The retrospective continues now with the ninth and tenth episodes of the first season, starting with the second “road trip” episode (maybe more than you’d expect for the early episodes of a comedy, but why not — an animated show can, theoretically, go anywhere).
Why do we continue to be interested in characters whose lives can’t change? That’s the question that has always interested me, especially now that both fandom and TV writing are far more oriented toward change. The question most of us have about TV series now is what’s going to happen in the future: how will the characters’ lives change, what crises will they face, and above all who will get together with whom. Writers are interested in this too, and fill many shows (such as Parks & Recreation, to stay within the King of the Hill family for a second) with ongoing romances and shifting circumstances, like a reality show.
But many shows don’t actually lend themselves to those kinds of questions. King of the Hill will have more continuing story threads and character development than any other animated sitcom, but that’s still not very much. Hank and Peggy are never going to leave that house in that neighborhood. They will never cheat on each other. Hank will never get another job, and it will take Peggy a full eight seasons to find something other than substitute teaching. Now that Kahn and Minh have been introduced, they will rarely meet anyone new who they continue to know after that one episode. In other words, not much is going to happen to them. So what accounts for our continued interest in them, and for any characters from a non-serialized show?
Well, it’s that we can learn new things about them. That’s what happens in this episode, where we are introduced to previously-unknown interests or character histories for both Hank and Peggy Hill. The basis for the story is that Peggy is Arlen’s best player at the game of Boggle (aka slightly more high-tech Scrabble) and goes to Dallas to participate in the statewide tournament. The choice of Boggle as Peggy’s favourite pastime is perfect, because it fits in so well with the way her character is developing: it’s a game where you have to know enough to form big words from randomly-generated collections of letters, meaning that it requires knowledge of words without knowing exactly what they mean or how they’re used.
Meanwhile, we also learn about Hank’s past as a high school athlete, something that hasn’t been mentioned up to now. Since high school football has such huge cultural importance for guys like Hank, it was inevitable that this would become a part of his character, but KotH’s way of introducing it is a bit off-centre: instead of doing an episode about his past, or about football, it’s about Hank accompanying his wife to a non-athletic tournament that means as much to her as football once meant to him. Since this is still an early episode and Hank is still more of a jerk than he would later become, he has to learn to accept this fact — as well as the fact that there’s nothing unmanly about supporting his wife, the way she once supported him when he was a football hero. But this allows the writers, Jon Aibel and Glenn Berger, to pepper the episode with little bits of information about what Hank was like in high school, the fact that his proudest moment was going to State and the saddest was the fact that his team lost. The most memorable scene in the episode has him try to live up to his job as Peggy’s “coach” by demonstrating how his coaches used to act in high school.
These new things we’re learning about the characters don’t have to end when the episode does, not if the writers aren’t just using them for plot purposes. (The difference between a well-written show and a poorly-written one is often that the poorly-written show will just introduce character traits or interests to drive a plot, but forget about them a week later.) These writers aren’t. Peggy’s Boggle obsession will come up later on and feed into the type of character she is — particularly her belief that everyone is as interested in the game as she is. And we’ll find out more about why Hank lost the big game and how this affected his life. But these are not arcs. If we’re watching to find out where Hank and Peggy will end up, we’re going to be frustrated, because the show signals very clearly that they will always be together, and their relationship will always be pretty much the same. (And as I said, we’re talking here about one of the few animated shows that is willing to have arcs or change the characters, particularly supporting characters. But it’s not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which started at the same time. There will be few major changes.) But what a good TV show does is pile on bits of information until we have fully-formed characters. Each time we watch, we learn something new about them or get a twist on something we previously learned about them. The result is that we can feel that the show is not just standing still even though nothing is, technically, changing.
This is why emotional involvement in non-arc episodes can be so intense, and why, in a strange way, it’s not the arcs that really lend depth to a show. Characters who change constantly and spectacularly — you know, going from meek little schoolgirl to supervillain and back — don’t change the way real people do. In real life, we learn things about people we didn’t know before, and that adds to the way we see them. What King of the Hill is trying to do is what The Simpsons did in its early years, and what many great comedies do: create characters who rarely change but have consistent character histories that the writers and the audience can draw on. So the ending of this episode, which may be one of the few times anybody ever wins anything in the whole series (Greg Daniels and his writers soon fell in love with the idea of characters losing competitions but coming out better from the experience) gains a little extra resonance now that we know how much of a stretch it is for Hank to admit that Peggy’s “girly” games are as important as his guy stuff. But Peggy’s status as a Boggle champion will now become part of her background, fueling what will eventually become her inflated sense of accomplishment. The more we know about the characters, the more interesting their stories are.
I haven’t said much about the episode as an episode. The structure is solid enough that the same writers used virtually the same third act the following season, in “Meet the Manger Babies” (both third acts are about Hank giving up something he wants to do to rush and be by someone else’s side at the last minute, just when they think he’s abandoned them). The humour is, like much first season humour, a little broader and more reality-stretching, though I think the “Boggle Playing Chicken” might be based on something real. There’s also a B story that tries out a character idea that didn’t really stick: in a subversion of the usual kids-at-home plot, Bobby and Luanne are the squarest and best-behaved people on earth in Peggy and Hank’s absence, freaking out over a tiny stain on the table. This idea didn’t last, and the “squarest person in the world” jokes mostly went to Hank from this point on.
