Granted the heyday of The Simpsons are over and have been over before the line “Simpsons Did It” became part of pop culture phrases. Not many TV shows last as long as The Simpsons now in its 34th season and for very good reason. The show has lost a lot of its touch and it may appeal to younger viewers but I gave up watching a few years ago.
Like most people, the show should’ve ended around the same time the movie came out in 2007. That would’ve been a good end. But it still keeps getting churned out each season with more episodes retconning things we used to now. For God’s sake, Homer and Marge Simpson went all the way from being Baby Boomers in the 1989 Christmas special to Millennials.
In its second season, they tried something totally different with a Halloween episode. But if you’re expecting something along the lines of the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, this was something totally different. Drawing inspiration from old haunted house movies like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and Twilight Zone episodes, they even went old-school with a retelling of an edited version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”
Titled “Treehouse of Horror” because Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright), Lisa (voiced by Yeardley Smith) and Maggie tell each other horror stories in Bart’s treehouse, subsequent specials each following season would move out of the treehouse but carry the same episode title. They parodied King Kong, more Twilight Zone episodes and Dracula, among others.
But in their sixth season, “Treehouse of Horror V” was broadcast on Oct. 30, 1994 to rave reviews. The first segment is a parody of The Shining named “The Shinning” to avoid getting sued, according to Groundskeeper Willie (voiced by Dan Castellaneta). The Simpsons are hired by Mr. Burns and Smithers (both voiced by Harry Shearer) to take care of a luxury hotel in the mountains during winter. Mr. Burns cuts the cable TV connection and takes all the beer.
Almost immediately upon learning that there’s no access to TV or beer, Homer (voiced by Castellaneta) goes beserk. The silliness that he goes nuts so quick is a criticism some have had of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining even Stephen King himself. And just like the movie, he finds Moe (voiced by Hank Azaria) in the empty ballroom who offers him a beer if he kills the family.
From there, the parodies continue where Marge (voiced by Julie Kavener) goes toward a typewriter in a huge empty lobby room only to see “Feelin’ fine” on a paper. However, when the lightning strikes, Homer has written “No TV and beer make Home go crazy” all over the walls. And if you’re familiar with The Shining, it has Homer doing his own “Here’s Johnny!” with other variations.
The second segment “Time and Punishment” has Homer repairing the toaster after getting his hand stuck in it. He modifies it but actually turns it into a time machine that takes him back to the age of the dinosaurs. When nagged by a giant mosquito he swats at it killing it, but worries that it’s going to affect the future. Returning to modern times, he discovers that irritating neighbor Ned Flanders (voiced by Shearer) is the ruler of the universe and forcing positivity on people, even giving them lobotomies.
Homer keeps going back trying not to make mistakes but fails. In one timeline, he accidentally sits on a fish creature causing Bart and Lisa to be huge giants. In another absurd one, he sneezes on a tyrannosaurus causing a chain reaction where the creature and all other dinosaurs die. But returning to the modern time, it’s discovered that the Simpsons are living a life of luxury and Homer’s sisters-in-law, Patty and Selma, are dead. Sitting down at the breakfast table, he asks for a donut to which Marge replies she doesn’t know what that is. This makes Homer freak out, screaming in terror. But shortly after he leaves, donuts fall from the sky as Marge observes, “It’s raining again.”
It wasn’t meant to be, Homer.
The third and final segment, “Nightmare Cafe” involves the faculty and staff at Springfield Elementary School sending the students to detention which is also a beeline to being killed and cooked. Because Principal Skinner (voiced by Shearer) is such a strict stickler, he’s overloading the detention room. Bart and Jimbo Jones (voiced by Pamela Hayden) are sent to detention in the cafeteria because the detention room is full of students. Jimbo pulls a prank tripping Lunchlady Doris (voiced by Doris Grau) but she spills the liguid stew from she was carrying pot on him and Skinner notices there’s a certain taste.
As Doris is complaining of using “Grade F” meat because of budget cuts were are mostly circus animals, her and Skinner decide to solve both of their problems by cooking any student in detention. This is not the best of the episode. I feel the idea is better than the execution. There are some great jokes, but it doesn’t know what to do with its premise. But I think it’s intentional as it’s revealed it’s just a nightmare Bart is having.
Yet they’re not saved yet as there is a mist that turns people’s skin inside out, which happens to them. And in the end as the credits run, they perform a parody of “One” the finale from A Chorus Line. There’s only so much you can squeeze into a short 22-24 minute episode and this one does a good job.
The episode is directed by Jim Reardon, who would go on to co-write Disney’s brilliant WALL-E, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Bob Kushnell wrote “The Shinning” and knows how to keep it simple and sweet as it works for fans of the 1980 horror classic as well as people who’ve never seen it. Greg Daniels, who also co-created King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation, and Dan McGrath wrote “Time and Punishment.” You can tell they’re having fun with the notion of Homer’s ineptitude and clumsiness changing the course of the universe for better and for worse. And Homer’s freakout upon learning donuts don’t exist is classic.
David X. Cohen penned “Nightmare Cafe” which still manages some laughs, mostly for Skinner’s behavior. Shearer really does a good job when he tries to drop dad jokes on the whereabouts of Uter Zorker (voiced by Russi Taylor) as they are celebrating Oktoberfest by serving brats, made from him. It really ties into the black, dark humor the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are supposed to be all about. It’s a nice throwback reference to the “Hungry are the Damned” segment from the first one in which the Simpsons are abducted by Kang and Kodos and given food which Lisa believes they are being fatten up to be eaten.
After this, just like the entire show, the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes began to drop in quality. At one point, it seemed they were more focused on gross-out humor and use of over-the-top violence that seemed more similar to South Park. It didn’t help much that in the latter part of the 1990s, Ian Maxtone-Graham and Mike Scully got more involved in the series. Fans of the show have pointed to these two, as well as creator Matt Groening turning his attention of Futurama, as the beginning of the decline.
Regardless, nothing lasts forever. Maybe some viewers just outgrow a show over time. I still find myself enjoying the Simpsons episode released in the 1990s more than anything after that. It was an era in which parental groups and conservatives went from criticizing the show to seeing critics across the board praise the show for its storylines and jokes. While The Simpsons wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, that might be why the Halloween shows worked the best. You can’t do a show of live-action people killing each other with axes and chopping up children to eat. Remembering it’s just a cartoon is what made many of these “Treehouse of Horror” shows so great.
What do you think? Please comment.