are some random thoughts about specific episodes for you. Let's start beyond the Classic years, because those are just great and I have nothing really insightful to complain about.
XI from Season 12 is pretty weak, except "Night of the Dolphin just elevates it so high.
"Reaper Madness" from Season 15 is exactly like Family Guy when Death sprained its ankle and Peter Griffin took over. But I think that Family Guy came first so who is really at fault for that Clone bit?
Season 17 has great premises that are so rushed. It also has the weirdest ending ever, with the town turned into pacifiers, but what's weird is that Dennis Rodman as a pacifier shows up and talks about the importance of literacy.
Season 20 is the most 2008 episode of television ever. It opens on Homer at the voting booth choosing between Obama and McCain, then goes into Transformers and Mad Men parodies. I have never been a Charlie Brown Halloween fan, and this series has pushed the Great Pumpkin hard into its historical mythos. There is also a solid amount of homophobia in this episode, which is surprising for a generally progressive show like The Simpsons when it comes to this topic.
XXIII from 24 is probably the second most all-around solid episode from the modern era, besides the flawless XX. This is sandwiched between two pretty rough installments.
The by far best part of XXIV from Season 25 is the Guillermo del Toro opening. The episode then immediately grounds to a screeching halt with an out of no where Cat in the Hat parody. I was so high on this after remembering that opening, but I failed to remember how bad the rest of this episode was.
As far as openings go, this might be a reason why some of these sketches are so rushed. VI from Season 7 had Krusty as the Headless Horseman. That's it. Season 27 has a very solid animation from John Kricfalusi. Season 28 strangely has both a lengthy opening featuring famous Simpsons villains, and then an additional lengthy Planet of the Apes parody couch gag that doesn't have anything to do with Halloween. 29 has a Pixar-style CGI candy bit. 30 features Homer out-doing Cthulu in an Oyster-eating contest. I enjoyed that one, but it's long enough to be its own segment!
I wanted to talk about Season 30 more. The Apple stuff claims it's not being paid (and sure, they don't actually say Apple), but it's definitely weird. Especially because The Simpsons is old enough to have made fun of fledgling Apple Computers in the 90s. I really like watching Lisa cut loose in the Split parody, that's very fun. But then the Old People as Dinosaurs in "Geriatric Park" just makes so little sense, it's such a stretch that it wrecks the whole episode. Other than that, it's actually pretty good.
Finally, Season 33 (yeah, the one that came out just a bit ago) actually dramatically broke precedent. Wikipedia claims it has five segments, I don't think that's really true. It does open with a Bambi (1942) parody, and at this point I was confused if I had clicked the right show on Hulu or not. It's not good. There are still three main segments in here, but in between the second and third is a lengthy poem read by a faux Vincent Price ("Quiet, Jody, you're not helping!"). None of this is bad if it were funny, but the episode is a bit of a dud.
Anyway, I could talk at length about each segment, and I promised I wouldn't. In general, if you're looking for episodes to watch, I - VIII deliver, IX - XIV definitely have their moments, starting around XV they really start tripping over their endings and get wonky, but we have solid entries from XVII, XX, XXIII, XXV, XXVI, XXIX, and XXX after that.
See? I told you the roman numerals were tough. Now on to "Thanksgiving of Horror!"