King of the Hill Revisited: "The Arrowhead" and "Hilloween"

Season 2, Episode 3: “The Arrowhead”
Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger

There’s a term, “filler episode,” that is sometimes used for episodes that don’t move the overall story momentum forward. I don’t care for the term, since it implies that an episode has to advance a story arc or it isn’t good. But I do think many shows have episodes that are… not exactly filler episodes, but “standard” episodes. These are episodes that aren’t bad, but offer the show’s usual elements without a lot that makes them stand out from all the other episodes. A good album of music will have some great songs, maybe a weak song or two, and then a couple of songs that are just ordinary examples of good craftsmanship. The same applies to a good season of television.

“The Arrowhead” is a standard episode of King of the Hill‘s second season. Not a bad episode, but familiar. The story begins with Hank finding an arrowhead buried on his lawn, and taking it to a college to find out what he can get for it. The professor he meets, voiced by Maurice LaMarche imitating Alan Alda (which makes me wonder if they tried to get Alda and couldn’t; it certainly seems like a part he would be considered for) is a condescending, smarmy creep who demonstrates his contempt for Hank and all lower-class rubes. The professor, wanting to do an archeological dig on Hank’s lawn, plays on Peggy’s obvious desire to be considered an intellectual, convincing her to let him and his students dig there. Hank has to deal with the people invading his beloved lawn, and also with the fear that Peggy might be falling for the Professor.

So it’s a) Hank vs. a liberal elitist intellectual with a heavy Eastern accent, who hates Hank, Peggy and everything they stand for, and b) Peggy’s mistaken belief in her own intellectual prowess leads her to make some very stupid decisions. (It’s never really implied that she’s considering cheating on Hank, and in any case, the man isn’t interested in her. But the situation does fulfil her delusions about herself, particularly her delusion that she is an extremely smart person who has happily settled for being a wife, mother, and substitute teacher. The subtext with Peggy is always that she’s made up this fantasy about herself because she can’t accept her own limitations. The most brutal moment in the episode is when the Professor actually exposes her lack of knowledge in front of all his students. Hank, who also knows that Peggy isn’t all that smart, would never do that.) In the end, Peggy realizes that Hank is a better man than the snooty intellectual, who gets his comeuppance when the Hills take turns repeatedly pushing him into a ditch. The ending offers the satisfaction of seeing the common-sense good ol’ boy finally get to use his point of superiority over the intellectual snob – physical strength.

The strength of the episode, as you can see from that description, is that it focuses more on Hank’s marriage and Peggy’s self-image than it does on letting Hank go up against the evil forces of professors and lawyers. Still, the latter is where a lot of the episode’s humour comes from, and even in 1997 those types of jokes felt a bit over-done. (I actually have a nebulous theory that if a joke feels over-done now, 80% of the time it already felt over-done at the time. Unless they’re specifically tied to current events or things that no longer exist, truly fresh jokes usually stay fresh.) And the LaMarche character feels a bit over-done too. He’s an out-and-out irredeemable villain, who doesn’t even have the one saving grace of the strawman “twig-boy” in the pilot, who at least thought he was saving a kid from an abusive family. LaMarche’s character is smug, evil and wants only the worst for anyone who is not university-educated, and pure evil just isn’t very funny, meaning that the guest character – usually a major source of comedy – becomes one of the less funny parts of the show. And because we want unambigously for this guy to get his ass kicked by Hank, there can’t be much in the way of plot twists along the way. That may be one of the distinguishing features of a “standard” episode: it states the show’s regular themes without putting much of a spin on them.

The best parts of the episode, apart from the more serious parts that examine Peggy’s intellectual pretensions, are the early bits involving the discovery of the arrowhead and another artifact Hank finds, and Hank trying to figure out what to do with them. Hank’s cluelessness about Native American culture is played for laughs in a way that has a certain gentle satirical bite; my favourite bit in the show has him convinced that one of the artifacts was used to stab people, even as he demonstrates (unconsciously) that it was used as a peaceful tool by peaceful tribes.

As often in the series, particularly early on, Hank commits an “original sin” in this part of the episode that brings all the chaos down upon him: he displays just a little bit of greed and cultural insensitivity, and pays for it by spending the next two acts watching a smug egghead ruin his lawn. This is one of the things that makes it a “standard” show rather than an out-and-out weak show – it’s not a surprising story, but it does have things in place to keep it from just turning into a story of Hank’s passive suffering. Seeing Hank get treated badly for no reason isn’t fun; it is fun to seem him get his land violated after he violated the artifacts of the people who used to own the land before him.

This episode also introduces the new voice of John Redcorn, Jonathan Joss, who took over the role after Victor Aaron was killed in a car crash. (Joss turned up in live action on Parks & Recreation this past season, as a somewhat similar character.) The running gag of Redcorn sleeping with Dale’s wife provides another one of the best scenes, both for Hank’s awkwardness in asking to see Redcorn, and Redcorn’s classic “hypocritical humour” turn after he starts to lecture Hank about taking from other people. Also, note Hank rubbing the back of his neck when he’s feeling awkward. That’s his signature gesture, so much so that the animators at some point had to be ordered not to use it in every scene.

Season 2, Episode 4: “Hilloween”
Written by David Zuckerman

Here we have a second straight episode with an out-and-out villain who is not really funny. This would not become a trend on the show, but a lot about this episode is different from a normal “King of the Hill” – and most of it works.

David Zuckerman’s contributions this season, before he left to develop Family Guy, are quite dark and sometimes have more of a distinct political edge than usual for the show; instead of just satirizing social trends or bureaucrats, this episode expands its scope to demonstrate how one person can basically dictate to an entire town using the machinery of religion, politics and law. The guest villain is Junie Harper (voiced by Sally Field), a religious fundamentalist just saved from strawman territory by the fact that she is somewhat realistic (chillingly so) for a lot of the first two acts. After she convinces the extremely suggestible Luanne that Halloween is a satanic holiday, Luanne convinces the equally suggestible Bobby that Hank’s plan for a “haunted house” is going to cost them all their souls.

Junie’s plot to essentially ban Halloween in Arlen is a very bipartisan bit of political satire, since she uses weapons that are both “liberal” and “conservative.” To get the school to drop Halloween events, she proclaims that Halloween is a religious holiday and that she’s going to take the school to court over separation of church and state. That’s a shot at frivolous lawsuits, of a type that was very popular in the ’90s (jokes about the “spilled coffee” case on Seinfeld may actually have led directly to caps on damages), and also a joke about how someone like Junie will use any mechanism, even something she doesn’t believe in, to get her way in the short term. There are also jokes about the concept of hate crimes (Dale insists that “the attack on my house is a hate crime” because “somebody hates me”).

On the other side, Junie convinces the town to enact a curfew that will basically prevent anyone from trick or treating, an exaggerated but not entirely unrealistic portrayal of how draconian regulations can get passed even when the majority doesn’t agree with them. This isn’t about, as it would be in The Simpsons, the whole town going nuts and wanting to pass an unreasonable law. This is a smaller-scale and more down-to-earth idea, based on the types of regulations that sometimes do get passed: if some people want them enough to make a lot of noise, and the majority is too apathetic to get involved, then something like this might happen.

Hank, of course, becomes the one who rallies the silent majority against Junie Harper, after she Pushes Him Too Far (when he finds out his son is over at her “Hallelujah House,” a fundamentalist alternative to his “Hell House,” it becomes Personal, and he violates the curfew to march over and collect Bobby). In developing Hank as a conservative church-going type of guy, this episode is useful in establishing Hank – as always – smack in the Sensible Centre, a political concept that was more popular and realistic in the ’90s than it is now. Just as Dale in the first season made Hank look like a reasonable guy by comparison, the presence of Junie Harper establishes that Hank is not a fundamentalist, not a killjoy. It makes a socio-political point but also makes Hank the sort of hero whom the broadest possible audience (conservative to liberal, religious to irreligious) can admire, which is something the show was often out to do in its first couple of seasons.

This is also the second episode in a row where Hank’s troubles indirectly come from his own actions: not just the backfiring of his over-enthusiastic attempt to get Bobby into the prankish side of Halloween (one of many attempts to get Bobby to live the same childhood Hank did), but his tendency to snap at and insult Luanne, which leads her into the clutches of Junie, the only person who will tell her she’s not dumb. Again, it just seems to be more amusing to watch Hank suffer undeserved indignities that are in some way related to things he did earlier.

There’s one device that is used in “Hilloween” that is out of place for the show as it developed. The flashback to Hank’s childhood Halloweens is more or less an “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” parody, particularly the Guaraldi-style music. Pop culture references and parodies would become extremely rare in the show, and flashback parodies would become almost nonexistent. On the other hand, this episode introduces several bits that would become a permanent part of the series. Dale’s inexplicable fondness for “Sanford and Son” would become a running gag for several years. Luanne is established as the resident Bible-study attendee with evangelical leanings (as opposed to Hank’s old-school Methodism), something that would continue and even work its way into a couple of full-length episodes.

And a new character, Principal Moss (Dennis Burkley) becomes a semi-regular. He’s a good example of a King of the Hill recurring character because unlike the wild eccentrics who turn up on The Simpsons, Moss is a very realistic character whose main eccentricity is his lack of eccentricity. He’s basically portrayed as the “sellout” version of Hank, someone who is a lot like Hank but decided to give up and become a faceless school bureaucrat, accepting all government regulations and lawsuit threats in return for being left alone. The main joke any time the character appears is that he doesn’t give a damn about any of the things – important or unimportant – that consume Hank’s life. In a way, he’s a reminder of why it’s good that Hank takes things like propane and lawn care so seriously; it may be absurd, but if yo stop caring about things like that, you end up as a boring, depressing man.

This episode and “Leanne’s Saga,” the other Zuckerman-scripted episode of the season, portray Peggy in a much better light than most episodes – I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or if that’s specifically how Zuckerman saw the character, but both episodes give us a Peggy who is strong, tough-talking and gets a big, cool speech near the end. Here it’s telling off her niece about her bad behaviour in the episode and threatening to kick her out if she ever again comes between Hank and Bobby.

That speech is included in the clip, right after the scene at the “Hallelujah House,” which is an example of the show going bigger and broader in its satire than it normally would – but though it’s big and broad, a lot of it is based on real stuff, just heightened and mashed together in one place. It’s a pretty creepy scene, tougher and more focused on the dark side of small-town Texas life than the show would ever be again, though hints of it pop up occasionally in the background of later episodes (like a school board election won by a woman who wants to ban “offensive encyclopedias”).