King of the Hill Revisited: "The Company Man" and "Bobby Slam"

The Company Man (air date: December 7, 1997)

(Note: The last review in this series was here; reviews of season 1, where “The Company Man” is included on home video releases, are here.)

This episode was produced for season 1 but didn’t air until the middle of season 2, looking very strange with the recognizably different season 1 character designs. While it’s not one of the stronger episodes from the first season cycle, the reason it was delayed probably had to do with some very extensive re-takes that were required, including the creation of a whole new ending after it came back from animation overseas. The story of the episode, written by Jim Dauterive, has Hank trying to land a propane account with a Yankee client from Boston, whose conception of Texas is based entirely on media stereotypes (from Westerns and Dallas, mostly) and who is unimpressed by Hank because he doesn’t act like a cowboy. Hank’s competition for the account is M.F. Thatherton, a former co-worker who started his own propane business, and and whom Hank considers an evil traitor. Thatherton has adopted a cowboy act and wardrobe to impress potential clients, and he certainly impresses the visiting Bostonian, who calls Thatherton a “real Texan.” So to prevent Thatherton from winning, Hank has to put on a cowboy hat and ill-fitting boots, make Peggy wear a cowgirl outfit (the same outfit the waitresses wear at a restaurant that presents the theme-park version of Texas), and generally prostitute himself to get the account. This is made clear when Hank has a heart-to-heart with a woman at a strip club, who tells him that “Every night my boss makes me put on this humiliating outfit to seduce some drunk out of his money. Hey, we’re a lot alike.”

One of the flaws of the episode is common to a lot of half-hour comedy episodes of various kinds: the emotional stakes are so low that you don’t necessarily feel the hero is doing anything wrong, even though he thinks he is. The need to suck up and play a part in order to make a sale, however humiliating, is such a common part of life experience that it just doesn’t seem like enough of a come-down for a character. The obvious response to Hank in this episode (or the other TV characters who have gone through similar stories) is to stop complaining, put on the show, and forget about it when the guy goes back to Boston. The writers, apparently aware that there has to be a better reason for Hank and Peggy to be so upset about this, try to raise the stakes a little by having Bobby do a report on why his father is “the man I admire most,” and then having Hank go out with the client instead of helping Bobby with his report. But it’s not enough; “I should be home helping my kid instead of out doing my job” is too common in TV and movies, and I’ve always had a certain amount of trouble sympathizing with it. (At least it’s not a school play.) KotH usually found some way to show that there were deeper emotional stakes in whatever the characters did, so that standard comedy plots were given more depth of feeling. This is one episode where that doesn’t happen, and the story suffers for it.

Another issue with the episode is that much of it is leading up to an ending that never comes. The twist ending, which was fully animated – and the full animation stage is the one where changes are the most expensive, so you don’t usually get big cuts or changes at that point – had it turn out that the real head of the company wasn’t the faux-Texan Holloway (Billy West) but his wife (Stockard Channing), who had spent the episode bonding with Peggy over their mutual love of middlebrow culture. I suppose it seemed like too sitcommy a twist, something out of Bewitched, to have Hank land the account after he seemingly failed. But it means the bonding scenes, still in the episode, have no purpose. This is the original ending (without sound effects):

This is the final ending:

The most important thing about this episode is that it introduced some new characters and made Hank’s job a more important part of his life. Up to this point, his job had really only been a side thing, almost a throwaway joke (an excuse for him to say “propane and propane accessories” a lot). This episode is all about Hank’s work, and set up many more work-related plots to come, giving the show new places to go. Dauterive was one of the Texan writers on the show, and one of the first-time writers; he stayed with the show for all except one season, and was so closely associated with the show that a King of the Hill collection at a university was personally donated by him. (He’s now doing a fine job running Bob’s Burgers, which is as close to a successor as KotH has on Fox.) His work, as I think I’ve said before, has a distinctively Southern flavour and a preoccupation with Southern culture — as well as stereotypes of Southern culture — and he was exceptionally good at coming up with quirky new characters who could catch on and become recurring characters.

Here he helped introduce two. One was Thatherton, a recurring arch-nemesis for Hank, and the other is Buck Strickland, Hank’s boss, who is based directly on the last Democratic president Hank would have supported, Lyndon Baines Johnson. He looks like LBJ (more so here than later, when he was re-designed a bit) and his habit of holding meetings while he’s on the pot is based on what LBJ is said to have done. Strickland in this episode hasn’t really been fleshed out beyond that, but as the series went on, he would become the repository for every vice a local businessman could possibly have: drinking, womanizing, cheating his employees and customers, failing to use his own products. Even in this episode it’s suggested that working for him is a dead-end job, and that Hank doesn’t realize – or doesn’t care – that he’s stuck doing all the work for a company that will never promote him any higher than assistant manager. Hank, who grew up with an emotionally abusive and distant father, has latched onto Strickland as his substitute father, and is determined to be loyal to him (and to the propane business in general) whether or not his loyalty is requited. It’s one of the sadder aspects of Hank’s character, but it remains funny rather than depressing because Hank seems genuinely happy with his dead-end job: to him, the virtues of working hard and the glory of the propane business are a source of genuine pride. The fact that that pride probably isn’t worth it is what makes it both sad and funny; the fact that the pride is genuine makes him a sort of heroic stand-in for all the “regular” people who find emotional fulfilment in their work.

