Saturday, September 28, 2013

From the Files of Arbitrary Ranking and Pre-Gaming - Treehouse of Horror.

So, like I said before, I was gonna be jump-starting the October festivities a bit early (Hey, it's all of three days, compared to other places, this is still pretty reasonable.)
I toyed with a few ideas for what to do with this week, including an acknowledgment of Banned Book Week - which may appear in future years, but this kind of stuck and it's all of a one-year idea. After getting caught up recently, this felt like a nice little breather before going into the wonderful insanity that is October at The
Third Row.

So, in a fun way to set the mood, I dug up one of those great Halloween traditions-albeit one that, over the last few years, hasn't actually happened until early November - Treehouse of Horror [So, apparently this year it IS running before Halloween again.] For the many, many, many (I could keep going) years that the series 'The Simpsons' has been on the air, one of their most consistent traditions that they've stuck with has been their Halloween episodes: an anthology of three Halloween-styled segments, often playing to classic horror stories or just Halloween ideas.

Now, I'll admit that, like much of the rest of the show, the quality of these has sadly gone downhill.  But in their glory days, these were definitely some of the show's high points.

So I thought, even though as a general rule I tend to avoid the actual ranked 'top' lists beyond my end of the year picks (and even those I acknowledge with a margin of subjective error) could be a fun idea to go back through the show's prime years and try to parse out a list of, at least for me, the 10 best shorts.

5 of them were picked right off the bat. As for the rest, choosing between them did NOT make this easy.

So anyway, this is more of a 'for the Hell of it,' piece, so you'll have to excuse me if this doesn't quite go into my usual weight of pros and cons so much.

For those who are leaving now, do be sure to come back next week! The randomizer starting things off with a VERY interesting spread.

Note - given the nature of this one, extra-cheeky captions would be kind of redundant here. May still include choice quotables with certain images though.

10. 'The Homega Man'

Besides giving them some points for invoking The Omega Man (a reference that  would be unlikely in the show's more recent years, which favor more contemporary nods) this is one of those that works in part because, even if you've never seen the film, the premise is played loosely enough here to mine it for enough fodder, and remains funny to all audiences. I mean, the first half is your classic 'last man on Earth just decides to do all the things society and good taste say not to.' Even if it is a cliche, the show makes some good material of it (culminating in Homer dancing naked in the church to Edwin Starr's 'War.' ... Sort of raises all sorts of odd questions about what he thinks about every Sunday.) The actual reference to the film comes in mid-way care of Homer meeting the scarred mutant survivors of the disaster (incidentally, I do love how they gave them a car that plays like a massive nod to this movie.) Again, like many of the better parodies in these segments, the story still stands as funny in its own right ("Oh my God! You're mutants!" "Hey, we don't like the term mutants...we prefer freaks.") and the parody is more just as extra layer of enjoyment for those who get the joke. Here, it's really just a case of the writers doing the other thing they do best - taking some old material and showing us it still has some mileage left in it if one knows what they're doing.

9. 'The Bart Zone'

One of the big shows mined for references during the 'golden years' of these specials was 'The Twilight Zone.' This is for good reason - they're some of the most iconic shorter stories in sci-fi horror storytelling, so it stands to reason, to that end, that they'd be ripe for a LOT of humor. This particular short is no exception - taking the famous Billy Mumy episode 'It's a Good Life', they actually figure out how to make the idea of god-like powers in the hands of a young boy worse: making that young boy Bart Simpson. The story starts out on a good note, embracing the Twilight Zone homage complete with a faux-Rod Serling narration ("and did I mention that the monster is a 10 year old boy? ... Quite a twist, huh? Bet you didn't seen that one coming.") Some of the fun actually winds up coming not from Bart abusing his powers directly, but through the sheer number of things he gets away with from fear of his using his powers - the highlight here probably having to go to either having to change history in accordance with Bart's exam answers, or a constantly performing Krusty on the verge of a complete breakdown. It's a case of a pretty simple concept the show plays to the hilt, and the result is still quite funny nowadays.

"Who's that goat-legged fellow? I like the cut of his jib."
"Prince of Darkness, sir. He's your 11:00."

8. 'The Devil and Homer Simpson'

I will admit, part of the reason I snuck this onto the list has to do with it providing the only Treehouse of Horror appearance of Phil Hartman's Lionel Hutz.  Outside of that though, this episode has a lot going for it. Even just the idea of Homer striking up a pact with Satan ( depicted here by Ned Flanders of all people) lends itself to a lot of potential. The fact he does it over a doughnut of all things...well, that's just Homer for you. Surprisingly, the episode doesn't do as much with the idea of Homer in Hell (though it does lead to a couple of fairly amusing visual gags) but considering what they then do with the subsequent trial for Homer's soul, complete with an appearance by a then still alive Richard Nixon, I think the time was well spent.
Also, I will concede, part of what further clinched this story's spot on the list was the deleted scenes for it featured in a later episode of the series. Most notably the follow-up gag on Hutz. Those who've seen it know what I mean.

7. 'Homer^3'

Looking back, I have to admit the promotion for this did make this story risk looking like a gimmick. Luckily, the execution lays that one to rest. Taking another cue from 'The Twilight Zone' (with this, the score is currently 2 on this list for those playing at home,) this adapts the episode 'Little Girl Lost.' While not quite as immediately iconic as some of the other 'Twilight Zone' stories they've adapted, they still make up for it here care of some playful prodding of the 4th wall - the entire premise of the story runs on the idea of the people of Springfield being aware of their two-dimensional status. As such, when Homer vanishes, as the title suggest, he has in fact stumbled into the third dimension (rendered in CGI that actually has aged fairly well, considering when this was made.)
Admittedly this one doesn't have quite as much of the big laughs as some of the other stories featured on this list, but at the same time, it's still, for the medium and time, a relatively ambitious effort for these specials, and it holds up well for it.

6. 'If I Only Had a Brain'

This is one of those stories that, when rewatching these episodes, I have to admit is a lot funnier than I remember it being. Further, this is one of the standouts in that the Simpsons themselves are more minor players in this story - the meat of the humor actually going to the interplay between Mr. Burns and Smithers. Further, the idea of taking these two side characters and casting them in a sort of skewed Frankenstein storyline gives their dynamic a lot more to play with. The result leads to some great bits of dialogue between Burns's mad scientist and Smithers as his somewhat shaky conscience ("Smithers, hand me that ice cream scoop." "Ice cream scoop?" "Dammit, Smithers! This isn't rocket science, it's brain surgery!") Even more of a surprise considering this was actually back in the show's second Treehouse of Horror, back when the show was still really getting a feel for fleshing out its supporting cast - so giving those two central focus like this in a story was a relatively new call at the time, and one that thankfully paid off.

5. 'Time and Punishment'

OK, I'm just gonna say this now - all three of the installments from Treehouse of Horror V made the cut. So yeah, you've been partially spoiled for the rest of the list. In all fairness, there's a reason it's considered by many to be the best.
Anyway, this is another case where I have to commend these shorts for taking a story that, on a purely conceptual level, has seen a LOT of mileage, and making it work through the sheer execution. Taking the classic time travel paradox of the butterfly effect, and putting it in the hands of Homer, of all characters, is roughly akin to giving a flare gun to a chimp in a gasoline refinery and asking "What's the worst that could happen?" In this case, quite a bit. Rather than play in minor tweaks, the show's writers take this to the other extreme, where Homer's simply killing one small life form leads to increasingly more ludicrous realities. In a lot of ways, playing to those extremes is a big part of what makes this one work. It's the sheer randomness that some of the futures provide - from a world where Ned Flanders is unquestioned ruler, to the utopia Homer misses out on over a communications breakdown - that provides a lot of the fuel for laughs on this one, eventually driving Homer to just pick up a branch in the past and play temporal Russian Roulette.

and oh yes, "Quiet, you!"

Because it bears repeating:
"Don't blame me. I voted for Kodos."

4. 'Citizen Kang'

There's a part of me that feels a little bit weird putting this one on here simply because this marked the first time that THoH started playing into, for the time, contemporary material. Now, this is a creative call that would really harm later installments (and later Simpsons in general, but that's another story,) but surprisingly, it doesn't really hurt too much here. A big part of what helps in this case is the fact that, despite it playing off the Bill Clinton-Bob Dole presidential election, taking us into 'Oh crap, I'm old' territory here, the humor itself doesn't feel particularly dated. Even for their own parts, Clinton or Dole aren't really major parts of the humor per se - though again, always nice to hear the late Phil Hartman in there. Really, the big laughs here come via alien invaders Kang and Kodos trying to impersonate the two - their campaigns are awkward, laced with misused rhetoric, and in many cases bizarrely quotable as a result of that. Despite the setting, the jokes themselves on this one remain timeless, playing to a lot of the general election chicanery that comes part and parcel with the whole process - the names change, the songs and dances stay the same...and in this case, the two ringers play them so absurdly they actually inspire laughter rather than the groans the election season often entails.
Also, the crack at third party voting at the's still funny, but nowadays it's even more depressingly accurate.

...yes. You can tell where these are going now.

3. 'Nightmare Cafeteria'

You know...looking back, while the show's played into some kind of loose horror elements among the comedy before, I think this one might be one of the most overt forays into horror the THoH episodes have had to date. To the point where I have heard testimony from several people, my girlfriend included, who can attest to being creeped out by this episode when they were younger (Editor's note: You mean actually had nightmares on account of this episode!). I have to give the show some serious points for being able to pull that one off. On top of that, this has some GREAT black humor in it. Granted, with cannibalism of children as the entire basis of the episode, black humor is almost inevitable, but I still have to hand it to this one for going whole-hog on it. It's like the bizarre love-child of A Modest Proposal and DeadAlive, even to the wonderfully sick twist on the 'It was all a dream' ending. Additionally, for the number of times in these stories when regular characters have been killed off, this was probably one of the closest to actually making it into a non-comedic moment at the story's climax. What happens to the rest of the kids...well, OK, THAT'S played for comedy, albeit again, very dark comedy.
Come to think of it, for how much this one goes into the morbid humor and hinted-at gore, it's surprising it's still part of one of the most popular episodes, given that style tends to be polarizing a lot of the time.

2. 'The Raven'

Of all the stories on this list, I think this is the one my opinion of has grown the most on the rewatch. I mean, I liked this one before, but on rewatching, I have to admit I REALLY like the presentation on this story. Even more impressive in that most of the writing in this one really is just the classic Poe poem. There's a few little interruptions here and there, many inspiring a couple of chuckles, but really the big presentation here is all on the poem (as read by James Earl Jones.) I think the fact that most of the jokes here are on the smaller side is actually one of the assets - this one's definitely not a big laugh inducer, but given the premise it's working with, that would actually hurt the material. Leaving it to just little visual gags or the occasional comment from a still-not-yet scared Bart makes the humor more of an accent on a pretty well put together presentation. It's one of those rare occasions where the show establishes a genuine sense of atmosphere, and it's a big part of what caught me on the rewatch. The other two segments in the first THoH have their moments, but still show a bit of roughness around the edges - this one they hit gold right out of the gate.

...yep. 3-for-3.
As Willie himself would say it best, "I'm bad at this."

1. 'The Shinning'

and rounding out the warning regarding part V, we have probably one of the single-most popular of the Halloween segments...and for good reason - it's that funny. I realize that's putting it rather bluntly on this list, but it is. For as much as pop culture has parodied Kubrick's take on The Shining, this still stands out as arguably one of the best riffs on it. I think a big part of what helps it in that regard is the fact that it has enough material to get a laugh from those who know the movie while still also being entertaining even if you haven't seen it. Even the parts that are direct shout-outs are handled in a way that allows people who haven't seen the film to get in on the fun (see - the error-riddled take off on the classic "Here's Johnny!" scene.) There's only so many ways I can repeat myself on this before it gets old, so I'll just bring this one to a landing - even nowadays, this segment is still a blast to watch, and none of the jokes in it really fall flat. While it's not quite as ambitious as The Raven before it, it's still easily the most entertaining of the stories the franchise has produced for its Halloween specials. Oft-quoted, oft-imitated, but still never quite duplicated. All the pieces really just fall into place on this one, it's a solid parody, but also just a great episode where the parody can still serve as icing on the cake.


(Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

That said, join us next Friday when the kickoff begins proper.

Also, bring some boots. It's gonna get messy here.

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