The Ten Best Treehouse of Horror Vignettes
Ever since Marge Simpson first stepped out from behind a curtain to break the fourth wall and inform the audience that the upcoming episode was unsuitable for younger viewers, the Simpsons Halloween Specials - known as the Treehouse of Horror series in deference to that season two episode - have become one of the most enduring television staples of the last couple of decades (even though, in recent years, they haven't actually tended to be premiered on Halloween itself). This Sunday, the eighteenth special will air in the US, bringing the total number of self-contained, continuity-breaking stories to 54. With October 31st upon us once again, therefore, it seemed like an ideal time to compile a debate-generating list of the very best of those segments...
10. Desperately Xeeking Xena (Treehouse of Horror X)
While "Stretch Boy and Clobber Girl" represents some pretty lacklustre Bart and Lisa material, this one earns its stripes by being perhaps Comic Book Guy's finest hour, as he finally gets to play super villain. The geek references come thick and fast (including, most joyously, a second unspoken cameo for Tom Baker's Doctor Who), right up to the classic "Best. Death. Ever!" Worth mentioning, as well, Lucy Lawless' "A wizard did it" convention explanation for continuity errors...
9. The Shinning (ToH V)
In doing a bit of research (by which I mean "typing a few things into Google") for this piece, it became clear that I was far from the first person to compile such a list around this time of year. However, a constant factor in most lists is the presence of this season six segment at or around the top. Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm just not as wowed by it as a lot of people clearly are. It's a great parody, of course - but perhaps full enjoyment of it relies on being a big fan of the source material, which I'm not (a fact that, sadly, would probably have Simon Pegg and/or Edgar Wright turning away from me should we ever be at a dinner party discussing favourite movies). And, indeed, while the parody moments are well done, there's also a sense of being a bit too arch about it (as in Willie's "Shh! You wanna get sued?" line). Still, it does contain a smattering of utterly classic Homer moments ("No TV and no beer make Homer something something", "Can't murder now, eating", and "Television! Teacher! Mother! Secret lover..." are three that come to mind), and its place in Treehouse lore is undeniable.
8. Terror at 5 1/2 Feet (ToH IV)
As if to prove the point about source material, here's a pastiche that seems less popular in general, but that I think works much better - but then, I utterly love the original Twilight Zone episode and movie segment upon which it's based. Much like The Shinning, this one is note-perfect in its referencing, even down to featuring an ambulance-based twist at the end (although one markedly different from that of the movie). And Hans Moleman moments surely don't get any better than his Gremlin-based misfortune...
7. Citizen Kang (ToH VII)
After their initial appearance in the classic Hungry Are The Damned, the obligatory Kang and Kodos cameo swiftly became as much an institution as the episodes themselves; but it was rare that they were actually given a chance to properly shine in the stories. This segment, then, is a trend-breaker - not just in that sense, but in the way that, alien elements aside, it's a political satire rather than a horror story. It shouldn't really work, because its satire is so specifically targeted at a particular period in the history of one country - but then, the identities of the two Presidential candidates don't matter anywhere near as much as the succession of great moments that the story provides, from "exchanging long protein strands", to "abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!", to the eminently quotable "Don't blame me - I voted for Kodos!"
6. Time and Punishment (ToH V)
Not being a time travel programme, it's rare that The Simpsons gets to do a clever little time travel story of the sort that I tend to be such a sucker for. So hooray for this Ray Bradbury-esque tale of Homer repeatedly and inadvertently changing history in an attempt to restore the "rightful" present day. It's not the out-and-out funniest segment ever (although the Flanders-as-Overlord sequence is great), but it is a smart one. And don't forget what your father said to you on your wedding day...
5. Clown Without Pity (ToH III)
The masterstroke in an otherwise fairly obvious parody is in making the murderous doll this series four story portrays a character that already exists in the show. The doll isn't just evil and a standard evil doll kind of way - it's evil with Krusty the Clown's own personality. Which is of course infinitely funnier. The doll's rampage, meanwhile, is topped and tailed by two classic combinations of the mundane and the unreal - first of all, the creepy old shopkeeper and "frogurt" conversation, and at the end, the simple resolution of "Somebody set this doll to evil".
4. The Monkey's Paw (ToH II)
One of the straightest parodies the show has done - of a W.W. Jacobs story of the same name - from the word go this segment bears all the hallmarks of the show at the height of its powers. It's another great Kang and Kodos appearance ("Aaargh! He's got a board! With a nail in it!"), the "disappearance" of the market stall is genius (and something Father Ted would later nick in its final episode), and the turkey sandwich moment is one of the all time great Homer scenes. And yet this one doesn't seem to show up in many of the aforementioned "best ever" lists. What gives?
3. Homer3 (ToH VI)
Known primarily for the breathtakingly superb animation (which may seem par-for-the-course by now, but for a 1995 animated sitcom was something else), this is a surprisingly charming entry into a canon usually famed for its entertainingly grisly horror stories. Homer's sense of awe as he explores the 3D world is a delight, and the real-world ending ("Ooooh! Erotic cakes!") is superbly baffling. Of course, this probably wouldn't be ranked so high were it not for its experimental nature - but in demonstrating the capacity of Team Simpsons to continually test boundaries, it's an instant classic.
2. The Devil and Homer Simpson (ToH IV)
Cementing Treehouse IV's status as the best overall special (hardly surprising as it sits amid the best overall season YES IT IS SO SHUT UP), this brilliant segment is the encapsulation of why Homer used to be the greatest ever sitcom character. The amount of quality crammed into this one is breathtaking - not just Homer's donut-fuelled journey from catwalk dream, to "Mmmm... forbidden donut", to the so-funny-your-stomach-hurts "All the donuts in the WORLD!" sequence, but also room for another inspired Lionel Hutz appearance, Flanders getting a chance to shine as the Prince of Darkness, and that wedding day photo. Oh, and the "But I'm so sweet and tasty!" ending, of course.
1. The Raven (ToH I)
This isn't just the best of all the Treehouse segments. It's also five minutes of television being almost as good as it's possible to get - and it's the moment where the intentions of the Simpsons team were shown to be far loftier than anyone might have expected from a cartoon about a family middle-American suburbanites. One of the most elegantly constructed poems in the English language is rendered with respect and gravitas while injecting unmistakeable Simpsons humour into the mix. It's beautifully animated (with one of the show's best ever character designs in the form of the Bart-raven), it's an early example of Castellanetta getting into his stride with his Homer performance, the choice of James Earl Jones as narrator is an inspired one, and the whole thing is so wonderfully put together that you can't help but spend its entire duration agog at the level of care and dedication put into crafting it. Perfection, basically.