The retrospective look at the first season of King of the Hill continues with two episodes that introduce some very important supporting characters — two of them angry guys voiced by Toby Huss.
This episode is the first in this batch that I felt was less good than I remembered. I remembered it as being one of the better first season episodes, but now I think it’s one of the weaker ones. I know why I remembered it fondly, though: the first act of the episode, when they’re setting up the story, abounds in great lines. Several of the most-remembered jokes and exchanges from the series come from this episode. Once they get to the big second-act plot twist, the quality goes down quite a bit — but what lingers in the memory a lot of times are not plots, but scenes or lines or moments.
When you think of a TV episode you haven’t seen in a long time, you might not even remember the plot, but you do remember the premise and the funniest scene. So what I remembered about “Westie Side Story” is that it’s the episode where the Souphanousinphone family moves next door to the Hills, and that it included this exchange, so well-known that it gets the ultimate compliment that can be paid to a comedy scene: people quote it, as the perfect satire of Americans’ lack of knowledge about other countries, without knowing what it’s from.
The story is based on a subplot that was cut from Mike Judge’s first draft of the pilot script; Greg Daniels suggested saving the story, and the Souphanousinphone family, for later. The episode where they show up is written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, a team that would be extremely important in the first six seasons of the show (they were showrunners for the sixth season). It has a lot of other funny lines, and it’s also the first episode to take the step — inevitable in a comedy — of making characters a little dumber or weirder for the sake of comedy. Luanne, who was not particularly dumb for the first few episodes, now gets her first Ralph Wiggum-ish lines (“At beauty academy, they teach us that people aren’t black or white or yellow or red, but their hair can be”), Bobby loses enough IQ points that he thinks a male and female dog are “playing piggyback,” Dale is getting more excitable and his conspiracy theories more outlandish.
Above all, Peggy is really coming into her own in this one. Early episodes only hinted at the idea that she might think she’s smarter than she actually is. But that’s the main basis for her characterization in this episode. In her first scene, she’s stating obviously false information as fact because she “read it somewhere”; Kahn gets on her bad side when he actually asks her where she read one of these absurd factoids. She is inordinately proud of her apple brown Betty and becomes furious at Minh, Kahn’s wife, when she proves that Peggy’s recipe is a) not a family secret and b) can be improved on. (This is a subversion of the usual sitcom plot where the men are fighting and their wives get along, something that was seen on The Simpsons when Marge Simpson and Barbara Bush bonded while their husbands were punching each other. Here, Minh and Peggy wind up even angrier at each other than Hank and Kahn.)
So the episode is going along pretty decently, and then there’s a problem: the story is close to being settled in the second act, where Hank goes to Kahn’s barbecue and appreciates his neighbor’s meat-grilling skills. Suddenly the characters are getting along, and that seems to be that. But there’s another act to fill. And so we get this story twist where, due to a series of misunderstandings, Hank thinks that the Souphanousinphones served them dog meat, killed their own dog for meat, and are now about to kill the Hills’ dog Ladybird.
This plays better on screen than it does on paper, but not that much better. You can see, in theory, what they’re going for: apart from the bad-taste comedy and jokes about eating dog (Bill, in particular, seems genuinely interested in the idea), there’s sort of an attempt to laugh at cultural stereotyping, and hint that stereotypes of Hank as a dumb redneck are as absurd as the stereotypes that fuel Hank’s panic. The problem is that by being so stupid in the third act, Hank more or less justifies everything that Kahn believes about him; for the first time in the series, he seems like an idiot. And I can’t be the only one who has limited patience for stories based on misunderstandings that could be cleared up with a simple question or two.
The ending does have a hint of the “misdirection” method that Greg Daniels likes, and which the show had already used to great effect in “Square Peg.” The real climax of the episode comes not when the silly misunderstandings are cleared up, but when Hank and Kahn simultaneously tell their children to “go to your room,” realizing that this is a cultural custom they both share. This kind of moment doesn’t work as well as it did in “Square Peg,” because it’s very on-the-nose — Kahn flat-out states the theme (“We’re not so different after all”) in case we missed it, something that is very common on comedies today but which this show was usually able to avoid.
As a character, Kahn still has a bit of a way to go: like most characters, he starts a bit more subdued than he became. He soon developed into an obnoxious braggart who loves to laugh at the rednecks and “hillbillies” (which Hank, at least, comes to understand is a cover for Kahn’s own insecurity and feeling of being out of place). Here he has a little of that, but in many scenes he’s just a regular put-upon suburban husband. On the other hand, Minh and especially their daughter Connie (both voiced by Lauren Tom) are strong characters right away. Like many of the kids on the show, Tom’s Connie voice is unusually un-hammy for a cartoon kid voice; Daniels apparently told Tom to talk like herself, just a little higher, rather than going for a cartoony little-girl sound. Connie would become a very important character in most Bobby stories in the first six seasons or so.
This is another episode with some of the show’s most famous moments, but it’s also a superior episode overall. It finally gives us a present-day appearance by Hank’s father, Cotton, who had only appeared in flashbacks and dream sequences up to then. He was worth waiting for.
