1. “Citizen Kang,” “Treehouse Of Horror VII” (1996)
The Simpsons never shied from topical material; somewhat paradoxically, timely episodes based on hot-button issues (immigration, same-sex marriage) and pop-culture phenomena (gadget fetishes, hipsterism) have increased in frequency as the lead time for the show’s episodes has grown longer. For years, that trend passed by the “Treehouse Of Horror” series, another curious contradiction given the way horror, science fiction, and fantasy have long been treated as funhouse mirrors for societal fears and anxieties. That changed with the seventh installment of what was then known as “The Simpsons Halloween Special,” which based its third and final segment on a news story that expired a week after the episode aired. “Citizen Kang” is a time capsule of the end of President Bill Clinton’s first term: The David S. Cohen-penned script reaches for a reference to Clinton the saxophonist as well as a riff on his Republican challenger’s habit of referring to himself in the third-person. Yet for all its “Bob Dole talking about Bob Dole” jokes, “Citizen Kang” aged gracefully into one of the show’s most fondly remembered pieces of political satire. The main plot—in which regular “Treehouse” villains Kang and Kodos use extraterrestrial technology to pose as Clinton and Dole—exaggerates a timeless polling place anxiety that was especially pronounced in 1996: The major American political parties have become indistinguishable. The line of dialogue that sticks is Kodos-Dole’s immortal press conference pandering—“Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”—but it’s a line from the always sage Kent Brockman that summarizes the “decision” faced by voters that November: “Campaign ’96: America flips a coin!”
2. “Starship Poopers,” “Treehouse Of Horror IX” (1998)
Although “Treehouse Of Horror” has come to reference contemporary pop culture more as it has progressed, in first years of the show, its allusions mostly stuck to stuff like The Twilight Zone and old movies. That changed with Treehouse IX. Around the mid-’90s daytime talk-show host Jerry Springer had abandoned more serious topics in favor more provocative, prurient subject matter—“I’m Pregnant By A Transsexual!” went one from 1997—that frequently involved fist fights among the show’s guests and/or nudity. The show drew criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, with one story in the New York Daily News in early 1998 wondering if it was “the end of civilization as we know it.” In late ’97, Springer released Jerry Springer: Too Hot For TV!, a collection of uncensored, previously unreleased clips of the show that was an instant sensation and the fastest-selling TV title in the history of home video at the time. Perhaps an appearance on The Simpsons was inevitable, and in this case, Springer mediates when it’s revealed that Kang is Maggie’s father. (He beamed Marge with an insemination ray after he and Kodos abducted her.) The Simpsons head to Springer’s show, where Kang vaporizes the crowd and kills Springer. When the family refuses to give Maggie back to the aliens, Kang and Kodos vow to kill all the politicians in Washington. As they leave, Bart shouts, “Don’t forget Ken Starr!”—the independent counsel who was investigating whether Bill Clinton lied under oath about having an affair.
3. “Life’s A Glitch, Then You Die,” “Treehouse Of Horror X” (1999)
The fall of 1999 was the peak of Y2K anxiety, when the world was Lisa Simpson in this episode, as she warns Homer—the nuclear plant’s Y2K compliance officer—“Even a single faulty unit could corrupt every other computer in the world.” (“That can’t be true, honey,” Homer says. “If it were, I’d be terrified.”) No one knew what would happen, so even such a ludicrous statement like that seemed within the realm of possibility. In the case of The Simpsons, Homer naturally forgets to fix the plant’s Y2K bugs, and the scene plays out just as Lisa predicted: The failure spreads to other nuclear plants, then to anything that has a electronic component, from Krusty The Clown’s pacemaker to the milk in the Simpsons’ fridge. The ensuing chaos pushes humanity toward inevitable doom, but a select few of Earth’s best and brightest get to escape (Lisa, who takes Marge with her without a moment’s hesitation). Homer and Bart end up on another ship with the likes of Pauly Shore, Tom Arnold, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tonya Harding, which turns out to have a different destination.
4. Opening sequence, “Treehouse Of Horror XXIII” (2012)
Thirteen years after “Life’s A Glitch And Then You Die,” the opening of The Simpsons’ 23rd Halloween extravaganza took on a doomsday of analog origin. With less than two months to go before the misinterpreted end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar—and the supposed apocalypse indicated by that end—the show mapped its setting onto the home of the Maya, throwing a little human sacrifice into the mix for good measure. An addition to the “Treehouse Of Horror” canon that indulges the series’ taste for the grotesque more than its verve for a good scare, the intro fingers Homer’s cowardly non-union Mayan equivalent as the cause for the pending end of days, his refusal to spill his own blood exposing the planet to the wrath of the Mayan gods several centuries later. Much to the disappointment of the 2012 phenomenon’s scattered acolytes, a trio of sentient monoliths failed to wreak comedic havoc on December 21 of that year.
5. Opening Sequence, “Treehouse Of Horror VIII” (1997)
Beginning on New Year’s Day 1997, the TV industry—compelled by the 1996 Telecommunications Act—implemented a new TV-ratings system that loosely mirrored the MPAA’s, only with more complications: TV-Y (children’s programming that’s okay for all kids), TV-Y7 (okay for older kids), TV-G (fine for all ages), TV-PG (parental guidance), TV-14 (parents “strongly cautioned”), TV-MA (mature audiences only). The ratings could be made more specific with descriptors: D (suggestive dialogue, generally sex), L (crude language), S (sexual situations), V (violence), and FV (fantasy violence in kids’ programming). The alphabet soup of ratings made it easy pickings for satire, especially when combined with one of The Simpsons’ favorite themes: overzealous protection of children, as embodied by Helen Lovejoy’s frequent refrain, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” In the opening to the eighth installment of the Simpsons Halloween special, a man labeled “Fox Censor” edits the episode’s script (“I think we can do without the crack pipe”), which he announces has earned a “TV-G” rating thanks to his censoring. The ratings box at the top left of the screen then brandishes a sword and stabs him, raising the rating with every plunge of the blade. When the censor dies, the rating maxes out at “TV-666,” and his blood spells out “The Simpsons Halloween Special VIII.” Subtle!
6. “Heck House,” “Treehouse Of Horror XVIII” (2007)
Like many of the unsavory aspects of evangelical Christianity, the roots of the hell house trend trace back to Jerry Falwell—though, at their most panicked, these church-sponsored haunted-house illustrations of contemporary society’s “sins” look like a direct transmission from Ned Flanders’ mind. Ned finally got the chance to run his own alarmist attraction six years after the documentary Hell House brought the concept into the mainstream, eschewing a graphic re-enactment of the Columbine massacre for a behavior-correcting crash course on the seven deadly sins. But even the most Hieronymous Bosch-esque tableau of eternal torture is unlikely to curb Bart Simpson’s prankster ways, so it’s Milhouse and Nelson who get the segment’s concluding poke at the hypocrisy at the center of the hell house: “We’ll never do any of those sins! I promise!” “All we’ll do from now on is pray—and fight in wars.”
7. “The Day The Earth Looked Stupid,” “Treehouse Of Horror XVII” (2006)
Considering how merciless The Simpsons was in its portrayal of Bill Clinton during his final years in office, the show was awfully quiet during the darkest days of the Bush presidency—which is even more surprising how blatantly left it had been in the past. But the show nearly made up for it with its most political—and bleakest—Treehouse segment ever: A broadcast of The War Of The Worlds by an Orson Welles stand-in causes rioting in Springfield with the townspeople think it’s real. Kang and Kodos realize the aftermath is a perfect time to invade, because no one would believe it was real. It plays out as they planned, at least for a while. When the episode cuts to three years after the invasion—coinciding with the three years since the U.S. invasion Iraq—Springfield is in ruins.
Kang: “The earthlings continue to resent our presence. You said we’d be greeted as liberators!”
Kodos: “Don’t worry, we still have the people’s hearts and minds!” [Holds brain in one tentacle, heart in another.]
Kang: “I don’t know. I’m starting to think Operation Enduring Occupation was a bad idea!”
Kodos: “We had to invade. They were working on weapons of mass disintegration!”
Kang: “Sure they were.”
The shot pans to the charred wasteland that is Springfield as another small explosion occurs and “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” by The Ink Spots plays. In the original version of the episode, which went out on screeners to critics, Kang or Kodos said, “This sure is a lot like Iraq will be” before the music started, but show’s writers felt it was too on-the-nose and cut it before air. Even without that line, “The Day The Earth Looked Stupid” was The Simpsons at its most pointed.
8. “Send In The Clones,” “Treehouse Of Horror XIII” (2002)
Season 14’s “Treehouse Of Horror” is steeped in timely concerns, ripping inspiration from the headlines as well as The Simpsons itself: The episode begins with an attempt to summon the spirit of Maude Flanders, who was bumped off in the previous season’s highly publicized “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” The segment that follows, “Send In The Clones,” also wastes a Flanders, with Ned falling victim to one of several dim-witted (well, more dim-witted than the original) duplicate Homers. The locust-like swarm created in the segment owes as much to the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity as any real-world cloning concerns, but it’s notable that “Treehouse Of Horror XIII” followed the U.S. Congress’ second failed attempt to pass a comprehensive ban on reproductive human cloning. Even so, the best topical dig of “Send In The Clones” arrives in a brief pan across a field of doppelgängers: Peter Griffin, standing silent among the “D’oh”-ing masses, temporarily returning to primetime after Family Guy’s similarly temporary cancellation.
9. “The Fright To Creep And Scare Harms,” “Treehouse Of Horror XIII” (2002)
“Treehouse Of Horror” was far ahead of the current zombie vogue, going to the undead well twice in the years leading up to Walking Dead-mania: season four’s Pet Sematary/Night Of The Living Dead hybrid, “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies,” and “The Fright To Creep And Scare Harms” from season 14. The latter boasts one of the series’ stranger premises, taking a temperature reading of a gun-loving nation one year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and two years prior to the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. When the prohibition of firearms in Springfield leaves its citizens vulnerable to attack by rootin’ tootin’ gun-violence victims from beyond the grave—including Billy The Kid, Jesse James, and their supposed fellow cowboy Kaiser Wilhelm II—the show offers a split-the-difference verdict on the Second Amendment. Even for the show that took a nuanced look at gun control in “The Cartridge Family,” it’s difficult to imagine a segment like “The Fright To Creep And Scare Harms” appearing in a post-Newtown “Treehouse Of Horror.”
10. “The Greatest Story Ever Holed,” “Treehouse Of Horror XXIII” (2012)
Whether or not the Long Count calendar actually expired near the end of 2012, “Treehouse Of Horror XXIII” accurately depicts the whiff of Armageddon that was in the air that year. Another cause of cataclysmic concern powers “The Greatest Story Ever Holed,” a segment spun off of the pseudoscientific notion that experiments conducted within Europe’s Large Hadron Collider could create Earth-swallowing antimatter. Like the earliest tests conducted at the LHC, the first firing of Professor Frink’s particle accelerator in “Greatest Story Ever Holed” appears to be an expensive bust. Until it creates a tiny black hole, that is—one that attaches itself to the particle accelerator’s biggest advocate, Lisa Simpson, who cautions the members of her family not to feed the voracious bit of space-time hiding out in their basement. Naturally, they don’t listen, and the black hole becomes a useful, if dangerous, solution to another 21st century vexation: waste disposal.