King of the Hill Revisited: "The Order of the Straight Arrow" and "Hank's Got the Willies"

Continuing my first attempt at a series retrospective (the first post, and an explanation of what I’m trying to do, is here), with the third and fourth episodes of King of the Hill (in broadcast order).

“The Order of the Straight Arrow”

Most shows have some early episodes that I think of as “template” episodes — stories that provide the thematic or structural inspiration for many episodes to come. It certainly feels to me like this episode, written by Cheryl Holliday, is one that the show would keep returning to for inspiration. (There was even another Order of the Straight Arrow episode in the final season, though it seemed like none of the characters really remembered what happened in this episode.) It’s the first story that takes the characters on the road, getting them out of the regular suburban location. More importantly, it’s the first episode that really focuses on Hank’s attempt to make a “man” out of his son, and the first that forces him to accept that Bobby is not going to be what he expected. He’ll keep forgetting this, and then accepting it again, for years to come.

The story of a camping trip, or of a father trying to toughen up his son, is nothing new in situtation comedy. What gives this story its own style is the show’s distinctive regional flavour and sense of ritual: not the fake Native American rituals that the guys make up to fool the kids, but the importance they attach to making sure the kids know they’re being fooled. The idea of the Snipe Hunt, as shown in the opening scene, is that once kids discover they’re hunting for nothing, they learn that their parents can’t be trusted and that the only people they can depend on are the people in their immediate group. That first scene implies that this is how the four guys started drinking together in the first place, as their own ritual of bonding against the adults.

One of the things that made King of the Hill an instant success — and it really was a big hit out of the gate, in spite of the slow pace and sometimes crude look — was that it presented rituals and ideas viewers weren’t used to seeing on The Simpsons, or any half-hour comedy for that matter. We were all used to seeing guys try to make their sons over in their own image; but seeing a father who actively wanted to see his son distrust him, and considered that a sign of manhood, was a novelty in a TV world where every other father was trying to bond with his son.

Of course, Hank’s attempt to avoid father-son bonding backfires; that’s one thing we were right to expect going in. This episode establishes Bobby as a genuinely unusual child in a way that the first two episodes didn’t. The pilot and episode two had him as kind of a blank slate, a chubby, lazy, low-key kid who wasn’t all that different in personality from his friend Joseph. This story puts him among a group of kids — Joseph, an unnamed kid who may originally have been intended as Boomhauer’s son, and Randy, a nerdy Martin Prince kind of kid whose voice was provided by writer Cheryl Holliday. (He disappeared from the show after she left.) And it makes him stand out as the only kid who refuses to catch on to the fact that the Snipe Hunt is a fraud. He falls in love with the phony rituals, an the main plot point of the episode is that he accidentally whops an endangered bird thinking it’s a Snipe.

Most of what Bobby does in the episode has to do with his desire to get closer to Hank, to, in his words, “be on the same team” with him. He refuses to let the trip turn him against his father the way it’s supposed to, and when he snaps at his friend for pointing out the truth, it becomes clear that he wanted to take the rituals seriously because he saw them as a way of finding out more about his dad. Pamela Adlon’s voicing of the character, which was flatter and softer in the first two shows, becomes more energetic here as he gets angry for the first time in the series. (Her voicing would really set the tone for the whole show in terms of the way kids were portrayed. On The Simpsons and The Critic they usually had higher, more stylized voices that weren’t meant to be particularly suggestive of what real kids sound like. Adlon’s voice for Bobby isn’t exactly realistic either, but it’s certainly naturalistic compared to boys on other prime-time cartoons. Brittany Murphy’s Joseph follows Adlon’s lead by being fairly subdued, and later when Lauren Tom shows up as Connie, she’ll have the most laid-back little girl voice on TV.) Adlon’s performance in this episode is one of the best vocal performances the show had had so far, and the extra energy she brought to the character would undoubtedly inform the way the writers wrote him.

