643. Treehouse of Horror XXIX

Original airdate: October 21, 2018

The premise:
In “Intrusion of the Pod-y Snitchers,” strange alien spores start to infect Springfield residents, replacing them with pod people . In “MultipLisa-ty,” a crazed, dissociative Lisa enacts her bloody revenge on Bart, Milhouse and Nelson. In “Geriatric Park,” Mr. Burns opens up a scientific facility rejuvenating the elderly with dinosaur DNA, which of course goes horribly wrong.

The reaction: These Halloween reviews are somewhat of a slog to write, mostly in that I’ve had the same two major criticisms of them for the last twelve or so installments. First off, most of the segments are parodies of contemporary films, but light on the actual “parody” aspect. The second segment I think is supposed to be the story from Split, except it’s just Lisa talking in goofy voices for five minutes until we get the tired “explanation” of why she snapped. Bart wrote on her paper and got her an F on a spelling test! What a knee slapper, huh? Moments before the reveal, we see her snarl and growl as she pushes Milhouse into a newspaper crusher and has Nelson impaled on a forklift. None of it is shocking or scary, it was just very bizarre and uncomfortable watching this young girl murder her classmates for no reason. “Geriatric Park” came as a result of spending a couple minutes listing what words rhyme with “Jurassic” and building a flimsy story atop that. What monetary gain does Mr. Burns have for opening this facility, where he spent $30 million on giant doors alone? Surely it would be exclusive to those who can pay through the nose for this experimental treatment, not open doors to elderly riff-raff like Jasper or Hans Moleman. But none of that matters, they all turn into dinosaurs where we get some bloodless decapitations and limbs getting ripped off for some tepid gags (Willie shoves Kirk’s head in the “Heads” bin! What a riot!) But the bigger problem that’s hung over these annual events for a while now is the lack of any sort of dramatic or scary tone. Characters react to terrifying and deadly situations with no regard for the danger they’re in to spout off their labored jokes. Moments before her demise to the pod spores, Lisa gets in a lengthy jab about YA dystopian movies. Despite being chained to the wall and terrorized by the love of his life, Milhouse gets in a couple random humdingers (“I think encores are a ridiculous tradition! Just sing your songs and go!” “Careful, Lisa! If you keep yelling like that, you’ll get vocal polyps! Like Adele!”) Think back to the classic Halloween segments; though they had their goofier moments, the characters always treated the scenarios seriously. The kids at school were terrified that Willie would kill them in their dreams. Seeing his happily lobotomized family, Homer fearfully escapes Flanders’ Re-Ned-Ucation facility. Bart was ultimately driven mad at the gremlin on the side of the bus. Here, after seeing Groundskeeper Willie’s corpse with an axe through his head, Milhouse reacts to an effigy of himself burning with, “Wish I could burn the calories off that easy.” You can almost hear the corny laugh track playing. I’ve said it many times before, if the characters don’t give a shit about the stories they’re in, why in the hell should the viewer? This is a problem that plagues the entire series now, but it’s especially an issue in the Halloween shows where the life-or-death stakes are seemingly so much higher, but the characters don’t seem to care in the slightest.

Three items of note:
– We’ve actually already seen a Simpsons take on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in one of the first Treehouse of Horror comic books I read as a kid. Not that the show can’t encroach on territory the completely unrelated comic series did, but it doesn’t help when they do it much, more worse. The comic starts in media res with Homer being hauled off to the insane asylum screaming about pod people, then telling his story from the beginning how everyone in Springfield slowly got replaced by emotionless pod copies who preferred tepid tap water to beer, much to Homer’s horror. The story wraps up at the end when Homer is vindicated, but everything goes off the rails as other post-apocalyptic cliches appear, and Sideshow Bob destroys the fourth wall revealing their entire existence is a fictional comic book. Re-reading it, it’s filled with a lot of fun moments, humorous lines, and even in a comic, a sense of real danger and risk. In “Pod-y Snitchers,” the alien species run Mapple, and are able to infect the planet from above because everyone is busy staring at their phones. Wow, what insightful social commentary for 2018. The twist ending has everyone’s consciousness being transported to an alien utopia, but then what was the purpose of the pod duplicates staying on Earth? Bah, who cares.
– Upon finally being “snatched,” Lisa goes into full 2001: A Space Odyssey mode, seeing flashing images of plant-related things. We then get a reprise of Homer and Bart’s “You don’t win friends with salad!” conga line from “Lisa the Vegetarian.” Is this supposed to be an ironic echo? Or yet another instance of the show reaching into their past for positive recognition points. We also get a short clip of Luci the demon from Disenchantment smoking, so maybe this is just all random, because that ain’t plant related. And I still couldn’t care less about a season 2.
– On the helicopter ride to Geriatric Park, the aircraft flies past five other facilities for each of the five Jurassic movies, with the brilliant punchline of the final one having the subtitle “This Time It’s Safe.” Later, when Burns reveals his grandiose facility, there’s a song set to a soundalike of the Jurassic Park theme touting how suspiciously safe this all is. What a biting commentary, huh? “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” which aired a year after Jurassic Park was in theaters, completely nailed this category of joke with the helicopter pilot’s “possi-bly” blunder. Why did they even make this segment? Everyone’s made their jokes about this series at this point. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was an even more absurdist take on the franchise than this segment, and I actually laughed during it too. A lot.

