While mentions of the Simpsons these days rightfully evoke a stale yellow world, this year, the showrunners tried something new: they split their classic Halloween special Treehouse of Horror into two episodes. For thirty-two years, this spooky staple aired as a single tripartite episode, each segment parodying classic horror stories and cliches. Throughout the ’90s, the Simpsons’ Golden Age, no horror story was safe: The Shining, Nightmare On Elm Street, The Gremlins, and even the poems of Edgar Allan Poe all made their way to Springfield. Last year’s episode featured a parody of Parasite and suffered from the exact opposite problem, as its short time slot crushed the film’s fine complexities. That this episode was stretched across two twenty-something minute slots, likely in response to last year’s failures, reads like an admission of the current writing room’s weakness.
Next Sunday, fans will receive a traditional installment in the Treehouse anthology, including a parody of Death Note. They’ll see the Simpsons universe stylized as an anime alongside two other spoofs. But this week, for the first time, creators aired a full episode spoof of the movie It titled “Not It.” The episode spotlights Krusty the Clown as Krusto—their take on Pennywise—and fills in the rest of the cast with family and adjacent regulars.
With the whole half hour devoted to a single bit, the episode has time to draw from both It movies. It even decreases the ages of the main cast to accommodate the franchise’s time jump, exploring a timeline in which Marge marries Comic Book Guy instead of Homer. The first half ends with the cast overcoming the clown with comedy, cracking jokes at his expense. The scene features the show’s ever-improving animation, as Krusto rapidly shapeshifts; glowing cracks spread across his body in a dazzling display of visual effects. An explosion turns Krusto into a doll, then a tentacle space lady, then a seltzer bottle, and finally an anthropomorphic octopus. Sadly, this highlight of the episode—the gasps of light emanating from a dying clown—only serves to illuminate the show’s fall from grace.
The modern ubiquity of horror parodies has led to an underestimation of the comedic gymnastics needed to turn fear into laughter. Superb horror and humor are ultimately united by a command of timing—a beautifully choreographed buildup and release of tension. But not every great scare has a joke to tell.
I never regarded the tripartite structure of the Simpsons specials as a handicap but rather as an opportunity to put on a streamlined performance of comedic genius. This episode has the unenviable task of stretching out what was probably first imagined as a low-stakes eight-minute romp into a clunker three times that length. The Simpsons’ increasing distance from the heartbeat of pop culture is also on full display as the episode makes an annoying number of flat jokes about technology, Gen Z, and cancel culture.
Instead of reconnecting with the seasonal specials’ rapid-fright roots, the writers chose to throw themselves at the mercy of a thirty-year-old movie that can still claim more relevance than the Simpsons has heralded in decades. While next Sunday’s episode still promises a bright spot in the form of the Death Note parody, this too will probably fade to a flicker against the bookending mediocrity of the episode—and the show as a whole.