With the launch of its season in September, The Simpsons reached a remarkable milestone: it turned 20, tying Gunsmoke's record for the longest-running primetime television show of all time. Though it's safe to say the series will grab that crown in '09---its current contract with Fox runs through 2011---it's also worth pointing out another accomplishment: November 2 will mark the 19th installment of its venerable "Treehouse of Horror" episodes.
Originally known as " The Simpsons Halloween Special," the show aired its first trio of Halloween-themed vignettes October 24, 1990. (Only "Treehouses" II and X actually aired October 31---the last eight have dropped as far as a week into November.) Prefaced by a viewer warning from Marge, a tradition that has since been abandoned, that episode---with its psychopathic house, the introduction of "Treehouse" regulars Kang and Kodos and Bart as the titular bird in Poe's The Raven---set the template for what would become a series of pop-culture time capsules packed with nods to B-movies, buzz releases, politics, literature and the environment.
Every channel that syndicates The Simpsons has been airing the "Treehouse" episodes these past couple weeks, making for a fascinating cross-section of references and time hooks, like recent history coloured in and bent through YouTube: Homer forgets to comply with Y2K at the nuclear plant and dooms the world; the show's annual trip through a graveyard passes a stone marked "Subtle Political Satire," as relevant now as it was in 1993; in '96's edition, Kang and Kodos capture Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and impersonate them on earth in order to win world domination.
Amongst the sly in-jokes to itself---Flanders as Satan, Marge as the head vampire, the Halloweenified credits (James Hell Brooks, Bat Groening)---the "Treehouse" episodes are endless homages, parodies and rip-offs of films and series ranging from low-ball schlock to highbrow art, with reference points as obvious and diverse as The Fly,The Island of Doctor Moreau, JK Rowling, Nosferatu, The Twilight Zone, Xena: Warrior Princess, George Romero, The Shining, The Munsters, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jack the Ripper, Chucky, King Kong, The Brothers Grimm, The Addams Family and Steven Spielberg. They've done zombies, aliens, vampires, werewolves, hell, gremlins, witches, superheroes, nuclear holocausts, otherworldly dimensions, robots and 3D.
But the Treehouses, like the entire series, have also deftly explored the issues of the day with wit and surprising poignancy. Lisa's activism gets the world in trouble when she frees dolphin leader Snorky, who then leads the dolphins to take over the world and send humanity to the ocean; when she wishes for and receives world peace, Kang and Kodos lead an alien invasion; her anti-consumerist stance works in her favour, with some help from Paul Anka, when all of the billboards in town come to life and start killing people and she convinces them to just look away and their influence disappears; but when she successfully lobbies to ban guns from Springfield, old-timers of yore bust out of their graves to wreak havoc on a now weaponless society.
The most polarizing installment of "Treehouse" is likely 2006's War of the Worlds homage, "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid," an Iraq war allegory that ends with a smoking wreck of a landscape, bombs still exploding intermittently, as a crackling Victrola trills an ironic counterpoint. Your opinion likely depends on how much social commentary you want in your cartoons---consider that 17 years after it was rumoured, 2007's Simpsons movie was a polemic about an environment ruined by a unilateral government---but it's illustrative of the passion and guts strewn across a canvas of family, faith and fundamental values that have always tried to deconstruct America with much more humour and irreverence than America often deserves. (It's why Family Guy versus The Simpsons is not a real debate: Family Guy is ballsy and clever, but heartless.)
At the bottom of a bag of candy, it's supposed to be funny, and it is. But 19 years in, The Simpsons is still tricking you, too.