‘Treehouse of Horror XXXIV’ Was Filled with Punchlines Lifted Straight from Two-Years-Ago Twitter
Perhaps the most frightening part of tonight’s Simpsons episode, the annual and anticipated “Treehouse of Horror XXXIV” that mind-bogglingly aired five days after Halloween, was the fact that Simpsons writers still think NFTs can be funny.
In the first of three chapters, “Wild Barts Can’t Be Token,” Bart accidentally gets digitized into a living NFT, forcing Marge to fight her way through the blockchain in an extended homage to the French graphic novel and Korean-Czech movie adaptation Snowpiercer. Complete with obligatory Bored Ape references and a wild overvaluation of both the value of NFTs as well as the public’s remaining interest in crypto bullshit, “Treehouse of Horror XXXIV” started on the weakest of its three parts with what feels like an extended Robot Chicken sketch that still wouldn’t have earned a chuckle in 2019.
Part two featured a time-skip to a future wherein Sideshow Bob is incarcerated in a maximum security prison for finally fatally finishing his feud with Bart Simpson, a traumatizing incident that pushes Lisa into pursuing a successful career in “True Crime.” This story, titled “Ei8ht,” satirizes the psychological thriller craze and our widespread serial killer obsession, culminating in a convoluted split-personality plotline in which separate identities within Lisa both commit and solve murders as a way to get closer to Bob, and, therefore, her revenge. Both more indulgently gory and actually funny than “Wild Barts Can’t Be Token,” “Ei8ht” adds a passable entry to the annals of “Treehouse of Horror” history.
Finally, we got “Lout Break,” in which Homer, once again, breaks nuclear safety regulations and eats a radioactive donut, cracking two snarky comments about the “nanny state” in the first 45 seconds of the segment. The contaminated snack alters Homer’s DNA, giving him toxic burps that turn the entire town — and, later, the world — into Homerized versions of themselves with bursting bellies and bald heads. Professor Frink begs Homer to help him find a cure to the contagion, warning Homer that, without people smarter than him operating internet servers, he won’t be able to browse his favorite misinformation. However, Homer elects to let the virus spread and live in a utopia — “no, a metopia,” as he says, and the world turns homogeneously Homer. Minus the many eye-rolling insinuations that Homer is terminally online and alt-right, “Lout Break” was the best of the bunch in this year’s Halloween bonanza.
“Treehouse of Horror XXXIV” is a mostly passable installment of the Halloween special, but it’s hampered by one of the most annoying aspects of modern day Simpsons episodes: the show’s toxic relationship with topicality. This was most apparent in “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” in which the writers decided to use the most important episode of the year to take another pass at parodying the crypto economy, a subject that first found the spotlight in the eminently forgettable 2020 episode “Frinkcoin.” Three years later, the blockchain is an even more exhausting topic to most viewers who stopped caring about crypto well before the recent schadenfreude-inducing crash of multiple prominent crypto companies, and the late-to-the-party punchlines about digital artwork are about as tacky and unoriginal as the tokens themselves.
Even in in the strongest segment of this year’s “Treehouse of Horror,” “Lout Break,” the lame references to the “nanny state” and online misinformation remind us how Simpsons writers have been using Homer as a stand-in for modern conservative culture warriors and sully the most original and enjoyable plotline of the evening with completely unnecessary and bumbling political jokes.
There was once a time when “Treehouse of Horror” was an ideal vehicle for social commentary. Just nine days before the 1996 presidential election, The Simpsons dropped “Treehouse of Horror VII,” which gave audiences arguably the most iconic piece of satire in Simpsons history, “Citizen Kang,” in which America’s two-party political system faced its most pointed and ruthless skewering at the hands of an adult animation series in our country’s entire history. Critically, however, the Simpsons’ successful social critique was subtle, thoughtful and sparing — the other two parts in the episode, “The Thing And I” and “The Genesis Tub,” focused on frightfully festive parody without forcing references to Walkmans or Ted Kaczynski.
Like so many other qualities of The Simpsons that first made the franchise so successful, its capacity to blend humor and topical cultural commentary has been exploited and exaggerated to the point where each episode is lousy with out-of-place plotlines and punchlines lifted straight from two-years-ago Twitter. Though “Treehouse of Horror XXXIV” had a few moments of authentic inspiration, it exemplified the distillation and dumbing down of essential Simpsons elements to the point where the series is, too often, one big self-parody.