Much of King of the Hill‘s broadcast history has been built around it not getting respect. Even in its early years, when it was a top-40 show with the plum post-Simpsons timeslot, it suffered unfavorable comparisons to both its unassailably brilliant lead-in and creator Mike Judge’s previous, more controversial cartoon Beavis and Butthead. I recall friends in college harboring disdain for Hill, lumping it with cornball redneck humor like that of Jeff Foxworthy.
The also-ran status continues today. The show has aired in early-Sunday slots, often pre-empted, for the past six or seven years. The last two of these years have seen abbreviated seasons of just 14 or 15 episodes apiece. Fox has been loyal to the show (as it typically is towards elderly series that once had a few years of ratings success), recently renewing it for an 11th season, but viewers might be forgiven the reaction of “Is that still on??”
King of the Hill: The Complete Sixth Season, like the last few Hill DVD sets, fits in perfectly with this serial underappreciation: an entire season is crammed onto three double-sided discs (while Simpsons and others get single-sided discs with actual artwork), with no bonus materials in sight. The first few seasons of Hill had deleted scenes and commentary tracks; the sole special feature of this collection is that it happens to collect some of the show’s finest episodes.
This includes the very first episode on the collection, “Bobby Goes Nuts”, in which young Bobby Hill (Pamela Adlon) mistakenly takes a women’s self-defense class and starts fending off bullies by kicking them in the testicles (and, hilariously, screeching “THAT’S MY PURSE! I DON’T KNOW YOU!”). Sturdy Texan Hank (Mike Judge) is flummoxed about his son’s dirty fighting, and it takes the unconventional fighting style of Peggy (Kathy Najimy) to cure Bobby of his groin-kicking.
This sounds like pure sitcommery, but King of the Hill‘s genius is treating sitcom plot hooks with believable underplaying. Cartoons are often associated with exaggeration and caricature, but Mike Judge’s minimalist style, honed during his Beavis years, actually contributes to Hill‘s sense of calm. In a “Fun with Jane and Jane” subplot, Hank and his drinking buddies must track down some errant emus; though this would be nearly impossible to portray on a live-action sitcom, the animators never use the wackiness as an excuse to go over the top. The men (and the emus) move like the real thing, but with the iconic simplicity of good cartoons. This intelligent understatement may also be key in the show’s balanced portrayal of red-state values. To paraphrase Heather Graham in Bowfinger: The Hills may be from Texas, but they’re not from Texas.
Apart from the refreshingly plain approach to outlandishness, the show’s best material often deals with the relationship between stolid, well-meaning Hank and aspiring prop comic Bobby. In “Torch Song Hillogy”, Hank’s feelings that Bobby should earn his own achievement trophies (“Now, most Little League teams need a husky fellow to play catcher… and you like to wear masks”) become mixed when he is chosen over his son to carry the Olypmic torch through town. But the episode takes a surprisingly heady turn when Bobby helps Hank confront his psychological fear of acting happy. (Hank feels shame when he sees an old film of himself showboating in a football game; ever impressed by showmanship, Bobby is delighted.)
Hank and Bobby’s touching bonding sometimes squeezes out wife Peggy, whose character is more problematic. In the show’s earlier years, Peggy was poised between old-fashioned supportive wife and modern woman; in other words, she was a fair match for Hank’s compassionate conservatism.
By season six, Peggy’s scales have tipped towards buffoonery; she essentially plays the bumbling, dim husband role, mistaking herself for a genius (“The Substitute Spanish Prisoner”), getting drawn into a cult with her niece (“Fun with Jane and Jane”), and failing to spice up her marriage after Hank has a sexy dream about another woman (“Sug Night”). This role reversal is potentially clever, especially when Peggy’s decency, like Hank’s, is allowed to shine through. There is a sweetness to her arrogance in “Sug Night” when she despairs over her husband talking to a couple of women “twenty years younger and just as pretty” as she.
It’s a shame we can’t hear the thoughts of Judge and his talented writing staff on these matters in commentary tracks or making-of documentaries. Just as the show found a consistent but barely promoted spot on Fox’s schedule, these DVD releases have become frequent but bare-bones affairs, absent the fanfare that accompanies a new set of The Simpsons or even Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Though the uninitiated may see down-home hick humor, King of the Hill is one of the few recent sitcoms actually worth talking about.