As I said, Kahn and his family were from Judge’s first draft, but Cotton was added to the pilot script by Daniels, who wanted someone to make Hank seem reasonable by comparison, as well as a sympathetic explanation for why Hank is so repressed. The task of writing his showcase episode fell to Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland, “the Alans,” who wrote many of the best episodes in the first six seasons, including at least four Cotton-centric episodes. They could really write for this rage-filled, sexist, trigger-happy lunatic; one reason he’s a great recurring character is that he’s an outlet for all the outlandish lines and moments that no other character could get away with — and because he only appears a few times a season, rather than in every episode, they don’t have to worry about keeping him sympathetic. For a regular character, the writers always have to ask themselves if they’re making him or her so horrible that no one would want to hang out with this person. This isn’t a problem with Cotton: by the time this episode is over, hardly anyone in the regular cast does want to hang out with him. and it doesn’t matter because he’s not a regular.
Cotton gets one great moment after another as soon as he makes his entrance, saving Bobby’s birthday party with his flamboyant style. We get his refusal to call Peggy by her name (“Hey, Hank’s wife”), his new and much younger wife, and one of his most inexplicably quotable lines: “Come and get your Tootsie Rolls!” This clip also features a classic moment from Dooley, an exception to the rule that kids have realistic-sounding voices on this show: Mike Judge plays Dooley using the same voice he used for Butt-Head, and the character’s purpose is to say obvious or nasty things in a deep monotone voice. His one line is often the funniest thing in an episode.
Another thing that makes Cotton a great character — apart from Toby Huss’s voicing, I mean, and you can’t say enough good things about that — is that he’s a funny, timely, ambiguous take on the whole “Greatest Generation” phenomenon. Tom Brokaw didn’t actually popularize that term until 1998, but it was just a codification of something that was going on throughout the decade: an increased awareness, and celebration, of the men who fought in World War II. The phenomenon meant different things to different people: it was just about honouring these men while they were still alive, or it was about exalting an earlier generation because the Baby Boomers had let us down so badly, or it was about nostalgia for a war based on moral certainty.
But whatever way you want to look at it, Cotton is the dark side of that phenomenon: all the male characters worship him due to his Second World War service, and Hank in particular can’t bear to talk back to his war hero daddy, even as he’s insulting Peggy and acting as a bad influence on Bobby. Cotton knows this and, in this famous speech, tells an outrageously inflated story of his heroism, knowing nobody will call him on it and that it will keep Hank from criticizing him.The show doesn’t imply that there is nothing positive about Cotton’s service. (For one thing, he actually knows what country Kahn is from; fighting overseas has given him a greater knowledge of other cultures than Hank, even though he’s a bigot and Hank isn’t.) But he uses it for the purposes of emotional blackmail. Just because someone did something heroic doesn’t make him a great or even a good man, but reverence for war heroes means that it’s very hard for anyone to admit this.
As we see in the second half of that clip, what drives the plot of the episode is that Bobby begins to imitate everything Cotton does: his old-fashioned phrases, his sexism, his tendency to slap women on the behind. Though it’s been hinted at in a couple of episodes before this one, this story really sets in stone the idea that Bobby will fall under the influence of almost anyone he’s around, imitating them without really understanding what he’s doing. (This allows him to do and say some pretty bad things over the course of the series, while managing to retain our sympathy because we know he doesn’t mean it; he’s just regurgitating something he’s seen.) It’s one of Bobby’s less appealing character traits, but it’s a useful one. First, because it’s great for story material: “Bobby falls under a bad influence” was good for several stories a year. And second, because it’s one of the things that makes Hank more sympathetic in the relationship with his son. Though he tries too hard to shape Bobby’s character, he’s not really trying to force Bobby to be something he’s not: Bobby doesn’t really know who he is or what he wants, and will try to pattern himself after anyone he happens to admire at the moment. Hank doesn’t understand Bobby, but Bobby doesn’t either; and Hank is right to panic about bad influences on his kid, because the boy is so easily influenced.
Like “Westie Side Story,” this episode has a fairly on-the-nose ending, and it doesn’t even try to mislead us about what the ending will be: the whole story is building up to the point where Hank finally tells his father off, sides with his wife against her, and tells Bobby to listen to his mother and not to Cotton. It still works pretty well, though. A simple story with a simple ending is sometimes more satisfying than one that goes through a lot of plot hoops to reach a similar conclusion. It’s the first time we’ve seen Hank openly stand up for someone, so it goes a long way toward re-establishing him as a strong, likable character after the previous episode seemed to make us doubt that. And Cotton’s response to Hank’s speech is a classic example of a sitcom bait-and-switch moment, an apparently sad or heartfelt bit that immediately turns out to be the exact opposite.
In terms of where the characters are: Cotton, as I said, is pretty much hatched fully-formed. Bill’s stupidity, and his depression over his divorce, are getting ratcheted up a little more. The female characters display character traits that they would mostly leave behind later, but which I kind of wish they’d kept. Following up on a line from the pilot, a plot point in this episode is that Luanne is some kind of genius at repairing cars, and she gets one of her few assertive moments in the series when she yells at Cotton for touching her. And Peggy, though she continues to display her egomaniac side (as well as her need to show off every time she says a Spanish word, any Spanish word), still has a bit of the feisty, proud, self-assured Texas woman in her. She may not be as smart as she thinks she is but, as this speech shows, she has her share of justifiable, even likable pride. Peggy disdains the term “feminist” and assumes a woman’s traditional role, but insists that taking this role is her choice as an equal partner with her husband, not something she’s forced into (which is the way Cotton sees it). It’s another one of the centrist, split-the-difference moments that this show is known for; Peggy and Hank’s relationship is smack in the middle between traditionalism and modernity.