One good line/moment: Eh, I got nothing for this. I don’t know what I would consider the worst Treehouse of Horror, but this one has got to be up there. They’re just so completely unremarkable and disposable. The only segment in the last decade or so that actually felt like it took some kind of creative risk was that one from last year where Homer ate himself, but even that was just more gross than shocking.

642. My Way or the Highway to Heaven

Original airdate: October 14, 2018

The premise:
Seeing a shortage of the population in Heaven, God and St. Peter decide to lower the bar for entry a bit, observing three tangential stories of non-traditionally virtuous Springfielders.

The reaction: I’ve never been fond of these “anthology” episodes. While the Halloween shows are (well, were) finely crafted horror parodies with a distinctly darker tone from the series itself, these episodes just felt like plug-and-play re-tellings of other stories with a few paltry jokes sprinkled throughout (Lisa as Joan of Arc, Bart as Batman, Homer as Paul Bunyan, etc.) We actually haven’t had a proper one in almost a decade (Season 20’s “Four Great Women and a Manicure”), and I can’t say I’ve missed them. These three tales aren’t exactly copying public domain or documenting historical figures like episodes past, but the inane, pointless feel of the segments are present all the same. The wraparound features God and St. Peter debating what sinless non-Christians they should allow into Heaven. First up is Ned Flanders, who tells of his prior debaucherous days as a door-to-door salesmen of kids trampolines which turned out to be incredibly dangerous. After saving a young Homer from getting struck by lightning, he has a vision of seeing Jesus and vows to turn his life around. He talks about his godless life performing depraved jobs like painting dots on dice and putting bikinis on mannequins, but he’s clearly uncomfortable about doing all of it in the flashbacks. He acts like the exact same Flanders, so what’s the purpose of the story? Next up is something about Marge’s French grandmother hiding American troops from the Nazis, which feels exactly like a “Simpsonized history” segment from the old anthology shows (a younger Abe and the barflies as the Americans, Rainier Wolfcastle as the head Nazi). Grandma Bouvier is an atheist, and she lets you know it (“Because I don’t believe there is a God above, we must make our own Heaven.”) They then stop the Nazis. Part three is Lisa telling a fantasy story about a princess who rejects her gross materialistic life to make peace with herself through Buddhist teachings. And in the end, she does. These last two stories are so, so boring. There’s no investment, no stakes, no subversion to the storytelling… it’s just so bland and meaningless. I always want to give this show a little bit of credit when they try to do something different, but it only really counts if they actually, y’know, try something once they decide on a non-traditional format.

