King of the Hill Revisited: "How To Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying" and "Texas City Twister" - Macleans.ca

King of the Hill Revisited: “How To Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying” and “Texas City Twister”

by

I’m trying to re-start my King of the Hill recaps with the first two episodes of the second season. The one slight difference from the season 1 recaps is that I’m going to try and use more variable lengths depending on how much there is to say about an episode: so for this one, I had a lot to say about the season premiere and not a lot about the second, so I’ll just say what there is to say.

“How To Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying”

The second season was the most popular of King of the Hill‘s run. In its post-Simpsons time slot, it actually got higher ratings than The Simpsons for the season (1997-8). The success of that season, ironically, may have wound up hurting it in the long run, as Fox wound up deciding that it was ready to anchor a whole new night, resulting in the disastrous third-season move to Tuesday nights. The show managed to recover when it was moved back to Sunday nights, but the second season was its only season as a phenomenon.

In much of this season, and certainly in this season premiere (written by Paul Lieberstein), the show pulls off an interesting tonal balancing act that may have helped it reach such a large and broad audience. The first season managed to work out Hank’s character and establish him, episode by episode, as a sympathetic protagonist. And in this episode, he’s definitely sympathetic: his terrible temper from the early episodes is gone, he genuinely wants to bond with his son, and he’s a voice of reason compared to his friends. He is, unambiguously, the anti-Homer Simpson, which is what the writers spent the whole first season trying to turn him into.

But the episode is not told from Hank’s point of view, exactly. Or it is, but there’s also a second point of view that’s overlaid onto the regular storytelling – a very ironic and satirical point of view that none of the characters share.

The premise of the episode is that Bobby discovers a talent for shooting. This would be a perfect opportunity for Hank to bond with him except that Hank, due to his father’s verbal abuse as a child, can’t keep a gun steady. To prepare for a father-son fun shoot with Bobby, Hank goes to a sports therapist (Wallace Shawn) who, unusually for KotH, is only portrayed as partly a condescending phony, and actually manages to help Hank. (In the weaker episodes, the show can go too far with the portrayal of anyone outside Hank’s ken, particularly professionals, as being completely useless. The better episodes, like this one, take a more balanced approach: the visualization technique can help Hank as long as he does it his own way.) Hank manages to perform well in the shoot despite his father’s presence making him nervous, but he blows the final shot and they lose – but there’s a happy ending when it turns out that Bobby really didn’t care about winning, he just cared about being with his dad. This is one of many episodes that use a competition as sort of a MacGuffin to distract us from guessing what the real ending is going to be; characters lose the competition but it turns out winning wasn’t really important after all.

That’s the plot, and it’s very much on the side of both Hank and Bobby. Where the episode isn’t quite on their side is in its portrayal of the attitude toward guns. The writers wanted to do an episode about the gun culture which is an everyday part of life in a town like Arlen, and they didn’t want to do a traditional liberal anti-gun sitcom episode. (The first episode produced by The Simpsons for this season, though it wasn’t the first to air, was called “The Cartridge Family” and it was a more or less traditional version of that plot, with Homer getting a gun and making the whole family nervous.) Instead, every single person in the episode is completely pro-gun; the only person saying bad things about guns is Hank, and he doesn’t really believe any of it, he’s just using it as an excuse to avoid being exposed as a lousy shot.

But the comedy here is based on standing outside the Arlen community and looking in. Many of the jokes are based on the incongruity of characters talking about guns as if they’re an everyday part of life for children and adults alike. Peggy approves of Bobby shooting fake ducks (“did you shoot any bunnies?”). Hank is proud of Bobby for wanting to put a gun rack on his bike. When Hank admits he can’t shoot, Peggy has to think it over before she melodramatically declares that she still loves him. The father-son fun shoot is a violent nightmare, including a “shoot an intruder in the shadows” game, apparently considered a wholesome family event within this universe. So there are two layers here, two perspectives at once. The story of the episode is about characters who treat guns as no big deal, and within the context of the story, this is never challenged. But the humour of the episode presumes that guns are a big deal, and satirizes these characters for thinking they aren’t. By the way, the clerk in this clip is a young, pre-Office Angela Kinsey:

It’s a complicated tonal balancing act, as I said, because there is no one within the universe to make the satirical point explicit: no Lisa Simpson, in other words. No Jim Halpert. No person who shares the writers’ point of view on this. (When the show wants to satirize liberal hippies, it’s simpler, since we have Hank’s negative reactions as a guide.) We have to be immersed in the characters’ world, with no one stepping outside it or questioning it, while also being aware that this world is a satirical exaggeration and that almost everything the characters say is crazy or absurd. It’s hard to think of a lot of shows that have tried to do this. There are shows where everyone is an idiot and no one points it out, but that’s not what KotH is doing in this episode. Most of the characters aren’t idiots and aren’t portrayed as such, they just take for granted certain assumptions that the writers are making gentle fun of.

This kind of satire would eventually be downplayed in the show – not completely, but by the third season there was less implied mockery of the characters’ customs. But I think one of the things that helped KotH stand out at the time is that it was satirical and sympathetic at the same time. No one had ever seen a half-hour comedy episode about guns from the perspective of regular people who just happen to like guns. That felt authentic and intriguing, an antidote to all the shows where people acted like they lived the same lives and liked the same things as comedy writers. On the other hand, that satirical layer prevented the story (or the setting, or the good ol’ boy hero) from turning off anti-gun viewers. Pro-gun viewers would get the jokes too, of course, but they’d enjoy it as affectionate satire; anti-gun viewers would see it as more serious satire of a gun-soaked culture. The trick of mass-audience TV is to make a product that expresses a unique point of view while being acceptable to people with a wide range of views. By immersing itself in the world of guns while also standing to the side and mocking it, this King of the Hill episode manages to have something for everyone.

