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Treehouse of Horror Tribute

One of my favourite Halloween traditions is watching The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes -or at least I to XI. Treehouse of Horror XII was really the first disappointing one, in part because their attempt at a Harry Potter parody ahead of the first movie was ruined by how obvious it was none of the writers had even read a Harry Potter book. Nonetheless, the annual special, which began as just an excuse to do stories outside of the shows’ traditional rules and to homage the writers’ favourite Twilight Zone episodes, has been a part of Halloween now for twenty-eight years. And like The Simpsons itself, “Treehouse of Horror” has provided dozens of memorable moments, brilliant jokes, and even spooky vibes appropriate for the season.
So I’m going to pay tribute to the entirety of “Treehouse of Horror”, pointing out their best moments and worst, most creative segments, genius moments, and the stuff that didn’t work out.
The first thing most don’t often realize is that not all of the later Treehouse of Horror episodes are bad -they suffer the same bad rep that has plagued The Simpsons in general. And while there were more than a few really poor outings these past fifteen years or so, the good shows and sequences deserve to be acknowledged. Treehouse of Horror XII may not have had anything better than a halfway decent 2001 parody, but Treehouse of Horror XIII had a funny commentary on gun control relating to zombies, and a fun Island of Dr. Moreau spoof. And Treehouse of Horror XIV had a couple strong bits, with Homer becoming the new Grim Reaper (one of the few concepts that Family Guy actually did first!) and a Twilight Zone homage where Bart and Milhouse use a stopwatch to freeze time. There’s also a Frankenstein segment that exists purely so Jerry Lewis can play Professor Frink’s father which isn’t that funny, but a nice gesture. I also like Treehouse of Horror XVI, which consists of an A.I. parody which might actually be better than the movie, a funny Most Dangerous Game send-up where Burns finally does hunt his staff for sport, and a simple bit where everyone in Springfield turn into their Halloween costumes. Treehouse of Horror XIX is mostly stale except for “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse”, which may be the funniest Treehouse of Horror segment since the 90’s! Treehouse of Horror XX is also not bad, sending up Strangers on a Train quite well, Sweeney Todd adequately, and 28 Days Later by way of one of my favourite films, Children of Men. Since then, Treehouse of Horror XXV has been okay, with an imaginative first story involving Bart going to school in hell, a Clockwork Orange parody that half works, but a middling final story that’s central gimmick is the Simpsons meeting the ghosts of their Tracey Ullman Show counterparts. And finally, last years’ Treehouse of Horror XXVII, which was also the series’ 600th episode, was surprising, boasting a good Hunger Games/Fury Road parody, a cute riff on Kingsman, and an inventive segment about Lisa’s imaginary friend killing all her new friends.
On the other hand, it is true there have been a number of duds from Treehouse of Horror these later Simpsons years. Treehouse of Horror XV has an okay Dead Zone bit, but it’s followed by a very lacking Jack the Ripper story and a Fantastic Voyage parody that’s kind of lifeless and full of jokes that have been done in similar outings from other shows. Treehouse of Horror XVII is one of the most forgettable, with Homer becoming the Blob, a War of the Worlds homage that’s just an excuse to get Maurice LaMarche to do his Orson Welles impression, and Dr. Phil …for some reason. Faring little better is Treehouse of Horror XVIII, which features an E.T. parody with Kodos that feels too late, a Mr. and Mrs. Smith send-up that doesn’t even make sense in a Halloween special, and a really unoriginal segment where Flanders forces the kids through the Seven Deadly Sins because (just like in Treehouse of Horror IV), he’s the Devil. Treehouse of Horror XXI was where they really tried to be as current as possible by ending on a parody of Twilight. There was also a sadly underwhelming Dead Calm story featuring Hugh Laurie. The trend continued into Treehouse of Horror XXII, which included an already-dated by 2011 Avatar parody as well as an embarrassing idea where Homer is frozen and can only communicate through farts -The Simpsons is so much better than this! Treehouse of Horror XXIII however might be the most offensive to me. An unambitious black hole story and a Paranormal Activity riff that ends on a very poor Family Guy type joke, are succeeded by a time travel bit that’s loosely a parody of Back to the Future, but mostly a means for Bart to interfere with his parents’ meeting in “The Way We Was”. I don’t care if it’s for a non-canon Halloween show, “The Way We Was” is one of the series’ all-time best episodes, an incredibly sweet genesis to Homer and Marge’s relationship, and you do not fuck with it! With the bad gags and insulting way it ends, it feels so disrespectful to that original episode, and I hate it for that! In what proved to be a long stretch of bad Halloween episodes, Treehouse of Horror XXIV was also pretty poor. I’ll admit the Cat in the Hat sequence was cute and the Guillermo del Toro opening fantastic; but the Freaks story was pretty dull, and the middle part where Bart’s head is attached to Lisa has been done and done much better by both Futurama and Treehouse of Horror II! Treehouse of Horror XXVI was surprisingly the first to feature Sideshow Bob in a story where he actually does kill Bart, reminding us how boring it would be if he ever succeeded. There’s also a bad and immediately dated Chronicle parody and a very directionless Godzilla bit.
