King of the Hill

Barely 15 years ago, animated TV series were conceived for and mostly watched by young viewers. (At least, this was the theory — clearly, Looney Tunes appealed to all ages.) Then came The Simpsons.

Numerous series since The Simpson (which remains popular to this day), follow its model, inviting kids to watch along with their parents, as is the case with Fox’s Futurama. Other shows, like Comedy Central’s South Park or Fox’s King of the Hill, overtly target adult viewers, using combinations of broad gags and subtle humor to make political points or social observations.

While King of the Hill, in particular, does not include especially “adult” references to sexuality, language or violence, it does feature more mature storylines and complex character arcs, including father-son conflicts (handled in less broadly than Homer and Bart’s), marital problems, racism, and assorted dilemmas facing today’s U.S. working class.

The show revolves around Hank Hill (voiced by co-creator Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead fame), a premier propane salesman living and working in Arlen, Texas. He lives in a cookie cutter suburban house with his wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy), their son Bobby (Pamela Segall), and niece Luanne (Brittany Murphy). During his off-hours, Hank hangs out with his neighbors: divorced military barber Bill (Stephen Root), conspiracy enthusiast Dale Gribble (Johnny Hardwick), and the unintelligible Boomhauer (Mike Judge). A proud Texan, Hank works hard and enjoys beer, carpentry, and football (Tom Landry is something of a god to the citizens of Arlen). He is also a faithful husband, concerned father, and reliable friend.

As good as he tries to be, Hank comes into repeated conflict with the rapidly changing world around him. His efforts to fight back, however, tend to lead to shifts in his own thinking, so that he ends up enlightened or even redeemed, even if by accident. For example, Hank frequently has trouble keeping up with Bobby. He wants his son to play football in school, and one day, follow in his footsteps and sell propane. But Bobby isn’t quite so “typical.” Somewhat overweight and clumsy at sports, he wants more than anything to become a professional comedian or magician. Given their divergent expectations, Hank tends to be disappointed in his son, while Bobby sometimes wonders if his father loves him. In one episode, Bobby asks, “Why do you hate everything you don’t understand?” Hank replies, “I don’t hate you, Bobby.”

Hank may not hate Bobby, but he certainly doesn’t understand him. This stems from Bobby’s embodiment, sometimes visibly, of Hank’s own fears. For example, Hank’s homophobia is showcased when he discovers a kitchen apron hidden under Bobby’s bed. For Hank, the preferred explanation is obvious: “There’d better be a naked cheerleader under your bed.” As it turns out, Bobby is taking a class in “home economics,” where he’s learning to cook and sew. Hank, in turn, must learn to appreciate Bobby’s new talents.

Still, he has difficulty getting it right: when he starts comparing Bobby’s exotic dishes to his wife’s traditional cooking, Peggy starts to feel threatened. Hank and Bobby bond to such a degree that they start sleeping in the same bed, while Peggy sleeps in Bobby’s room. By episode’s end, Hank takes her out for a romantic evening, reaffirming his heterosexuality and dominance in the household. Yet he can also begin to accept Bobby’s “girly” tendencies. (Actually, this issue comes up repeatedly in the series, in regard to Bobby’s brief tenure as a large-size boys’ clothing model, or his struggles as a wrestler for the school team.) Although Hank does not understand Bobby, he tries sincerely to respect his differences.

More cross-generational conflicts arise in the form of Hank’s father, Cotton (Toby Huss). Compared to Cotton, who believes, quite literally, that women should serve men, Hank looks almost liberal. A World War II veteran, Cotton is disappointed that his son never joined the armed services; indeed, he thinks Hank’s career choice makes him effeminate. That both Hank and Cotton are disappointed in their sons reveals that traditions can be simultaneously relative (changing from generation to generation) and rigid (say, the desire for “masculine” achievements).

During one visit to Arlen, Cotton is determined to teach Bobby how to be a “real” man. Trying to please his grandfather, Bobby spanks his mother and initiates a sexual riot at school. A very concerned Hank lectures Bobby as to why Cotton’s ideas are wrong, and how women are not strictly bound to work at home. At the same time, Hank cannot explain why Peggy appears to conform, at least in part, to traditional expectations.

Peggy is, in her way, the show’s most complicated and elusive character. A part time substitute teacher, she’s sometimes an accommodating housewife, at other times a voice of reason and women’s equality, and at still others, revealing her own ignorance regarding cultural difference and integrity.

And Peggy is not the only character to offer a humorous gloss on gender politics and female stereotypes. Luanne, for example, appears to be a standard “dumb blonde,” slightly slow on the uptake and emotionally needy, owing to the fact that her mother has abandoned her. When her mother reappears at one point, moving in with the dim bulb Bill, Luanne must, once again, forgive her. Working toward becoming a hairdresser while maintaining a part time job, Luanne juggles various stereotypes, revealing in the process her capacity for generosity, simplicity, and insight.

Another prominent female character is Dale’s wife Nancy (Ashley Gardner). She is the only woman on the series with a professional career, as a reporter at a local TV station. She’s also been involved in a long term affair with her masseuse, John Redcorn (Jonathan Joss), a stereotypically strong, philosophically inclined, and nature-loving Native American. Nancy’s son looks just like John Redcorn, a resemblance everyone notices, save for Dale. Far from being tragic, the situation highlights Dale’s obliviousness as well as his loyalty and love for the son he believes to be his own. At the same time, Dale, a bug exterminator by trade, is comically paranoid, deeply and loudly concerned about government conspiracies and alien abductions. Always looking to find out who really killed Kennedy, he cannot see what’s going on inside his own home.

The show’s most vivid and intricate race-based confrontations typically occur between Hank and his next-door neighbor, Kahn (Toby Huss). A well-paid engineer working at a local hi-tech company, the Laotian Kahn considers Hank and his family “hillbillies.” He repeatedly uses his class status to humiliate Hank, even as Bobby and Kahn’s daughter, Kahnie (Lauren Tom), develop something approximating an intimate relationship, for 12-year-olds. Hank and Peggy, for their part, can’t seem to stop themselves from making racist comments. That their bigotry stems from ignorance rather than actual malice or explicit fear doesn’t necessarily make them okay; it does make them open to some sort of scrutiny. The joke — at Hank or Peggy’s expense — reveals their lack of knowledge, and challenges viewers to be responsible for context.

Over seven years on the air, Hank Hill has managed to remain “King” among his family and friends, even when, at times, he is plainly wrong, and his traditional values and conventional thinking prove inadequate to current situations. As Dale once wrote — in a letter to nominate Hank to carry the Olympic torch through Arlen — “America not only is the land of opportunity, but also the land of redemption.”