One random note on the season is that it introduces new designs for most of the characters. The differences aren’t huge, but Wes Archer re-designed Hank and his friends and family to simplify their look and make them look a little more polished – the first season looked much more like Beavis & Butt-Head than the second season does.

Finally, I think my favourite comedy bit in the episode may be the one with the NRA safety instructor. Stephen Root voices him as a guy who is completely unenthusiastic about the whole concept of gun safety, despite the fact that he has lost his thumb and eye due to his total disregard for safety. Root’s monotone voice (switching to excitement when he finally sees something he’s interested in, Bobby’s excellent shooting) really makes the scene. It also makes the point that the main characters are not gun nuts; compared to this guy, Bobby is a responsible gun user who cares about safe gun use. A similar scene occurs earlier in the episode when Hank and Bobby go to Dale’s gun club, full of crazed militia nuts, and decide not to join even though “lifetime membership is free.” It’s a throwaway bit, but serves to tell us that Hank does not fit that particular stereotype of a gun user – once again using Dale, who fits every possible extremist stereotype, to demonstrate what a reasonable and moderate guy Hank Hill is.


“Texas City Twister”

In revisiting episodes we’ve seen before, we’ll sometimes find that a particular episode is more or less exactly as we remembered it, but not quite as good as we remembered. That’s what happened with this episode, which used to be one of my favourites and which must have been popular at the time, because it was the one they submitted for Emmy consideration. Watching it now, I think isn’t quite up to the best episodes of the season. But it still plays, scene for scene and joke for joke, more or less as it did in 1997. It’s just that what I expect of the show now isn’t quite what this episode delivers, overall. Sometimes when a work doesn’t “hold up” it doesn’t mean it comes off completely differently, it’s just that we (I mean, I) watch it with a different emphasis, looking for different things. That’s the subjective part.

(To turn this into a full-fledged tangent: evaluating art/entertainment is obviously subjective, but it’s not completely subjective. Two people who disagree on quality can still come to the exact same conclusions about what the work is trying to do, or the effect it’s going for in a particular scene. This is why my favourite critics are not necessarily the ones I agree with about the subjective part, overall quality, but the ones who accurately describe what the work is doing – helping me to better understand why I react the way I do, whether or not I think it’s good.)

Written by Cheryl Holliday, the episode is another example of an episode that finds a story by trying to use the setting. The season premiere got its story material from the prevalence of guns in small-town Texas; this one takes on trailer parks and tornadoes. It also takes off on the interest in tornadoes and storm-chasing created by the success of the movie Twister in 1996. A lot of shows were doing tornado episodes after that, and Dale tries to be a storm chaser like the people in the movie. (Trying and failing to be some type of tough, cool person – storm chaser, bounty hunter – would increasingly become part of Dale’s identity on the show.)

Hank tries to get Luanne to move out of the house and back into her old trailer. Peggy berates Hank for being so cold and callous toward his niece. Hank tells Peggy to go to hell, and Peggy goes off to help Luanne move into the trailer. Just after Peggy and Luanne leave, a report comes on about a tornado heading for the area, and Hank has to go save them. The climax of the episode has Hank caught in a tornado that rips off his clothes, finally causing him to let go of his inhibitions enough to tell his wife he loves her, and Bobby (“and Luanne, to a lesser extent”).

There are some heavy, heavy contrivances this plot needs to take on, the biggest one being that it creates an “eye of the storm” for the tornado so Hank can have time to escape to a storm cellar. Peggy and Luanne being in the car, unreachable by Hank, is an example of a contrivance that was easier to pull off in an era before widespread cell phone use.

What prevents the episode from hanging together for me is not the contrivance, though, it’s that the working out of its theme seems a bit more on-the-nose and straightforward than I usually prefer. Everything in the episode is pointing, with no real twists or turns, to a moment when Hank opens up about his feelings and stops being such a cold fish. But Hank being a cold fish is part of what makes him interesting. More importantly, the “wife gets mad at her husband because he’s so repressed” plot is familiar enough (and was even at the time) that not even a tornado can make it seem particularly new. It makes me glad that as the season goes on – in the very next episode, in fact – KotH makes Peggy a less reasonable character. In later episodes, when she urges Hank to embrace his feelings or open up, she’s often horribly wrong. But in this one, she’s pretty much right about everything, and that’s not much fun.

There are some really good bits in the episode; all the moments that once made it one of my favourites are still effective now. The direction, by Jeff Myers, is very good: the semi-realistic portrayal of a tornado and its effects is quite different – and more spectacular, almost like an action movie – than the more cartoony disasters on The Simpsons. Bill gets one of the first of many moments when he gets a little authority and goes mad with power. And Luanne’s speech about her ambitions (to go to Hollywood, be a make-up artist, and “fix those bags under Michael Douglas’s eyes”) is another example of the show’s ability to support the characters and satirize them at the same time: the scene is making fun of such trashy ambitions, but it also allows the characters a certain amount of dignity just for the fact that she has dreams, whatever they may be.

A note on animation: one thing I can forget, watching episodes made in the digital era, is how many hoops animated shows had to jump through to add new dialogue after the completed animation came back from overseas. In this scene, Dale and Boomhauer’s movements are often jerky because the producers apparently looped some of their animation, trying to dub in some new lines for them.

Filed under: