At a certain point during The Simpsons’ run, the annual Treehouse of Horror installment became less about the animated series playing around within the genre of horror and more about spoofing popular films, regardless their connection to the idea of horror or even to Halloween. And, true to form, 2018’s Treehouse of Horror XXIX follows that trend with a series of movie spoofs that range from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Jurassic Park to Split. It’s the kind of lineup for an installment that feels better suited to run opposite the Academy Awards than as a Halloween episode near the end of October.
The episode begins promising enough, with an appropriately outlandish opening that has the Simpsons suckered into traveling to a small town for an oyster-eating competition. The offer, it turns out, is a ruse intended to lure hapless victims who will be sacrificed to Cthulhu - because apparently the mythical cosmic entity is hanging out in small fishing towns waiting to chow down on hapless people who confuse eating with sport. Nevertheless, the conceit at least feels somewhat inspired by the spooky holiday and it also seems in the spirit to past Treehouse of Horror installments, in which the writers get to poke fun at the show's characters and put them in some kind of horrific peril. To that end, Homer narrowly escapes being a light Lovecraftian snack by challenging the creature to an actual oyster eating contest. Homer’s epic ability to put away food has long been a reliable source of laughs for The Simpsons. That’s especially true for the Halloween episodes, which, in Treehouse of Horror IV, implemented an ironic punishment for the glutton, having a demon force feed him all the world’s donuts only to have it backfire completely. Homer’s encounter with Cthulhu unfolds in much the same manner, as Homer manages to put away an epic amount of oysters defeating the creature and ostensibly saving himself and his family in the process.
Although it feels the most Halloween-centric of the shorts, the Cthulhu encounter ultimately comes up as short, foregoing a witty or ironic tag at the end, like Homer being cursed with a donut head, or settling for a lizard-tongued version of his family after inadvertently obliterating reality with a time-traveling toaster. Instead, the spot ends with Homer serving up the cosmic terror as a meal to his family. The idea that Homer’s voracious appetite would get him out of a tight spot with an otherworldly being is part and parcel to what makes the Treehouse of Horror so much fun to watch, but there’s something off about the way its positioned here as the end all to his and his family’s problems — at least in this particular scenario.
The remainder of the episode goes by in a flash, as the segments struggle to distinguish themselves. Were it not for a commercial break and title cards, it would be difficult to tell when one segment ends and another begins. Case in point: ‘The Intrusion of the Pod-y Switchers’ concludes with a flat joke about a sentient Christmas tree gifting humans a bunch of Mapple smartphones and iPods after a race of sentient plants rescued them from their Pod-like existence spent staring at a screen instead of experiencing real life. It’s a facile observation that fails to pack any sort of satirical punch, mainly because it feels like it arrived on The Simpsons 10 years too late. Aside from being stale and obvious, the one-note joke also lacks a proper setup in order to get to the punchline. Instead, the segment is all punchline: people’s dependence on digital devices has turned them into mindless automatons.
That The Simpsons would do a spoof on Split seems like a no-brainer. It begins well enough, with Lisa nabbing Bart, Nelson, and Milhouse and tossing them in a single room in the bowels of some anonymous building. She then visits them, embodying a variety of personas each time, though none of them seem to have any real bearing on what the segment is ultimately trying to say about the way women like Lisa and Marge are ultimately driven mad by the selfish actions of the men around them, men like Bart, Nelson, Milhouse, and, yes, Homer. To its credit, the segment does do what the best Treehouse of Horror segments do — take the conceit to the extreme in order to sell the joke. There’s a willingness to have characters meet gruesome ends, such is the case with both Milhouse and Nelson, who’re either crushed or impaled, which helps sell the Halloween-ness of it all, even though the conclusion falls short of making its point as effectively as it could have.
The final installment, ‘Geriatric Park’ aims to lambast the treatment of the elderly by comparing them to the resurrected dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The segment is actually the most coherent, though it’s still a little unwieldy at times. Most of that has to do with the reliance on gags like Mr. Burns’ helicopter flying over the ruins of the various chapters in the never-ending Jurassic Park/World franchise, and, certainly, the moment when a raised thermostat turns the elderly into dinosaurs. The situation is resolved quickly enough, with Lisa stopping to make sure the senior citizens have their voices heard, which, again, feels too pat to be significant or funny.
And that more or less sums up Treehouse of Horror XXIX, as The Simpsons settles for making oversimplified statements instead of using the freedom of the anything-goes horror format to produce genuine laughs. While some past Treehouse installments have produced some of the Simpsons’ most memorable moments, XXIX will likely not be remembered for anything aside from its penchant for movie spoofs.
The Simpsons continues next Sunday with ‘Baby You Can’t Drive My Car’ @8:00pm on FOX.