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.
POLITICS OF THE HILL
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.
Hank also clashes with political correctness while trying to instill as much manhood in his son as possible; episodes cover everything from Scouting to genuine achievement to how Bobby handles the school bully. In Season 4’s “Little Horrors of Shop,” Hank takes over the shop class — he runs afoul of the school’s zero-tolerance policy by using sharp objects, and of jealous teachers by actually teaching something.
King of the Hill also presents race relations with more candor than its competitors ever would: Minority characters do not serve merely to illuminate the foibles of White Guy Hank. From school diversity class to racial humor only cutting one way, King mocks white guilt and political correctness at every turn.
In fact, the show’s least sympathetic character is Hank’s neighbor, Khan, a Laotian immigrant who has contempt for his “redneck” neighbors. Khan views everyone and everything — including his sweet, intelligent daughter — as a step on the social ladder. Peggy tells Hank he is not allowed to point out such things about Khan, however, which Hank cannot understand: “What the hell kind of country is this where I can only hate a man if he’s white?”
Season 5’s “Spin the Choice” has American Indian John Redcorn, a new-age healer and masseur to local ladies, speaking before a junior-high audience about why Thanksgiving is a time of sorrow. Redcorn aims his arguments at a boy who is unaware he’s John’s illegitimate son, but instead reaches the heart of Bobby Hill, who is stricken with guilt at being white. Bobby’s “Thanks-taking” demonstration at the Hill family Thanksgiving gathering yields an unexpected result, however.
Even hate-crime hysteria has been lampooned. In Season 3’s “Revenge of the Lutefisk,” Hank’s Methodist church burns to the ground after a liberal woman from Minnesota is installed as pastor. A media circus ensues with rallies against hate until it is discovered that bathroom fumes actually caused the fire.
CANCELED WITHOUT A CAUSE
King of the Hill, unlike The Simpsons, has not suffered a creative decline, nor have its ratings plunged. Fox’s official statement attributes the decision to nothing more than a desire to “freshen up” its “Animation Domination” Sunday-night schedule.
The “solution”? In the course of 2009, Fox will add two shows to Animation Domination. One is called Sit Down, Shut Up. The other is a spinoff of the foul-mouthed Family Guy, whose creator, Seth MacFarlane, already has a second Animation Domination show, American Dad. So Fox Sunday nights will rise from 50 to 60 percent MacFarlane. Right, how fresh.
It’s been a long time since King was a ratings champ, but viewership is still solid and comparable to the rest of the Fox Sunday lineup. The show has beaten the odds, in fact: It was frequently the victim of Fox’s Sunday football schedule, so first-run episodes sometimes were pre-empted or aired only in part. Despite my diligence, there were some I never saw until the DVD release. King was even on the cancellation block once before, but it was saved by the ratings bump that followed the announcement.
Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is the fact that Judge is creating a series for ABC that could be called the flip side of King. Judge’s animated The Goode Family follows the misadventures of an ultra-liberal vegan family that tries too hard to be politically correct in all things, particularly the environmental (even their dog is not allowed to eat meat products).
Historically, animated shows have performed better when paired. A late ratings rally for King might make ABC consider that strategy — especially since King regularly outperforms ABC’s Life on Mars, Homeland Security USA, and Wife Swap by considerable margins. It even draws more viewers than the venerable 20/20.
However, the real reason to watch King of the Hill on Sunday nights is the same as it’s always been: It’s a really good show.
While I don’t want to go back to the days when three TV networks battled for about 90 percent of the viewing audience, there is something to be said for the shared common experience of, say, a Mary Tyler Moore Show farewell episode. It would seem that a fourteen-season show deserves that kind of sendoff.
Though if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that King of the Hill will not end with a group hug. Not if Hank has anything to say about it.
– David Forsmark is owner and president of Winning Strategies, a political-consulting firm in Michigan.