When I last wrote about The Simpsons a few weeks ago, I was ready to give up. Season 27’s premiere was the latest in a long line of poorly thought out stunt episodes that were only conceived to bring in its lost audience. The show has had a waning quality for some time, but I’ve kept hope that there were still stories to be told as long as the writers were there to tell it.
And that’s precisely what has happened with Season 27’s “Halloween of Horror,” the series’ first true foray into a Halloween themed episode that doesn’t break off into three different parts. Thanks to its refreshing focus on character, strong jokes, and direction, this has been the best episode in several years. It’s been a long time coming.
When Fox first announced The Simpsons was branching into two Halloween specials this season, I groaned so loudly I bothered my neighbors. It sounded like yet another cheap stunt I was complaining about before (then again, that sounds more like another episode this season that’s supposedly going to deal with Smithers coming out to Burns), and after two surprisingly successful episodes (“Cue Detective” and “Puffless”), I figured the show was going to ruin its little streak. But little did I know that “Halloween” was going to continue what those two episodes understood. This season has been in a nice trend lately where it’s been digging into its past for character motivations (and for obscure characters we haven’t seen in a long while like Uter, confirmed alive finally not counting his appearance in Treehouse of Horror XX, and Dr. Nick, who wasn’t killed in The Simpsons Movie thank Jebus) and finally capitalizing on the years of trust it’s built with its audience. The show knows kids like me were raised on it, so there’s no real reason to try so hard every time. Like most successful shows, it can just add little things to what we know already.
“Halloween of Horror” (credited to Carolyn Omine, who’s written one of the best Treehouse of Horror segments, “Night of the Dolphin,” and “Little Big Mom”) is a Homer and Lisa story through and through, and like in the past, the Homer and Lisa stories are some of the strongest in terms of more emotional storytelling. Since we’ve never actually seen them celebrate the holiday, it turns out that it’s a big deal at The Simpson house as Homer and Marge go all out with their decorations (so far as to shame anyone skipping the holiday). During a trip to Apu’s pop up Halloween shop, Homer runs afoul of the employees (“Don’t tell Old Man Squishee”), some skeezy guys voiced by Nick Kroll and Blake Anderson, and ends up on their revenge list. Meanwhile, Lisa is excited that she’s finally old enough to visit Krustyland’s horror event (“I’ll tell my friends that it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s a really big deal!”) but is unfortunately too frightened by the actual thing. It’s a pretty sad, and wonderfully directed sequence thanks to its use of shading and it didn’t even cut to commercial on a joke. As Lisa cries in Homer’s arms, it cuts away and it’s the most affecting the show’s been in several seasons. I can count how many times its reached this peak in the last seven seasons on one hand.
The rest of the episode delves into a home invasion plot, much like The Strangers, and Marge trying to comfort Bart after deciding to remove all of their Halloween decorations because Lisa’s been traumatized (“Your sister has a tummy ache in her courage”), and to say more would be spoiling the story. That’s also something I’d never thought I’d type about a Simpsons episode, either. There’s actually an honest to goodness story here, and if this is what’s been missing thanks to the Treehouse of Horror episodes, I’d like more of these please. But getting to the nitty gritty of the episode, it’s near perfect with its joke delivery. Other than an odd “Time Warp” parody, which sort of works anyway thanks to seeing Springfield in drunken Halloween attire (the best being Rainier Wolfcastle as Jessica Rabbit) and self-referential Treehouse gag (I hate these later season’s reliance on world breaking humor, it always feels tired) I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. The most important thing about these jokes, which a lot of these later seasons fail to understand, is that they come from character work. This humor is based on what we know about these characters. Like Homer for instance. Instead of relying on “Jerkass” Homer’s malleability and shoving him into random situations, as these later season episodes have done, “Halloween” boils him back down to a man who truly cares for his daughter.
In fact, the best exchange of the episode hearkens back to “classic” Simpsons by giving us the rawest conversation in some time. When Lisa’s freaking out in the attic, withdrawing into herself with “This isn’t real,” Homer comforts her in the most loving, and more importantly, Homer way possible:
Honey, I’m your dad. I’ve lied to you more times than there are stars in the sky, but I gotta be straight – this is real. But you can’t let fear shut down your brain, because, between the two of us you’ve got the only good one.
This one statement capitalizes on years and years of development between the two. Although they never age, they’ve grown in other ways and this episode is a nice reminder of that fact. This season is finally showing what a show in its twilight is truly capable of. Years of experience, years of writing, and years of history can be both a bad and good thing. But as “Halloween of Horror” has shown, it’s leaning more toward the latter.
- To comfort himself, Homer sings the Halloween theme.
- “I’m the Mozart of Halloween decorations and tonight is the Super Bowl!”
- “Hello, Scrotum.”
- “Are you heading up to Treehouse to tell some tales?” “We’re doing it next week. It’s gonna be Psycho with Skinner’s mom, Muppet Wizard of Oz, and one where furniture gets smart and takes over the world or something.”
- “Skippers! How can you reject a holiday where you can serve candy from a salad bowl!”
- “Nothing says you love a pet more than letting them be a part of the human fun. Who wants to be a Yoda? You want to be a Yoda!”
- “Look I don’t want to be rude, but you losers should go suck somewhere else.”
- “Ay, yi yi yi, Halloween is so bueno!”
- “Ahh, they took my cell phone! And they forgot to pay my phone bill!”
- “Get em, Zardoz!”