Last night’s King of the Hill (yes, I watch it instead of Bob & Doug) was one of their better recent episodes, a solid and funny story about Hank that actually told us something new about how he relates to his father, his friends and his family. But even if it hadn’t been a particularly good episode, I’d probably have been favourably disposed toward it because it had so many callbacks to earlier episodes. It was full of references to things that were established in the first few seasons of the show but haven’t been mentioned since: Dale’s gay dad, the generic army-guy nicknames of Cotton’s war buddies, Luanne’s skill as a mechanic, Hank’s stepmother Didi (who hasn’t been seen on the show since approximately 200-ought-2). Sure, it had its share of continuity errors, like forgetting that they did a whole episode about Hank’s dad wanting a burial plot, but it ended with a joke that went all the way back to the first season: in some of the earliest episodes, Hank would end the show by riding up on a lawnmower and giving us a PSA about some issue raised in the story we just saw (an issue that nobody except Hank cares about), and in this episode he rode up in exactly the same way, in animation that might well have been re-traced from the first season’s tags. (Note: this kind of fourth-wall breaking is a little different from other examples mentioned in the earlier post, since this occurs after the episode proper is over, and is the equivalent of an actor stepping forth after the show to deliver a message.) It was like a little nod to people who have been watching the show since the first year.
I don’t know if other people enjoy it when long-running shows do references to the early episodes; I always like it, even though I’m completely aware that it’s really of no significance (unless the plot absolutely depends on a link to those early shows). One of the things that has kept The Simpsons tolerable in the Al Jean era is that Jean, who has been with the show since the first season, keeps throwing in references to the first two or three seasons, like using “Close to You” as Homer and Marge’s theme song. Doctor Who sometimes throws in references to its past incarnations, to good effect. And the collapse of Buffy‘s seventh and final season happened around the same time they stopped including nostalgic references to the first season. There’s just something fun about knowing that the writers remember some of the same episodes you do; it’s like a little reward for being a longtime viewer.
Here’s an example of a first-season callback, one that’s over 25 years old: in the last season of Happy Days (the show that somehow incorporated every single imaginable trend and trope in the entire TV universe, good or bad), Fonzie abandons his leather jacket for the windbreaker that he wore in the first season — a little in-joke between the writers and any viewers who happen to remember the very earliest episodes.