The scenario is a bit like the pilot, where Bobby also wanted to get his father’s attention; but in the pilot he was much less openly worshipful of his dad than he is here. Because he adores his dad while Hank is still scared of his, that it becomes almost a clash of philosophies, between the idea that parents and children are better off being open with each other and Hank’s dislike and suspicion of openness. The episode seems to come down pretty strongly on Bobby’s side, at least this time around. It even provides a contrived ending that not only prevents his father from having to go to jail, but allows Bobby to go on believing that all Hank’s fake rituals were real. Hank gets to be the voice of reason in the episode compared to the gang of environmentalists who invade the park (putting Hank anywhere near hippies was a go-to story for much of the show’s run), but it hasn’t really established the idea that he best knows how to raise his son. In fact, for at least the first four seasons and maybe more, episodes where Hank doesn’t really know what’s right for his son would pop up as often as episodes where he bails Bobby out, and it lent a sense of unpredictability to the show because you didn’t know if Bobby or Hank would “win” this week.

This is also the first episode to have a full-fledged separate subplot, about Peggy driving all the way to a special store in Lubbock, Texas to get shoes for her huge feet. Her foot size — and the fact that she’s ashamed enough of it to conceal what size shoes she wears — is one of several important soon-to-be-running jokes introduced this time. Others include: John Redcorn’s hair flowing in the wind every time he talks “mystically”; Dale’s genuinely friendly feelings for the man who, unbenownst to him, is sleeping with his wife; and Peggy’s habit of referring to herself in the third person (“Peggy Hill knows half a swear word when she hears one”). It also has the first gag establishing that people who don’t know Boomhauer can’t actually understand what he’s saying; he tells the park ranger about the incident with the whooping crane, but the ranger has no idea what he’s saying. And the above clip also gives us Dale the sniveling coward who is willing to sell his friends out at the earliest opportunity; that one would be good for a lot of gags whenever an episode got slow.

Probably most importantly, Bill finally gets something resembling a personality, at least in the early scenes of the show. We learn that he’s divorced, that he’s depressed, and that he has a habit of acting like an overgrown child even by the usual standards of fat, bald cartoon guys. I’ve been told that the writers considered Bill their “Homer Heat Shield,” the character who could be an outlet for all the fat-bald-idiot jokes they had learned to write on The Simpsons and other shows; throwing those jokes to Bill meant they had less of a temptation to turn Hank into Homer.

“Hank’s Got the Willies”

Early in a show’s run, there’s often an episode that is just completely out of whack with the way the show eventually developed. The writers are still throwing ideas around, basing the style of each episode on general abstract ideas rather than seeing how these things have worked out in practice, and there are bound to be some episodes more influenced by other shows than this one (since this one doesn’t fully exist yet). It happens even more often on animated shows, because when the writers start making the first 13 episodes, even the pilot may not be finished yet — and as for the other 12 episodes, they won’t see completed animation on them until most of the season is already written. So with The Simpsons, the first season included that episode where Homer is the reasonable, sensible guy worried that his awful family is going to embarrass him. By the time they realized this was not where they wanted to go with Homer, it was too late to change that episode.

“Hank’s Got the Willies” is not as out of character for the show as that Simpsons episode was; some of the character ideas it introduced would become a full-fledged part of the series. But it’s still “wrong” for King of the Hill as we came to know it, not in terms of the way the characters act, but the style of humour. It is the most Simpsons-y episode the show ever did, with a number of jokes that cross the line into surrealism, lots of topical and pop-culture awareness. If the last few episodes were more observational in their humour, this is more willing to sacrifice reality for the sake of a joke, like Luanne getting tangled up in a “braiding machine.” Near the end, there’s a joke where we think Willie Nelson is glowing with angel dust or something after saving the day, only to discover that it’s just some glitter spray Luanne has been putting on his hair. That sort of joke was incredibly common on The Simpsons (what David Mirkin calls the “screw the audience” type of joke) but would almost never be done on KotH again, as it put an almost complete ban on anything that was too self-aware.

