Over the Hill?
Why Fox shouldn't cancel King of the Hill.


Republican strategists have taken to examining “Sam’s Club Voters” like an anthropology project. Instead, they might try to gain a few insights from King of the Hill, the Fox animated series by Mike Judge (Office Space) and Greg Daniels (The Simpsons, The Office). They wouldn’t have to be home when the show airs, or even record Hill on their TiVos: Many episodes, and clips thereof, are viewable on the Internet through Hulu and Adult Swim.

For 13 stellar seasons, Hank Hill has exemplified the working stiff’s discomfort with new-age parenting, politically correct education, and liberal social values. The show is not only one of the greatest sitcoms ever — it made Time magazine’s 100 Greatest TV Shows list — but also the most meaningfully conservative television show of its generation.

Unfortunately, the Hank Hill era may be about to end: Fox has canceled the show, and is now running the last episodes.

People who don’t watch King of the Hill tend to assume it’s another mockery of Middle America, unique only in that it pokes fun at suburban Texas rednecks instead of rubes in some other region. But that’s not the case, and it’s not unusual for criticisms of Judge to come from misconceptions: When fundamentalist preachers railed against the corrosive nature of MTV on the younger generation, they often held up Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head as a primary exhibit, not realizing that the crudely produced cartoon was a withering critique of both its network and teenagers who watched it.

Judge does occasionally poke fun at straight-arrow, old-fashioned propane salesman Hank Hill — whose voice first appeared as that of Mr. Anderson, the disapproving old man in Beavis and Butt-Head — but gently. Hank loves his wife, Peggy, a substitute school teacher bursting with self-esteem; his chubby, less-than-macho son, Bobby; his hound dog, Ladybird; his deeply flawed neighbors (who are buddies from high school); legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry; and Ronald Reagan. That Hank expresses his affection out loud only for the last two is something the show continuously mines for laughs. “If you weren’t my son, I’d hug you,” Hank says to Bobby in a particularly proud moment.

The show’s main targets, however, have always been the liberals and Left Coast types who hold people like Hank in contempt. In a typically sharp episode, “Lucky See, Monkey Do,” Hank and Peggy must cope with a pushy in-law of their niece and former charge, Luanne. This imposter is determined to “save” Luanne’s baby from Peggy’s old-fashioned parenting methods.

This episode reflects just one of King’s recurring themes. The show is a surprisingly complex sitcom, and even the most extreme characters are very human. And several times each season, King of the Hill devotes an entire episode to a politically pointed topic.

The series had me at hello with its pilot episode in 1997, in which Hank confronts a social worker he dubs “Twig Boy,” a Los Angeles transplant who is sure every Texas redneck must beat his kids. When Bobby sports a black eye from a stray baseball, Twig Boy launches an investigation. Not only does this episode illustrate the problem of the bureaucrat with too much power, it shows what happens when children have too much power.

In Season 2’s “Junkie Business,” Twig Boy shows up at Strickland Propane, under the auspices of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to defend a junkie Hank has fired for being high on the job. Soon every employee comes down with something like Too Angry to Work Today Syndrome.

In Season 4’s “Flush with Power,” a drought has led to water rationing. Hank is talked into trying low-flush toilets; supposedly, this will save him water he can use to moisten his precious lawn. Because the toilet is so weak, however, he has to flush multiple times — and this actually increases his usage. He has to fight city hall to get a practical toilet back in his home, and finds out that such laws often benefit those who pass them in unreported ways.

Season 5 brought “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” in which Hank is peeved at Bobby’s new history teacher, a “noodle-brained Communist” (voiced by Paul Giamatti). The teacher has kids give their parents tickets for environmental crimes — and summon them before the class’s rather Maoist Environmental Court. Hank joins the cause of saving the “itchy algae” in the local quarry, however, when it turns out that draining the quarry will reveal a youthful indiscretion.

When it comes to characters who join the environmental movement for their own purposes, nothing beats the current season’s second episode, “Earthy Girls Are Easy.” When Hank tries to rehabilitate his company’s image by “going green,” it leads to a carbon-offsets scam — and he finds out that green consumers don’t really care, so long as they can pretend to benefit the environment.