The reason for a lot of these poor episodes, I feel at least in good part, rests in how for the last fourteen years only one writer has been credited with the Halloween shows. The best Treehouse of Horrors were written by multiple writers, each given one segment. When it’s one writer having to write all three, less focus is put on making the individual stories as good as possible. Which is why in the past few years particularly, there have been a number of forgettable segments while in the early years they were all memorable. And it’s the reason they’re the ones I still watch. They began to drop off a little towards the end of the 90’s but I still really liked them. Treehouse of Horror XI had a couple merely average segments, but made up for them with a third about dolphins taking over Springfield, and it’s just as weird and hilarious as it sounds. Treehouse of Horror X leads with a funny Ned Flanders based parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer? and ends with a pretty good Y2K satire -the weak link being one where Bart and Lisa become superheroes and Lucy Lawless guest stars. Treehouse of Horror IX’s middle segment is also it’s weakest, but still fun as Bart and Lisa are transported into their TV where they’re chased across channels by Itchy and Scratchy. The other two stories are good; one where Snake is killed but his ghost survives in his hair killing the witnesses who led to his execution (including Bart of course), and David X. Cohen’s last script for the show before creating Futurama: Kang revealing himself as Maggie’s father, which doesn’t have a lot of plot to it, but is expectedly hilarious. Treehouse of Horror VIII was great, with all three segments strong: Homer becomes the last man on earth, Bart undergoes the Fly treatment, and a seventeenth century Springfield fails to burn a witch. Treehouse of Horror VII though was the last truly terrific Simpsons Halloween special. “The Thing and I” portrays Bart having a secret evil brother and “The Genesis Tub” follows Lisa accidentally creating a microscopic civilization. But the best part is “Citizen Kang”, another brilliant Cohen script, and still one of the best satires of the American electoral system, as presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are impersonated by Kang and Kodos. Treehouse of Horror VI began with “Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores” where advertising statues came to life, but it was “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” that was the best that year, with Groundskeeper Willie playing Freddy Kreuger and an onslaught of great jokes. “Homer3” though a little reliant on its 3D animation gimmick was still superbly funny. But perhaps the most hilarious is Treehouse of Horror V: “The Shinning” is a perfect parody of the Kubrick classic with a Brooks-ian level of detail-oriented jokes, “Time and Punishment” presents a cavalcade of great alternative relaities as Homer messes with his time travelling toaster, and Cohen’s first script, “Nightmare Cafeteria” is a fun and warped tale about Springfield Elementary’s teachers eating their students. Treehouse of Horror IV’s “The Devil and Homer Simpson” is one of the most memorable segments where Homer, in typical Homer fashion, sells his soul to Ned Flanders’ Devil for a donut. “Terror at 5½ Feet” spoofs The Twilight Zone classic terrifically, while “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” sends up the Francis Ford Coppola movie very well, with Burns of course as the titular vampire, and it ends on such a wonderfully random note. Treehouse of Horror III might be my personal favourite, each of the segments having strong concepts and getting in a ton of memorable gags. “Clown Without Pity” features an evil Krusty doll trying to kill Homer, “King Homer” is a goofy King Kong parody, and “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies” sees Bart and Lisa raising the dead to hilarious results. Treehouse of Horror II is simply great! “The Monkey’s Paw” plays with the double-edged sword of wishes to hilarious results when world peace backfires, and “The Bart Zone” is actually a little genuinely eerie, as Bart has omnipotent powers, frightening the world into his submission. “If Only I Had Brain” goes to some very weird places as Burns lobotomises Homer for a robot, and ends with a really great joke that, as I mentioned, Treehouse of Horror XXIV repeated to much lesser effect. 
And finally, the original Treehouse of Horror from back in the autumn of 1990 is still one of the best. The only one of these episodes to actually feature the Treehouse from which the series eventually derived its name and the framing device of Bart and Lisa telling scary stories, it begins with “Bad Dream House”, a standard Poltergeist/Amityville Horror haunted house story, but one executed really well. It’s succeeded by what’s still the series’ best Twilight Zone homage, “Hungry Are the Damned”, the introduction of Kang and Kodos as seemingly friendly aliens who abduct the Simpsons for possible nefarious reasons. And the perfect way to end it is with “The Raven” (Edgar Allan Poe fittingly has a writers’ credit), an abridged version of the classic poem read with gothic excellence by James Earl Jones as Homer and Bart play its two characters. The most spooky segment of any Treehouse of Horror, it left an impact and set the standard for the ongoing tradition to come.
This years’ Treehouse of Horror XXVIII was disappointing, starting with a waste of an Exorcist parody that only existed because they got William Friedkin, transitioning to an okay middle part that spoofs Coraline, worth seeing just for some good animation and Neil Gaiman, and ending on a very unfunny final story about Homer cannibalizing himself. Nevertheless, I look forward to next years’ offering (which really should be the last with the series reaching its thirtieth season). But even though there have now been many bad Treehouse of Horror episodes, especially in the last decade, it will still be remembered as a Halloween staple for all the great stories and laughs the good ones have provided. And given it’s generally the one chance per year The Simpsons can break with their typical rules and canon, there’s always the possibility they’ll go all out and give us something really remarkable. Just put a little more effort back into it Simpsons writing staff.

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