I’ve been meaning to do a series of episodic retrospective reviews (the way The AV Club and some other TV sites do), where I look at a show that’s no longer on the air and revisit the episodes from the beginning, two at a time. I’m going to try it with King of the Hill, at least the first 12-episode season; if it works I’ll move farther along in the series.
King of the Hill was somewhere near my favourite show in the early ’00s, when I was in law school watching the new episodes and catching up with the older ones back when The Comedy Network showed them. But it’s been a while since I’ve watched most of the episodes. It seems like the obvious choice for a retrospective, because it’s one of those shows that has a lot of cultural and pop-cultural baggage associated with it: it was the first post-Simpsons prime time cartoon to become a big hit (though it didn’t get back the genuine smash status it had in its first two seasons), paving the way for all the other Fox cartoons. It’s had a lot of influence on live-action comedy, through the differing projects of its creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels; comparisons to the U.S. version of The Office or Parks & Recreation are not made all that often, but their approaches have a lot in common, not to mention the writers they share. And it was a mildly political show that was on the air through three different U.S. Presidents, including one who was governing Hank Hill’s state when the series began. So here goes.
The first thing anyone notices upon watching the King of the Hill pilot is that the opening is slow — the slowest opening scene of a prime-time cartoon and possibly any prime-time comedy in the modern era. Since no one knew yet except the creators that “Yep/Yep/Yep/M-hm” was going to be a running gag, it’s almost a minute until the first line that’s clearly identifiable as a joke (Dale thinking “Fix It Again, Tony” forms the acronym “FORD”), and a minute in a 22-minute show is a lifetime. The topic of discussion, fixing a truck, is mundane; there are long, non-comic silences; the background noise of birds is amped up to make it sound more like a real outdoor scene. It doesn’t even identify who the main character is; Hank Hill sort of comes off as in control of the scene because it’s his truck, but we don’t clearly know he’s the hero until director Wes Archer’s famous main title begins.
Greg Daniels says on his DVD commentary for the pilot that, watching this scene shortly before it was due to air, he was worried that it was too slow, that people would tune out. But I think the way he and Mike Judge did this cold open may have helped contribute to the show’s success. People were used to seeing prime-time cartoons that were more or less like The Simpsons in their approach. Instead, the first thing they saw after The Simpsons was a scene that could never have happened on that show. It was a surprise, and it instantly differentiated the new show from the king of prime-time animation. That sense of being different may have helped to deflect the “Simpsons-wannabe” accusations that every cartoon was subject to — and when you consider that the basic plot conceit of this episode (a series of misunderstandings lead child services people to think the hero is a child abuser) had already been done on The Simpsons, this pilot needed all the differentiation it could get.
Having made it clear that this show is not a Simpsons clone, the rest of the pilot can concentrate on the other important task (apart from the usual pilot tasks of introducing the characters and their relationships), getting us to accept Hank Hill as a heroic figure. Judge’s original draft had Hank as a lot closer to the character he’s based on, Tom Anderson from Beavis and Butt-Head. Because of the nature of that show, we didn’t really feel sympathy for Anderson even though he was being treated horribly at the hands of two characters Judge despised. But the idea of King of the Hill is, what if you took a guy like Tom Anderson, an easily-angered Southern suburban husband out of touch with modern culture, and told the story from his point of view? Then he’d be the good guy. So you get a scene in the KotH pilot where Hank is being driven crazy by an idiot teenager, Buckley (who will become a recurring character, and continues to appear in the main title right up until the end of the series), except that this show is on Hank’s side; unlike his predecessor, we’re supposed to sympathize with him against the annoying teenager.
When Daniels rewrote Judge’s first draft, part of his job was to make this even clearer by surrounding Hank with people who made him look even better and more reasonable by comparison. So in this rewrite, one of Hank’s friends, Dale, was transformed into the ultimate right-wing conspiracy theorist. This allows Hank to respond to Dale’s rant about global warming (“I say let the world warm up… we’ll grow oranges in Alaska!”) by saying that they should be fighting global warming because it’s already too hot in Texas. It’s a classic technique familiar from characters like Niles on Frasier; if you feature a character who exhibits an extreme version of the hero’s own flaws, the hero seems more relatable.
Hank’s horrible father Cotton serves a similar purpose, and of course we have to like Hank if he’s up against the ultimate straw-man example of Eastern political correctness, the “twig-boy” voiced by David Herman — an actor who became a Judge favourite and returned to voice many, many other evil PC Easterners over the course of the show. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” music and the needle-scratch are things the show never did again, but the substance of Hank’s speech, that he’s the voice of reason and nerdy guys from Los Angeles are the villains, would always be adhered to.
Other shows, including The Simpsons, had done “Political Correctness Gone Mad” stories. But King of the Hill was the first show to really build its concept around this. So even though the show doesn’t seem particularly dated, it is (like all shows) representative of ideas that were in the air. And politically, it’s very representative of the thinking in 1996-7, a time when “centrism” was the watchword everywhere. In the U.S., the Republicans had taken control of the Congress but instead of creating a conservative revolution, they alienated the public and allowed Bill Clinton to cruise to re-election (he seemed likely to be re-elected when KotH started production, and was starting his second term by the time it aired). Technocratic liberals were all over the place in 1997; Tony Blair was elected later that year, and the Liberal party was in control in Canada. Terms like “Third Way” and soundbites like Clinton’s “The era of big government is over” were all over the place: the idea that the people had rejected both right and left as too extreme, and that there was a longing to find a practical, common-sense middle ground. This idea has particular appeal in Hollywood, since mass entertainment is inherently centrist; it’s trying to please as many people as possible regardless of geography or personal beliefs.
That centrist longing is a major part of the King of the Hill pilot. You could even argue that it’s the underpinning of the relationship that is established as the show’s most important, between Hank and his son: he and Bobby are far apart on many things, but they can learn to get along if they find a middle ground between Hank’s old-fashioned ways and Bobby’s desire to do whatever feels right. But it’s also represented by characters like Twig-Boy’s boss, a gruff good ol’ boy who carries out his bureaucratic duties in an efficient, intelligent way: the show isn’t against government bureaucrats, just bad know-it-all ones. This one-scene character is like the ideal of what things could be like, if we weren’t blinded by ideology. It’s a very Clinton/Blair-era character to create. And while the regular characters would change a lot as the first season went on, the basic theme — keep politics and ideology out of everyday life and just stick to common sense — would remain pretty consistent throughout the series, just as it has been on that other animated show that began in 1997, South Park.
Of course that’s not the main purpose of a pilot; as I said, the goal of the pilot is to introduce us to the characters. Several of them aren’t really very well-defined, which is normal for a pilot; Bill, being the least-defined character from Judge’s original drawing of the four guys, has no real personality at all in this episode, for example, and Luanne is given a character hook that was dropped quickly, though fans of the show kept bringing it up for years afterward. (The joke in this and a couple of other early episodes is that she has a talent for automotive repair but nobody, including her, realizes she could make a career out of this.) As for Peggy, Paul Lieberstein has said that they created her “joke by joke,” and you can see that here: she doesn’t have much of a role except being a mediator between her husband and son, but that one line about her job as a substitute Spanish teacher — and her not-quite-right pronunciation of Spanish — would be seized on as the foundation for many jokes to come, and eventually her entire personality.
And when it comes to exposition, you can’t do better than this one scene which brings in three other characters Daniels added to the rewrite: Nancy, John Redcorn, and Joseph (whose entrance provides the biggest laugh of the episode). If the opening was deliberately deliberate, then this scene shows that this show is going to be faster-paced than we expect. The tone is still leisurely, but in less than a minute we meet several new characters, learn the key irony about Dale’s character, learn about John Redcorn’s taste in music and Nancy’s signature verbal tic (“Sug”), and cap it all off with a huge, earned laugh.
Ah, the second episode. I would say it’s even more important than the pilot except that, realistically, if the pilot is terrible nobody’s going to come back for episode # 2. But the second episode is the answer to the question: having shown us who these people are, what kind of stories is this show going to tell about them on a regular basis?
The answer in this episode is that we’re going to get stories that deal with issues, but where those issues always take a back seat to personal relationships. Written by Joe Stillman, who had been Mike Judge’s co-writer on the Beavis and Butt-Head movie, it brings Peggy more into the spotlight than she was in the pilot. And its story, where Peggy is assigned to substitute-teach a sex education class, tries to balance out the liberal-bashing of the pilot by pitting Peggy against the social conservatism of a small Texas town. It’s not a straightforward message episode, though: the first act is about the repressed Hank and Peggy trying and failing to explain the facts of life to their son, and signing him up for Sex Ed in desperation — in other words, Sex Ed classes really are for the benefit of parents who don’t want to talk to their kids.
It’s also an example of how good shows find their stories: pick up on things that were mentioned in the pilot and run with them. All we know about Peggy from the pilot is that she’s a substitute teacher and that she’s marginally more open than Hank when it comes to talking about sexuality, and those are the building blocks of this episode. In the first episode, a flashback to Hank’s father gave us the source of his repression; in this episode we see a glimpse of Peggy’s childhood, and how she and other women grew up believing that “decent” girls don’t talk about such things. But her professional pride (later to become an outrageously inflated belief in the importance of the work she does) won’t let her quit, and with the help of her sexually uninhibited niece, she trains herself to talk about the forbidden parts of the body. This not only produces one of the show’s most famous sound-bites, but signals to us that this is going to be a show where characters develop more than they usually do in cartoons: Peggy is a little different by the time this scene rolls around, and there’s no indication that she’s going to go back to being as repressed as she was at the beginning of the episode.
In terms of tone and style, the show is still working things out. It’s a little faster and more gag-filled than it was in the pilot, though still with enough moments of silence and contemplation to remind us that it’s not The Simpsons. And it’s introduced some gags that would have later been considered a bit too broad or goofy for this universe, like Hank trimming a tree into the shape of a penis. (I’m not actually sure I mind that; sometimes I feel like the show eventually came to depend too heavily on verbal humour as opposed to visual gags, like the slapstick in the pilot.) But some things are falling into place. Bill gets his first hints of personality, hinting that he has some connection to the army and that he harbors a somewhat creepy obsession with Peggy. They’re just throwaway jokes, but on a good show, throwaway jokes often aren’t throwaways at all. Again, alert writers on good shows can pick up on these things and expand them, while on weak shows, good jokes never become the basis for anything else, not even future jokes.
And in this well-known clip, Dale gets the kind of joke that would define him for 250 episodes more: he’s the guy who thinks he’s a dangerous militia maniac, can never get it right, but keeps going even after he’s clearly blown it.
The most important thing this episode introduces, though, is a slightly sideways or surprising way of getting to an emotional resolution. The pilot episode was pretty straightforward, building to the moment when Hank has to tell Bobby that he loves him. “Square Peg” brings in what Daniels has described (in talking about another episode) as a sort of fake-out, where we think the resolution will be about one thing, and it turns out to be about something else. Much of the episode seems to suggest that the question is whether or not Peggy will teach the Sex Ed class. Instead, after Hank has his change of heart and allows Bobby to go to the class, the twist is that every student except Bobby has been denied permission to sit through this course. And Peggy doesn’t care, because the episode was never really about the state of other kids’ sexual education; it was about whether she could muster up the courage to talk frankly to her son, and whether Hank could accept that.
It’s a very Centrist twist because it has both a liberal reading (kids should be taught the facts of life and the Hills are heroic for being more liberal-minded than the rest of the town) and a conservative reading (it’s up to parents to teach their kids about these things, not the schools). But it’s also a moment that makes the emotions of the episode more satisfying for because the build-up has been sort of obscured before, and where the point of the story turns out to be not quite what the characters originally thought it was. That’s going to become a major part of this show, and of Greg Daniels’ subsequent shows, and many other comedies (mostly live-action, like Arrested Development) in the last decade. It’s a way of giving a show heart without wearing it on its sleeve.
My next retrospective post (next week, hopefully) will be about the third and fourth episodes, “Order of the Straight Arrow” and “Hank’s Got the Willies.” It will likely be shorter — it would almost have to be.