Bobby Slam (air date: December 14, 1997)

One other fictional character Peggy Hill reminds me of is Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts. They’re both egomaniacs, they’re both aggressive and pushy, and yet neither one is really shunned or hated by the male characters. And both of them inspire very strong hatred among some fans (most KotH fans know that Peggy is a controversial character, but look at the online comments on any Peanuts rerun with Lucy in it – there are a lot of comments that are just dripping with rage). Both of them can be unlikable, and the creators frequently don’t want us to like them. But they also represent the kind of aggressiveness a woman frequently needs to make herself heard, and the kind of behaviour that is considered “cute” when male characters do it. Not that they’re feminist heroines, but that’s the subtext that keeps them from being hateful (or, in some cases, may make them more hated): a woman who isn’t a girly-girl sometimes has a difficult time of it in this world.

“Bobby Slam” is one of the episodes that makes this Peggy subtext into text, and it helps provide a basis for us to like her throughout the increasingly insane behaviour she’ll be displaying through the next few seasons. Peggy was probably, all told, a stronger character in the second season than she was later on: in the third season and onwards, her egomania became so exaggerated that it became very difficult to switch gears and have her convincingly do anything nice. In the second season, her opinion of herself is already way out of proportion to her accomplishments, but sometimes she’s actually doing the right thing for the right reasons. This episode is one of them. Peggy is appointed girls’ coach at Bobby’s school when it forgets to hire one, and after the girls are kicked out of the gym to give the boys some extra room, Peggy decides to help Connie join the boys’ wrestling team. She uses Title IX of the U.S. Civil Rights Act to force the sexist coach to co-ed the team (“Dick Nixon’s biggest mistake,” the Coach laments of Title IX, in an example of how ’90s shows often expected the audience to pick up on political or cultural references without a lot of background). She’s the voice for women’s equality against Hank – though Hank is less upset about a girl being on the team than he is about the threat to Bobby actually making the team: much of the first act is taken up with Hank’s joy that Bobby has finally found a team sport he enjoys.

And in an example of how an episode can successfully raise the emotional stakes in a conventional story, there’s a flashback to Peggy’s childhood, when she was not allowed to play on sports teams despite her athletic ability. So she’s not doing this purely out of the goodness of her heart, which would be out of character for Peggy; she wants Connie to wrestle as a way of vicariously re-writing her own childhood with a happy ending. But Peggy is still something of a heroine in this episode. More than that, the story calls attention to how difficult things can be for a woman who isn’t into girly things. In one of the best and darkest scenes in the episode, Peggy gets drunk and goes to a baseball hitting range, working off her energy by slamming ball after ball while drunkenly recalling the times when people crushed her dreams of athletic stardom and steered her into more conventional pursuits: “Why don’t you edit the yearbook, Peggy? Your arms are so strong, why don’t you stir punch at the prom?” Later, she mentions to Luanne that she wanted to call Bobby “Jeffrey,” but “some man wouldn’t let me.” And the final line of the episode, one of my favourite bittersweet closing lines, is “That’s our boy. That’s our Jeffrey.” Her life is all right, but there’s still a part of her that would have liked to go in a different direction with her life: do more unconventional things, make her own decisions about things like what to call her child. That’s the happy/sad subtext of Peggy’s life, and that’s what makes her worth liking even when she goes crazy.

Most of the episode is more lighthearted than all that Peggy text and subtext makes it sound; the main plot is a standby – Bobby and Connie, two friends, must fight each other, and find a way to do it without anyone “winning” or “losing.” It also fleshes out the world of Bobby’s school a little more. One of the few kids who stuck around as a recurring character makes (I think) his first appearance here: his name was later established as Clark Peters, and he’s sort of a less cartoony version of Nelson Muntz. Pamela Segall Adlon gives him this hilariously wheezy, mumbly voice which is always funny even though he rarely has a lot to say. The sexist Coach, voiced by Toby Huss, was also brought back whenever they needed someone to be really sexist or just a caricature of a hardass middle-school coach (a running joke in this episode is that he keeps coming up with different derogatory names for his boys: “Tinkerbells” and so on). And Principal Moss comes back again to do what he will keep doing for the rest of the series: try to find some school-board-approved bureaucratic solution to any problem that arises.

For those who like to muse about how far technology has come in a short time, one gag in this episode has Bobby writing a question on an etch-a-sketch, answered by Connie (at the window) in the form of a big letter on her computer screen. This was supposed to show the difference between Bobby, who is basically still a little kid, and Connie, who is tech-savvy. But today the design of the etch-a-Sketch makes it look like Bobby has an iPad, and is much more technologically advanced than Connie with that gigantic computer monitor.

Finally, the episode – a freelance script written by Gina Fattore, who had been Greg Daniels’ assistant and moved on to writing for Dawson’s Creek – is memorable for a lot of great lines, including the Earl Warren comment toward the end of this clip; it’s become one of Hank’s most iconic lines, quoted by conservatives and liberals alike for different reasons.

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