Friday, October 30, 2015
"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last Week: The Simpsons, "Halloween of Horror"
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. The "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week is no longer a weekly feature, but sometimes, I'll catch a really good piece of animated TV one week or a few weeks after its original airdate--that's partly due to being unable to keep up with so much TV being produced, a.k.a. "peak TV," FX CEO John Landgraf's term for the problem of too much content for viewers to make time for and watch--and I'll feel like devoting some paragraphs to that piece of animated TV despite my lateness to the party. Hence the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.
The 27th season of The Simpsons marks the first time the show has produced two Halloween episodes in the same season. In addition to the annual "Treehouse of Horror" anthology--where every short story takes place outside the show's continuity, so a character like Bart or Groundskeeper Willy can be killed off in horrible fashion and then be brought back in the next story or later on in the same half-hour--the show has treated us to its first canonical Halloween episode ever, "Halloween of Horror."
Late-period Simpsons can often be so tiresome and stale or so desperate to be trending again (Homer separates from Marge and goes out with guest star Lena Dunham?: I think I'll pass) that I've sometimes gone for months without watching it, so I wasn't prepared for "Halloween of Horror," which is credited solely to staff writer Carolyn Omine, to fire on so many cylinders. It's a better Halloween episode than this week's "Treehouse of Horror XXVI," which isn't an atrocious edition of "Treehouse," but when its most enjoyable segment is the bizarre and grisly couch gag guest-directed by John Kricfalusi (my favorite detail in Kricfalusi's couch gag is Bart's Huckleberry Hound mask appearing in red instead of blue, because the licensed Huckleberry Hound costume Kricfalusi owned as a kid came in an incorrect red instead of blue), that's how disposable a "Treehouse" episode it is. I would have swapped the "Homerzilla" spoof of both the 1954 Godzilla and the 2014 Godzilla (it's kind of weird how the writers didn't have Harry Shearer deliver any jokes about his involvement in the 1998 Godzilla, a movie Shearer probably Lacuna'd from his memories) for the Psycho parody that the "Halloween of Horror" gag writers joke about being featured "next week."
When even the writing staff is starting to express on the show some boredom with the "Treehouse of Horror" format and showrunner Al Jean is admitting that "we've used up 78 horror stories and you can't do them anymore," maybe The Simpsons should just retire "Treehouse of Horror" and do canonical Halloween episodes like "Halloween of Horror" from now on. The "Treehouse" segments haven't been consistently funny in eons. Or maybe the show should start getting guest couch gag directors like Kricfalusi and Bill Plympton to do more than just guest-direct couch gags by having them guest-direct entire episodes as well (or guest-write them like Judd Apatow once did last season). That could provide late-period Simpsons with the creative shot in the arm it often badly needs.
Meanwhile, "Halloween of Horror" is an interesting case where a Lisa episode doesn't suck. I haven't liked a Lisa episode in years. Often on late-period Simpsons, Lisa shows up in one of two modes--either idealized supergenius or self-righteous wet blanket--so it's a relief whenever the show remembers once in a while that Lisa is just a little kid, like in "Lisa on Ice," my favorite classic-era Simpsons story centered on Lisa, and reverts to that mode of Lisa in an episode like "Halloween of Horror." The A-story of this canonical Halloween episode deals with Lisa becoming traumatized by the fake monsters at Krustyland's Halloween Horror Night after Homer takes her and Bart to Halloween Horror Night for the first time. The sight of Lisa being carried around and comforted by Homer and Marge like a baby is such an atypical one. I don't remember ever seeing a Simpsons episode where Lisa looked this small and completely broken.
Omine tosses in a trio of masked home invaders (the two most talkative thugs are voiced by Nick Kroll and Workaholics star Blake Anderson) who threaten Homer after he accidentally gets them fired from their jobs at Apu's pop-up Halloween store, so now Lisa isn't the only Simpson who's acting scared. Because "Halloween of Horror" is a canonical and slightly more grounded Simpsons Halloween episode, this home invasion half of the A-story doesn't turn into a typical "Treehouse of Horror" parody of thriller tropes. Much of it is interestingly played straight, the dumbness of the Kroll and Anderson redneck characters (and the sublime sight gag of Homer and Lisa switching places with each other while screaming) aside. There's some genuine menace to the home invasion half, especially when episode director Mike B. Anderson goes experimental with the animation and channels the opening point-of-view shot from John Carpenter's Halloween during Homer's frantic search for a suddenly absent Lisa.
The animation quality of late-period Simpsons gets criticized by some longtime Simpsons fans for looking too computerized and smooth. Those fans long for the more crude-looking, all-hand-drawn-all-the-time days when Klasky-Csupo, not Film Roman, was handling the show's animation and the family looked a little closer to how they originally looked in the Simpsons shorts Klasky-Csupo produced for The Tracey Ullman Show. But "Halloween of Horror" is a case where the digitalness works in the story's favor and effectively amplifies the fear experienced by Homer and Lisa, like when Anderson uses digital FX to distort the school locker room hallway when we see it from a traumatized Lisa's point of view. Homer and Lisa's emotionally resonant arc of helping each other overcome their fears is mainly why the TV crit-erati is taken with "Halloween of Horror," but the little experimental touches Anderson and the other animators brought to the animation--another example is the end-credits reenactment of the opening titles from Carpenter's Halloween, which does a slow and eerie zoom-in on Maggie's face instead of on a jack-o'-lantern--also have a lot to do with why "Halloween of Horror" stands out as a late-period Simpsons episode.
The musical number during the B-story of "Halloween of Horror" (Marge tries to cheer up Bart, who's disappointed about Homer and Marge removing the house's Halloween decorations to help Lisa feel less frightened, by taking Bart and Maggie out to a Halloween block party) isn't too bad either. "NC-17 Halloween" is a riff on adult Halloween shindigs and the proliferation of "sexy" costumes that Omine and composer Allen Simpson modeled after "Time Warp" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the sequence is notable for being occasionally disturbing, but in a different way from the typical kinds of disturbing things that scare Homer and Lisa.
When you're a grown-up, your perceptions of what you find to be scary can change. For instance, monsters (except maybe the kinds imagined by David Cronenberg) have lost the ability to disturb me. What unnerves me more now is the thought of sex between not-so-pretty people like the residents of Springfield. While "NC-17 Halloween" isn't as graphic as the animated character porn artwork that a certain segment of the Simpsons audience likes to draw and post online (they're kind of like the real-life yaoi artists whose fan art of Tweek and Craig chastely in love was put on display by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in this week's South Park episode, "Tweek x Craig," except their art is much more sexually explicit), the musical number implies a couple of genuinely unsettling visuals, like the off-screen bedroom antics of Milhouse's parents on Halloween. My eyes!
"NC-17 Halloween" isn't quite nightmare fuel like an episode of HBO's Real Sex, but it's almost there. It also leads to the episode's most amusing costume: Superintendent Chalmers in Sean Connery's diaper from Zardoz, which is up there with Bart as a Droog in "Treehouse of Horror III." Coming in a close second and third are Agnes Skinner as Amy Winehouse and a fully recovered Lisa as Zombie Frida Kahlo at the end of the episode.
The solidness of "Halloween of Horror," from the visuals (non-Van Houten-related, that is) to the involving story between Homer and Lisa, means that maybe The Simpsons should start a new tradition: an annual Halloween episode that has nothing to do with recreating old anthology shows or staging already-dated parodies of Hollywood blockbusters from two or three years ago. Or maybe the show shouldn't ruin a good thing and just treat this intriguing experiment--which has taken place in season 27, often the point in the life span of a 25-plus-year-old show when it no longer has the energy to be experimental--as a one-off.
There's a reason why "22 Short Films About Springfield" is special. Simpsons did it only once.
Other memorable quotes: