Just a reminder: This Sunday Fox will show the final episode of King of the Hill. (There are actually a few episodes, produced before that, which they haven’t aired, which will run in syndication or something.) I have said a few times that this was, at its best, my favourite of the Fox animated shows, and also that I had my reservations about the direction the show took in the last few seasons, though it continued to produce some good episodes right up until the end. The chronology of the show is basically like this:
Season 1: King of the Hill premieres, created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. (Judge created a pilot script and most of the character designs; Greg Daniels was brought in by Fox to rewrite the pilot, flesh out the character of Hank, and add some new characters, and Judge generously gave him full co-creator credit instead of the “developed by” credit David Zuckerman got for doing similar work on Family Guy.) The first 13 episodes were a big success and made KotH the first post-Simpsons animated show that had ever been able to establish itself as a genuine hit.
Season 2: The first full season of the show, still in the post-Simpsons slot and still getting great ratings. Wes Archer, the supervising director, does a re-design on most of the characters to make them look better than they did in the first season. Daniels starts to get more ambitious with the emotional and satirical content of the show, saying that he felt that the comedy of the show was strong enough that he could concentrate on making sure that every episode had some kind of theme and ended with a character having an epiphany of some kind (an idea he has continued on The Office). The season ends with a cliffhanger and a big network-sponsored promotion where viewers are asked to figure out which of the characters died in the big explosion.
Season 3: None of the main characters die, but they do kill off a minor character, Buckley (a year before The Simpsons pulled a similar stunt with Maude Flanders). The bigger news is that Fox moves the show to Tuesdays, hoping that it can anchor that night for them or at least help them be competitive. (This was the same thing they did in the early ’90s when they moved The Simpsons to Thursdays.) KotH’s real problem, though, is not competition from ABC or NBC but the WB, where Buffy the Vampire Slayer, airing at the same time, cuts deeply into the young demographic that an animated show needs. The sinking ratings mean that fewer people see arguably the show’s best season, and certainly the most ambitious. Under Daniels and his new co-showrunner Richard Appel, story arcs and emotional development are spread throughout the season — though Fox detracts from this by airing episodes out of order — and some of the episodes go into darker areas than any animated comedy. “Pretty, Pretty Dresses,” a emotionally draining comedy of attempted suicide and insanity written by Paul Lieberstein, is my favourite TV episode of the ’90s.
Season 4: Fox moves KotH back to Sundays, but this time at 7:30, where it will spend most of the rest of its run, along with occasional returns to 8:30 (usually when something else bombs out in that slot, the way Sit Down, Shut Up did) and moves backward to 7:00. The new season isn’t quite as dark as the one before it, nor quite as strong, but still has lots of new developments for the characters, including the end of one of the longest-standing running jokes, Dale’s wife Nancy’s affair with “healer” John Redcorn. A few of the episodes are a little broader and wackier than before, especially a season-ending episode featuring many country music stars as themselves.
Season 5: Appel continues to run the show, though some writers (including Lieberstein) leave mid-season. A big theme of this season is that Bobby is growing up: Daniels’ idea was that the characters should age occasionally, so Bobby goes from being 12 to being 13, his friend Joseph actually goes through puberty and acquires a new appearance, and the kids actually start to have different attitudes and problems (Bobby goes through a teenage radical phase in one episode). The wacky quotient starts to increase, with plots that include Hank’s dad Cotton trying to assassinate Castro and an episode where Hank unwittingly becomes a pimp; Mike Judge, by some accounts, was not happy with the surrealism quotient and felt that some of the writers looked down on Hank and his culture/way of life.
Season 6: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, two writers who were with the show since the first season, take over as showrunners. The show continues to have some of the story arcs and emotional development (including having Bobby break up with his girlfriend) but the wackiness gets seriously out of hand: one episode combines a secret brainwashing cult and a car full of birds (emus, to be precise) in the same story. Many episodes are rewritten heavily after the animatic, to the point that Fox often announces plots that are different from the ones that air. Berger and Aibel either quit or are dismissed at the end of the season, with Daniels returning to a more full-time role.
Season 7: John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who were with the show since season 2, are selected as the new showrunners. They are the first showrunners who are from the South and who didn’t go to Harvard, and they get along well with Judge, who has gone on to do many projects with them (they worked on Extract among others). Most of the stories in this season are what Judge calls “small personal stories like we did in the second season.” The wacky/silly stories are mostly eliminated, and the characters’ behaviour becomes closer to what it was in the first couple of seasons. This is also the last KotH season for Kids in the Hall writer Norm Hiscock, who became one of their most prolific and beloved contributors since joining in the second season.
Season 8: A very strong season, run by Altschuler and Krinsky (with Daniels, developing other projects, taking a less active role). Judge’s influence becomes clearer, as more and more episodes are built around the basic idea of the pilot: Hank comes into conflict with the ideas of liberal twig-boys, stands up for common sense, and is proven right. (Judge’s favourite episode is the one from the second season where Bobby wants to become a model for fat kids’ clothes, Hank believes that kids should not be encouraged to be proud of themselves no matter what, and Hank is proven right in the end. It’s a great episode but it’s been the template for most episodes in the last few seasons.) The animation switches to digital painting and colouring.
Seasons 9-10: Actually one season, plus a few others, split into two because Fox kept pre-empting episodes due to football. Lucky, a buck-toothed redneck character I never liked (I still think he was everything this show was supposed to counteract), voiced by Tom Petty, becomes a semi-regular and a boyfriend for the character of Luanne (thereby taking most of the interest out of one of the more interesting characters from the early seasons). The episodes are very heavy on the Hank’s-always-right mantra. The show is canceled, but then abruptly revived again when Fox realizes that it’ll take them years to actually come up with a better-rated animated show. The episode that was supposed to be the finale, as you can tell from the fact that every previous minor character reappears at the end, is held over and used as the finale of season 11.
Seasons 11-13: The post-cancellation seasons. Overall, I think, an improvement on seasons 9-10, because the writers seemed to understand that they’d gone too far with having Hank always be right and started finding ways to make him more uncomfortable. However, a lot of the episodes do kind of seem similar to those that have gone before inevitable for a show that passes 200 episodes, but even more inevitable because the show no longer does dramatic, farcical or unusual episodes; most episodes are the “small personal” stories, but a lot of them are the same kind of stories.
Basically I see KotH as two shows, Daniels’ and Judge’s. This is based not on any inside information, just on my own perception of the two men’s styles and influences. The first six season, run by Daniels and other Harvard guys, have Daniels’ sensibility dominating: a mix of irony and sincerity (characters saying absurd things without realizing what they just said), an attempt to get a theme and emotional development into most episodes. Season 7 is a transitional season, and seasons 8-present do the show the way Judge prefers: less character development, less change, more explicit siding with Hank. There were some really good episodes and at least one really excellent season (8) based on that idea, but it’s the earlier approach that I think had more of a powerful impact and made this show worthy to stand with the best years of The Simpsons — as well as being the natural ancestor of The Office (a show that has sometimes equalled, but never surpassed, what Daniels, Lieberstein and others did with KotH).