Three items of note:
– We get to see Flanders’ hippie parents at the start of his story, indoctrinating him with their carefree, rule-breaking, color-outside-the-lines rhetoric. From “Hurricane Neddy,” we saw young Ned was a little hell raiser, why not lean into that in this story? You could make a whole episode about a young, amoral Flanders and how he eventually came to be one of God’s favorite apple polishers. But like I mentioned, he acts really no different in the segment than he normally does. In his near-death experience, Jesus proclaims him a sinner who, in his selfless act of saving li’l Homer, took his “first step” on the road to redemption. Wouldn’t this line hold more weight if he was a complete dick before this? It’s also revealed that Ned got a hideous scar above his lip from this event, which I guess gives us the answer to the question that Simpsons fans have been feverishly asking for decades: why does Ned have a mustache? Boy oh boy, what a treat for us fans. Wouldn’t he want to keep his lip bare if he viewed the scar as such an important marker of this divine intervention?
– I was really checked out of this one by the halfway point. The WWII segment was just so uninteresting. It ends with the Nazis getting beaten up in a big fight set to “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which I’m sure the show has used multiple times before in a French setting. And not even in any funny ways, unless you consider Abe shooting a photo of Hitler or Lenny opening up the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the tavern to be hilarious jokes. Lisa’s segment features a grand song about her desire for less, but none of it seems like it’s trying to be funny. It’s sort of parodying Disney princess songs about wanting more from life (Lisa cutely titles her story, “The Princess-Not-Affiliated-With-Disney. Unless we’re now owned by Disney.”) But it just doesn’t go anywhere or do anything interesting with this set up. She sets off to find enlightenment, and then she does. That’s all.
– As much as I try not to think back to the classic era, an episode like this immediately makes me recall the likes of “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” or “Homer the Heretic.” Episodes like these were like morality plays, with characters discussing and debating serious questions about faith, humanity, and the difference between right and wrong. Homer stealing cable for the family made him grapple with real moral dilemmas, whittling away at his excuse making until he descended further and further into a paranoid panic before finally doing the right thing, saving his soul in his daughter’s eyes. What are the stakes in these stories? What are they trying to say? Two of them aren’t even technically about our characters, so why should I care what happens to these fantasy people? It’s not like the episode has given me any reason to.

One good line/moment: Wherein the show once again gloms onto the success of a more contemporary cartoon (Rick & Morty, Adventure Time), Homer is flung into the Bob’s Burgers dimension for the couch gag, viewing their opening titles from inside the restaurant, then attempting to hide when the Belchers turn around to observe him through the glass. This seems to have been animated by the Burgers crew as Homer looks and moves a little differently, and we get an amusing back-and-forth between the Belchers as they watch this crazed jaundiced man flounce about their restaurant (“If he’s robbing us, I feel sorry for him.” “No, don’t say that! We’re fun to rob!”) It’s just sad to go from this segment to the episode itself; the Belchers feel even more authentic, humorous and full of life when immediately followed by a sterile, shambling corpse. Even entering its 9th season, Bob’s Burgers is still a joy to watch, the closest to a spiritual successor to The Simpsons as we’re ever going to get, in my opinion.

641. Heartbreak Hotel

Original airdate: October 7, 2018

The premise:
Marge’s longstanding dream of competing on her favorite reality show is immediately dashed when she and Homer are the first to be eliminated. Homer tries to raise her spirits by helping her embrace their new temporary life at the fancy hotel they are required to stay in until production wraps.

The reaction: Even if you don’t keep up with them, reality competition shows are still alive and kicking; genre forefathers Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race are still going strong with respectable ratings (on CBS, the only network to still actually get ratings). But reality show parodies really feel old hat to me, with every show and that show’s mother getting their shots in during the reality show boom of the early 2000s, including this show, with “Helter Shelter” in season 14. So even though the characters comment that their favorite show “The Amazing Place” is in its 48th season, none of their reality jokes feel like anything I haven’t already heard over a decade ago. But unlike “Helter Shelter,” which was all about parodying the current TV landscape, this episode isn’t really about that… I’m not sure what the message of it is, exactly. Marge is a huge “Amazing Place” fan and has submitted tapes to be on the show since the beginning, so Bart and Lisa convince the producers to accept her, with her sob story being a great marketable angle. Unfortunately, she and Homer fail the first challenge immediately on arrival and are eliminated. To keep the mystery of the competition show from being ruined, the two must stay at a swanky deluxe hotel for six weeks until filming is finished. Marge is despondent she failed to live out her dream, and just as she was getting over it, she discovers that Homer was responsible for failing the challenge and gets extremely bitter. When the show’s producer returns, announcing one final challenge for the losers provided they dump their partners for it, Marge immediately accepts, but ends up failing that too by her own fault. So what’s… the take away from this? The show ends with Homer basking in for once not being responsible a screw-up, rather than actually comforting her in some way, or Marge apologizing for him for how awfully she treated him and dropping him like a sack of hot rocks to be on the show one last time. She was a hue fan girl who blew her one big chance… and that’s about it. It’s one of those episodes I’m not sure how exactly to critique because I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it. Every season there are always a decent handful of episodes that feel more pointless than normal to just pad the season out; pretty surprising to see one already as show #2.

