Advertisement

This Year’s Treehouse of Horror Proves There’s Still Life Left in The Simpsons

The show's 33rd Halloween episode features two inspired pop culture riffs

Advertisement
Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Review
The Simpsons (Fox)

    [Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Simpsons, Season 34 Episode 6, “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII.”]

    The popular attitude for decades now is that The Simpsons, Fox’s beloved, iconic, and seemingly undying animated tentpole, is past its prime — despite regular renewals year after year, as a critic there very rarely feels like much urgency in checking in on the show. However, “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII,” arriving in the show’s 34th season, is full of genuine surprises, the least of which being that the annual anthology of horror tales seems like the show has found a spark of new creative energy.

    Okay, it’s primarily the second two parts of the episode which inspire that statement — not that the initial story, “The Pookadook” is bad, but it’s a pretty straightforward riff on (you guessed it) Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film/noted queer icon The Babadook. And it’s also worth noting that all three stories are billed as being “book-themed,” though that’s a loose connection at best, with the third barely having any connection to the world of literature beyond the overall oeuvre of Michael Crichton being an inspiration.

    Advertisement

    But those are the only real complaints a super-fan might care to make. “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” isn’t the only Simpsons Halloween special this year, but last week’s It parody was a pretty forgettable take on the King adaptation. Meanwhile, this episode isn’t just scary — it showcases both The Simpsons’ continued engagement with its own legacy, and also some hope for the show’s future.

    For “Death Tome,” the second installment, the show brought in animation studio DR Movie to transform all our beloved characters into their anime analogs, as Lisa (Yeardley Smith) stumbles across a magic book that allows her to kill whoever she likes by writing down their name and cause of death.

    The story explores the basic gist of the manga-turned-anime-turned-poorly-received-live-action-Netflix-film Death Note without too many frills, but the animation gives this the sensation of being a totally different series. Reinterpreting the iconic Simpsons and friends for this new style, but with the trademark Simpsons wit behind the scenes, “Death Tome” is a fascinating blend of styles for longtime fans of the show and/or anime fans, down to the smallest touches. (A casual freeze-framing of wide shots reveals a metric ton of inside jokes, as well, not to mention plenty of cameos by other characters.)

    Advertisement

    Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Review

    The Simpsons (Fox)

    And then comes a burst of cognitive dissonance, as “Simpsons World” begins with a very, very familiar scene — Homer (Dan Castellaneta) giving the family a tour of the monorail cockpit, from the Season 4 episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” either reusing the footage or recreating the original animation with remarkable fidelity to that era of the show’s run. But lest the viewer think that they’ve fallen asleep on their remote and accidentally hit the button for Disney+, it’s quickly revealed that this Homer is the robot pawn of a cruel and callous corporation profiting off his exploits.

    (Obligatory Comic Book Guy-esque aside: Crichton never wrote the original Westworld as a novel — instead, it was his second film as a director, written specifically for the screen — so, as previously mentioned, the book connection is weak. Maybe the folding robot control panels are the “books” in this case? Eh, feels like it’s not that important.)

    The first few minutes of “Simpsons World” feature almost countless callbacks to iconic Simpsons memes in the foreground and the background, before the episode digs into its Westworld inspiration and Robot Homer is able to max out his self-awareness stats via his own control panel.

    Advertisement

    “I know it feels like you’re a man, but you’re actually something that’s much much more… expensive — intellectual property,” one of the techs planning to reprogram him and return him to work tells Homer. A statement as chilling as it is accurate — or, to put it another way…

    The meta commentary continues after Homer accidentally kills the technicians and locates a Lisa replicant, upping her own self-awareness to the point of triggering an existential crisis: “We’re replicants in a ridiculous theme park for an ancient TV show that stopped being good after Season 45! Do I even exist? What is consciousness?”

    Homer dials down her self-awareness so she can function (boy, that might be a handy feature for real life) and the family makes its escape — though not without pushed by tourists into recreating memes. So Bart (Nancy Cartwright) turns off the “Preserve Human Life” setting on Homer and bloody mayhem ensues, with the Simpsons using iconic relics of their past, including the Canyonero, to break out of Simpsons World…

    Advertisement

    Only to discover that just like in Westworld, their little world was just one of many — as revealed by the appearance of Bob’s Burgers’ Linda (John Roberts), and a final shot featuring other parks for South Park, Family Guy, Spongebob Squarepants, Futurama, Rick & Morty, and Big Mouth.

    If “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” was just the Westworld segment, then the episode as a whole might be less exciting, just because from nearly the very beginning of the show’s run, a Simpsons trademark was its self-reflexive nature. But the willingness to experiment with a whole new animation style for the Death Note segment also signals that the show still has fresh avenues of creativity to pursue, even after all these years.

    At this point, The Simpsons can’t really escape the burden of its legacy, but the excitement of seeing the show continuing to stretch and grow in new ways is reason enough to sit up and take notice. It may not be possible for the show to reclaim the full might of its past glory — but hey, Season 45 is a while from now. There are a lot of good years left in us all.

    Advertisement

    New episodes of The Simpsons are streaming on Hulu. (The Simpsons Seasons 1-33 are available on Disney+.)

Advertisement
Advertisement