There was a period of about a decade in the early 2000s when The Simpsons’ annual “Treehouse of Horror” anthology Halloween episode wouldn’t air on FOX until the first week of November, due to the network’s lucrative professional football deal. How fortunate we are that not only has it been released in October for the last ten seasons or so, but also this year we actually get the new episode the night before Halloween itself!
“Treehouse of Horror XXXIII,” like most of the entries in this long-running fall-season tradition, is a particularly strong installment of The Simpsons, especially for the animated sitcom’s hit-or-miss recent period. The first segment is a parody of the eerie 2014 Australian horror film The Babadook with Marge (voiced, as always, by Julie Kavner) naturally playing the role of the psychologically haunted mother in the story.
Marge reads to baby Maggie from a children’s book entitled The Pookadook, and soon finds herself plagued by a dark, malevolent, top-hatted presence that entreats her to eliminate the defenseless infant member of the Simpson family. She sends Homer (Dan Castellaneta), Bart (Nancy Cartwright), and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) off to “sleep with the fishes”– it’s just a sleepover night at the aquarium, which gives Marge time to menace Maggie in the Simpson home all by herself. It becomes a fun, almost Die Hard-esque battle between possessed mother and daughter until eventually Marge of course snaps out of it and rejects the Pookadook, who finds another home in the family’s shop vac. Second up is a parody of the 2006 Japanese supernatural thriller Death Note entitled “Death Tome,” which is attractively animated entirely in anime style. Lisa comes across a mysterious book that grants her the power to magically kill anyone she pleases simply by writing their name and a cause of death down on one of its pages, then befriends a strange otherworldly being named Steve Johnson (Hank Azaria) who guides her along the way. Lisa being Lisa, her first murders are those who are messing up the environment and holding viral kitty cats hostage. But she quickly progresses to killing Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) and almost Bart, who is posing as “L.”– as in “El Barto”– the only person to know Lisa’s secret true identity as the killer.
But this year “Treehouse of Horror” definitely saved the best for last, with a pitch-perfect parody of HBO’s WestWorld TV series (The Simpsons had already spoofed Michael Crichton’s original WestWorld film– along with his smash hit Jurassic Park franchise– in the sixth-season episode “Itchy & Scratchy Land”). This third segment opens with Homer reliving the events of the fan-favorite 1993 outing “Marge vs. the Monorail,” but interrupted by a couple of drunk fratboys. Soon he gets caught in a “catch-phrase loop” and is taken backstage at “SimpsonsWorld” by technicians for repair. Upon awakening, he cranks up his own self-awareness level and realizes that he’s a robot living in a massive theme-park simulation of the Simpsons universe. As he goes around granting sentience to his family members one by one (except poor Grampa, who instead gets crushed in a big trash compactor) Homer passes by countless in-jokes and references to previous Simpsons episodes from just about the entire run of the series. There’s Homer proving his worth to the Stonecutters, Lisa in her “Floreda” costume, “Bart the General” and many, many more. At one point two Australian tourists even make Homer recreate the “receding into the bushes” meme, which is what finally makes him snap– once Bart turns off the switch that protects real humans, that is. After a face-off against an army of Ralph Wiggums (Cartwright again), the Simpsons manage to escape in Marge’s trusty Canyonero SUV and stop to rest at what they believe is a real-world diner, though in a playful twist it turns out to be the Bob’s Burgers restaurant in another similarly themed amusement park, with John Roberts guest-starring as Linda Belcher. Overall this entry in the “Treehouse of Horror” institution is more evidence that current Simpsons is at its best, indeed firing on all cylinders, when it can be the most playful with its stories and wide array of characters. The Halloween season is a great time of year for that kind of experimentation in storytelling and animation, and I’m glad this series has that tried-and-true tradition to fall back on.
New episodes of The Simpsons air Sunday evenings on FOX.