This episode, written by Joe Stillman and Jonathan Collier (Collier was the first Simpsons writer after Daniels who left the show to join KotH), was one of my favourites from the first season. It’s not necessarily the one where the show pulled it all together and became great — that was “Plastic White Female,” to be covered in the next post — but the first to demonstrate that the show could handle a more complicated story than the simple plotting of the early episodes. The premise is simple enough: Bobby tries cigarettes, and his parents are appalled. But the story goes through several different twists and many different story beats, as a very basic premise reflects back on the characters’ lives in unexpected ways. Initially, we have a reversal of an old cliché, typical of sitcoms in the ’90s, which were more self-aware about the old plots and trying to subvert them. Hank tries to punish Bobby by making him smoke a whole carton of cigarettes until he throws up, a traditional “tough love” method. Of course this just winds up making Bobby addicted to cigarettes instead of just curious about them, and has the side effect of getting Hank hooked again. Hank’s old-fashioned ideas about parenting, which later would become more heroic, backfired a lot in the first season.
As an interlude in this scene, we also get a classic example of Dale making Hank look good by comparison: if Hank is making a mistake, at least he’s not openly encouraging his kid to smoke.
Then in the second act, the other characters all start to reveal different aspects of their personalities by showing what they think about smoking. (Everybody Loves Raymond, which started in the same season, also liked the idea of setting up an issue and seeing how each character would react to it.) Bill turns out to be a recovering addict who never successfully recovered, or maybe is just so lonely that he wants to go to anti-smoking meetings forever; Boomhauer, as the most “together” of Hank’s friends, is the one who doesn’t smoke at all. Luanne goes against the trailer-trash stereotype by being the only non-smoker in Hank’s house (“Don’t you know more people die of smoking than of… war… in Vietnam… every day?”). And Hank and Peggy take up smoking again almost as a nostalgic reminder of their early romance, or a way of recapturing their youth; in flashbacks, we see how most of their fun moments — before they had to give up smoking due to Peggy’s pregnancy — were inseparable from the smell of cigarette smoke. This all takes place amidst a series of gags about what smokers do to get cigarettes and how smokers behave, including a really bizarre, un-KotH-like gag where Hank casually causes an explosion. So it’s a very packed second act.
Once Hank, Peggy and Bobby are all hooked, then the story shifts into their attempts to quit. This allows for a King of the Hill staple, a meeting with a condescending New Age-y jackass who has no helpful advice, and a scene where a roomful of people turns against Hank and thinks he’s some kind of monster. The show never got tired of this, because guys like this
(voiced by David Herman, like most such characters on the show) (voiced by Billy West, uncredited) are such juicy targets, and any time strangers make false snap judgments about Hank, it makes him more sympathetic. He even gets to do a full-on heroic speech in this one.
And finally, the episode takes a dark turn — in content and in lighting — as the Hills go almost crazy from nicotine withdrawal, fighting each other over one last smoke. (It happens during a storm, allowing for that centuries-old and very effective theatrical idea: the storm within mirrors the torment within.) They manage to stop themselves and band together to beat the addiction, of course, but it’s still the darkest moment the show has done up to this point. Especially the parts that put a darker spin on things that were brought up in the second act, like Hank mentioning that smoking will help him and Peggy recapture the good old days, “before he [Bobby] came.”
This part uses a structural trick that is very useful on this and other shows: call back to something that happened earlier in the episode, but bring it back in a new and unexpected way, making a seemingly unimportant detail become a commentary on the characters’ lives. The first couple of acts had what seemed to be an irrelevant B story about Luanne trying to wean the dog Ladybird off eating her makeup. In the third act, she does all the same things to the Hills, treating them (as she finally says explicitly: this is a broadcast show and it has to tell us things sometimes, rather than just suggest them) like dogs. It makes a point — addiction has reduced these people to animals — without preaching, and it also binds the whole episode together and makes it more unified.
This is the first episode to really let us see Hank at work; it hasn’t opened up Strickland Propane as a world of its own with a lot of characters (that will have to wait until an episode produced for this season, but held over for the second), but it does let us meet a co-worker: Enrique, the first recurring Mexican-American character on the show. He’s an example of how minor characters can suddenly take on lives of their own: he never had much to do or say for the first few seasons, but around season 8, when Danny Trejo took over doing his voice, he became a more frequently-used character and even had a few episodes devoted to him and his family.
And I’ll end the post where the episode ends, with one of the all-time great fake PSAs, Boomhauer on smoking. Just a quick note on how comedies ended in the ’90s: at this time it was still very common to do tags over the closing credits, the way most of the NBC comedies did at the time. KotH didn’t do tags in every episode, but they did a lot of them in the first three seasons. As networks increasingly started using the closing credits to run promos, tags were discouraged, and the show did fewer and fewer tags as it went on. Now closing-credits tags have become popular again.