Three items of note:
– A brief montage sequence of Lisa editing together Marge’s old audition tapes to make a new one to submit while Bart goofs around is set to library music frequently used in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don’t know if the song is actually royalty-free or they had to acquire the license to used it, but that score is so intrinsically tied to¬†Sunny that there’s no way it was unintentionally used. So why is it there? Bart feeds Santa’s Little Helper marshmallows until he gets super fat while Lisa is on her computer… that’s it. It would make more sense if it were played at Moe’s as Homer and the gang are talking about something or plotting a scheme, at least the reference would make sense. Here, it’s just… random.
– I guess once they decided to name the show after the Elvis song, they figured they could have Homer sing a parody version of it, trying to sell Marge on the cushy lifestyle they could live up stuck at the airport hotel. He sings the first stanza with no music, then there’s a weird brief pause, and the music slowly starts to come in during his second stanza. It’s hard to explain without actually watching it, but the whole sequence feels halfhearted, like they didn’t want to fully commit to a music sequence, or just didn’t want to bother.
– Act two (I think?) ends with Marge discovering it was Homer’s fault they failed the first challenge. After commercial, we come back to an elaborate black and white sequence of the two returning to their hotel and proceeding to bicker back and forth with each other. It’s an elaborate three minute tribute to the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Castellaneta and Kavner channel Richard Burton and Liz Taylor as they banter back and forth, invite over guests (another couple voted off the show), Marge flirts with the other husband, and she and Homer argue some more. First off, who the fuck is this parody for? This is a fifty year old movie; I wouldn’t have known what they were doing if I hadn’t read about it first. But here’s the thing, they’ve done this parody before. In season two’s “War of the Simpsons,” during Lovejoy’s marriage counseling, we spend a moment with John & Gloria, a bitter couple (also voiced by Castellaneta and Kavner) who are based on the two leads of Woolf. But here, you don’t need to be familiar at all with that film to understand what’s happening and find it funny. Their angry yelling over each other is amusing (“Queen of the harpies! Here’s your crown, your majesty!!”) and the kicker of Lovejoy’s request for them to look into each other’s eyes immediately making them do a complete 180 on their attitudes and solving all of their problems is just perfect (as is Lovejoy calling at them as they leave to remember their eternal happiness when he passes the collection plate the following week). This scene takes about a minute, has a lot of jokes, and works within the plot, providing an absurdly positive marital contrast to the following scene with Homer and Marge. In this episode, it’s just Homer and Marge performing the script to Virginia Woolf. With some variables changed to match the episode’s plot, there are entire sections and lines taken verbatim from the film. The neighbor, Nick, is voiced by George Segal, playing the same character as he did in the film, which I guess the staff was tickled by? There’s no parody element to this, it’s just the character performing straight scenes from this movie for no reason. The only attempt at a unique joke is Marge and Nick doing a three legged foot race that’s supposed to simulate sex (Marge repeating “In! Out!” before they collapse on the bed). The whole sequence is just embarrassing and baffling, a complete time waster in place of actual character development. We already know Marge is upset with Homer, we don’t need a three fucking minute sequence devoted to elaborating on that fact.

One good line/moment: There were actually a few brief moments I chuckled at: some PAs pushing Homer in front of the camera when the crew arrives at the house to film Marge, the confetti being vacuumed back up into the sky after the bait-and-switch of Marge actually losing, and the sequence of Blue Haired Lawyer monitoring Marge’s call home to make sure she doesn’t reveal anything about the show wasn’t bad either.

Wherein I become a content creator begging for cash: After being asked about it in the past, and once recently, I decided to open a Ko-Fi for donations, which you can find at the bottom of the right sidebar. I’d considered a Patreon in the past, but I feel I don’t generate enough to content to justify people paying monthly. But if you’ve enjoyed my many years of suffering through Zombie Simpsons and want to give back any amount you’d like, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m really glad people have enjoyed my writing through this entire journey and comment to tell me so, and that’s really enough thanks for me and incentive to keep slogging through the muck; you shouldn’t have to feel obligated to contribute, but I figured having the option if someone wants to is no big deal.