It’s funny how I always looked forward to the “Treehouse” episodes, long after the show started turning to shit, for the same reason I’m wary of them popping up in these reviews: they’re so fast and short that they convey a punk rock ‘who gives a crap’ attitude that’s deliriously fun to go along with but doesn’t give you much to think about. This is a massive exception though, with both potent horror and potent satire. “The Thing And I” was one of those shorts that genuinely frightened me as a kid. It’s funny, actually, how there’s some things that will deeply bother you at one age that you can easily let go when you’re older and vice versa; I’ve never seen High Fidelity, but I’ve heard of people who went from idolising the character Rob to thinking he was a selfish asshole. In this case, when I was younger I found the ending of Bart being chained up in the attic right on the border of ‘cool horror ending’ and ‘hard to watch’. Now, of course, the casual cruelty, accentuated by a close-up on Bart’s horror-struck expression, makes me laugh because it’s absurd; when I was a kid, there was a part of me that was worried that could really happen to me. This short also has my favourite case of the show making horror and comedy at the same time with Homer’s line “Bart, you stay here and watch the hockey game.” Mixing comedy and horror is like a comedian with a guitar – a lazy artist can get by not doing either particularly well and coasting off the concept. But this show’s “Treehouse” shorts use one to launch into the other; a pure horror story has to have some kind of plausibility, and in this case, it’s entirely plausible that Homer would get Bart to stay home and tape the hockey game even in the midst of imminent danger.
“The Genesis Tub” is very fun but slight, appealing to the fantasy of playing God. Luckily, “Citizen Kang” is a rare “Treehouse” short that’s absolutely packed with substance, a deeply satirical work that pushes a point that leaves me deeply conflicted in multiple ways. The central point is showing two aliens trying to manipulate the American electoral system with no preconceived notions and finding all the cultural drives that have broken America every single election. This is one of those Simpsons situations where I don’t know if the short is making obvious points, or if its points were so baked into my worldview at a young age that they’re obvious to me now, and I can’t tell if they’re great expressions of fundamental truths or things I latched onto an early age and never let go; I lean very strongly to the former, because I often found the things The Simpsons says about society continued to be true my whole life. The short goes through several nuances of the one idea: the American electoral system is a process of Americans choosing between two men who spout equally meaningless platitudes and that choice having no visible consequence. What’s interesting is that, much as the show empathised with both Homer the crappy assistant and Burns the bad boss, the short recognises the viewpoint of both the politician, faced with an unpleasable crowd that boos down any single stance, and the voter, faced with two hideous space creatures intent on enslaving humanity. Wherever you stand, American politics is a hideous, endless quagmire.
The thing is, this feels like one of the things about the show that has aged. It feels absurd to say that the country will look the same regardless of whether Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Peter Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren are elected, and indeed, a meme has risen labelling the belief that both parties (or more often both sides of the political spectrum) are the same as ‘enlightened centrism’. I think disenchantment of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the way the show presents was a reasonable reaction to American politics in 1996, but it doesn’t translate to every election and it certainly doesn’t apply to the American political landscape of 2019; in fact, there’s an argument to be made that the cynical attitude of 1996 has evolved into this general shitshow, seeing as how part of what motivated Trump’s election was a bloc of conservative, centrist, and otherwise apathetic voters who wanted to see him burn the whole thing down. I would go so far as to say that the attitude the short explores is dangerous in these particular times – if you’ll allow some of personal politics to come to the fore, I think Sanders and Warren represent a true step forward for the American people and the world at large, and the threat of both Donald Trump and Democrats that, in deed if not in word, serve corporate interests instead of the people is sufficiently strong that work needs to be done to get there, and I get frustrated with apathetic dismissals of political engagement that sound a hell of a lot like “Go ahead! Throw your vote away!” I don’t think The Simpsons is responsible for that attitude, and I don’t even think it’s specifically arguing that political engagement is completely pointless – I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s capturing the specific frustration of political engagement – but I do find myself in a rare position of not being on the show’s side.
That said, I also think it’s a great bit of satire. I may disagree with what it says, but I’m pleased it has something worth arguing with at all, and that it makes its points so stylishly and hilariously; I cannot argue the perfect comic timing of “Go ahead! Throw your vote away!” or the iconic beauty of “Miniature American flags for others!”. I also love that even in the cracks between satire and plot beats, there’s room for character jokes and simple absurdism. “Long protein strings” has gotten more meme traction, but I also always appreciated the gag that Homer lies about catching a big fish in the middle of his story of being abducted. I think it’s a perfect model for a short film; there’s a specific weighty issue that the story has something to say on, a straightforward genre element to kick the plot off, and Homer to act as a fun blank slate to project upon and push the story forward. Whatever the story might be about, you can rely on a Simpsons story to be entertaining.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: Death is sitting at the couch, causing the whole family to die, and using them as a footrest.
This episode was written by Ken Keeler, Dan Greaney, and David S Cohen, and directed by Mike B Anderson. The scene of the spaceships attacking Bart was an early use of computer animation in The Simpsons (outside of “Hom³r”), with computers being used for the design and animators tracing over footage.
“Immatoot you exahctly!” isn’t an iconic quote, but it is one I’ve used often. “Twirling towards freedom!” is an iconic quote, but it’s also one of the quotes my best friend and I have used most often, usually while playing video games.
“Go ahead! Throw your vote away!” actually has had a negative effect here in Australia, where people soak up the ‘voting for a third party is pointless’ rhetoric despite the fact that our system is specifically set up to make voting for a third party worthwhile even if they don’t get in.
A picture of Ringo and some Be Sharps records are in the attic with Hugo.
Iconic Moments: 4. Hibbard punching Hugo through a frame has become classic shitposting material. | “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!” | “As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball. But now I say we must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” | “Go ahead! Throw your vote away!”
Biggest Laugh: It’s hard to find a more perfect twenty seconds in television. The monologue that fragments into absurdity, Dan Castellaneta’s straight-faced reading, the animation of Clin-Ton twirling, the patented Simpsons gag of applauding absurdity, and even the fact that it’s been memed into oblivion all combine to make it gut-busting.