Every year, Halloween brings something to look forward to–the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. The show’s creators are able to throw out continuity of the typical storyline (what there is of it) of the dysfunctional animated family in order to have fun with stories that are horrific (blood and gore abound) and satirize genre movies. Regular characters are regularly disposed of in gruesome ways. It’s bloody fun. Except for this year’s episode.
Each “Treehouse” episode features three stories (usually one of which is inexplicably completely off-topic), and while the quality varies year by year, there’s usually much to enjoy. The 2011 entry is simply jaw-droppingly bad. It starts off promising with a before-the-title prologue that features jokes about Alien, Watchmen, Psycho, and mostly 27 Hour with Homer getting his arm stuck under a boulder and having to chew it off, except he keeps getting the wrong appendages. However, the show quickly goes downhill. The first story is reminiscent of an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and a more recent Stephen King story) where Homer is paralyzed by a spider bite. Lisa soon discovers that he can communicate by passing gas. The Simpsons rarely stooped to fart jokes, but this story was all about gas. Homer farts and Lisa interprets. That’s it, that’s the joke. Matt Groening’s creation has now gone the way of Family Guy, and that’s not a compliment.
The second story is about Flanders being told by God to kill various people and he willingly abides. Of course, it’s not really God, but Homer talking through a speaker he inserted into Flanders’s Bible. It concludes by God strangling Homer much like Homer does to Bart, and then the devil shows up ordering God around. It seems that the writers are trying to be controversial (something the show hasn’t been in a decade or two). While The Simpsons never shies away from satirizing religious types, it never threatens to be blasphemous (again, that’s within the realm of Seth MacFarlane’s creations). It’s hard to understand the humor of Homer lighting a Bible on fire or having God be subservient to Satan. Are they just trying to be irreverent for the sake of irreverence, or are they trying to make a statement? If so, what? It would be one thing if it were actually funny, but it’s surprisingly void of humor.
The last story is a send-up of Avatar (how timely). This is the most fully-developed of the stories with Bart going into the body of an alien and following the general plot of the James Cameron film boiled down to about seven minutes. Of course, the alien body he inhabits is the race that belongs to Kang and Kodos, who make appearances in every “Treehouse.” Bart meets a female alien who has sex with him while fighting the humans who attack in battle bots. Granted, these episodes are specifically not part of any continuity and the show takes great liberties with the characters, but Bart is still a 10-year-old boy and even if he is in an avatar body, the show unabashedly has him copulating. So in one fell swoop, The Simpsons depicted non-stop flatulence, blasphemy, and child sex. You’d expect this from a random episode of South Park, but The Simpsons has been above obvious sensationalism. There’s an expectation of intelligent satire, of laugh-out-loud jokes, of entertainment that’s not insulting. Do the show’s producers think this is “pushing the envelope”? If show, the envelope needs to push back.
Final note: the Avatar segment did have one funny visual gag. Superintendent Chalmers played the human military villain wearing the robotic battle suit. When faced with a larger animal enemy, he jumped into an even bigger machine identical to the one he was already operating. It’s too bad this episode didn’t have more moments like that. There are at least two more seasons to go. Let’s hope that those installments of “Treehouse of Horror” make up for this one.
copyright © 2011 FilmVerse