And the climax of the episode is a very contrived excuse for the characters to hang out with celebrities, either voicing themselves or just caricatured for our pleasure in spotting them. Willie Nelson is the guest star, Dennis Hopper turns up as himself, Hank shoves Lyle Lovett out of the way (calling him “Rooster boy”), a caricature of Ann Richards is seen playing tether-ball, and Boomhauer gets to chat it up with Bob Dylan, though they weren’t able to get the real Dylan to do the voice.

Everything about the episode is just a little closer to the style of The Simpsons in its seventh and eighth seasons (the eighth was airing at the time KotH premiered). On the bright side, this kicks the show up a notch in terms of coming up with hard jokes, satisfying viewers who might have been irritated at how few jokes there were in “The Order of the Straight Arrow,” an episode that sometimes feels more thematically solid than laugh-out-loud funny. The pace is faster than it’s been, and the dialogue is sharper. Peggy really gets a full-fledged personality in this episode, with a combination of pride in her strength and intelligence and a sense that that pride has been inflated to compensate for her insecurity (in this case, the feeling that her husband will show more open affection for his guitar than for her). Her ability as an athlete is established, and she even gets what was to become her catchphrase: “Ho yeah!”

Bobby also moves forward by leaps and bounds in this episode, because he gets the obsession with comedy, and being funny, that would define him for the first six or so years. The earlier episodes suggested that he was just generally immersed in pop culture, but this one really focuses him in on an admiration of comedians, doing funny voices (imitating his father) and just generally being a class-clown type of kid. The writer of this episode, Johnny Hardwick (who also got to voice the part of Dale), was a stand-up comedian who worked his comedy background into some of the material he wrote for Bobby. It seems like Bobby is being fleshed out as an even more awkward version of comedy writers as kids, just as Lisa Simpson was a favourite of Simpsons writers because she reminded them of themselves. Though there’s no suggestion that Bobby has any particular talent or intelligence, this does make him more interesting and sympathetic than he was in the pilot: his attitude is now that of a kid in suburban Texas who doesn’t quite fit into that world. That’s something a Texan like Hardwick could presumably identify with, but it’s also pretty universal.

So the episode is strong on character development and, at least sometimes, on jokes. Where it’s weak is on story, because the story is so clearly straining to fit the guest star. They even have to throw in a dialogue exchange early on to address how strange it is that a man like Hank Hill would have a pot-smokin’ leftie like Willie Nelson as his hero. The idea of Hank wanting to find a “hero” for Bobby is also a bit awkward and contrived, clearly set up to lead to a moment where it’s pointed out that he himself is Bobby’s hero. If the second episode managed to mislead the audience about what the emotional climax would be, this one kind of telegraphs it. (Also, because of the way the episodes were scheduled, it aired the week after “Order of the Straight Arrow,” where we also learn that Hank is Bobby’s hero, but in a much subtler way.) Same goes for Peggy realizing that Hank really does love her more than his guitar. So it’s an episode that, like early episodes often are, is stronger moment-by-moment than as a whole.

I will say that the celebrity appearances by Nelson and Hopper, while not all that good, give me a certain feeling of late ’90s nostalgia. Not just because Hopper is gone now, but because it just seems so redolent of the way as-themselves celebrity guest spots were done at this time. Now a celebrity who plays himself is typically expected to portray himself much more negatively (with a wink to the audience that lets us know they’re not really like that). In the ’90s this kind of spot was smack in-between the old kind of positive, star-fluffing appearance and the current tear-the-star-down style. Like most guests on The Simpsons at the same time, Nelson is the butt of some jokes but mostly comes off as a cool guy that the other characters respect. Come to think of it, that’s the way he came off when he appeared as himself on The Simpsons just a few years later.

The next post, hopefully sometime next week, will look at “Luanne’s Saga” and “Hank’s Unmentionable Problem” (I’m going in broadcast order rather than production order, which may be a bit confusing because the DVD of first season — and only the first season — uses the order of production).

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.