Culture

King of the Hill Showed that Conservatism Can Thrive on Prime Time

After suffering a defeat in the 2012 presidential election, dejected conservatives surveyed a television landscape filled with liberal-leaning programs and feared that the culture was lost. They need not have worried: Programming featuring traditional values has in fact thrived on TV networks. Indeed, it was a mere five years ago this spring that one of the most conservative shows from the last quarter-century left the airwaves. For 13 seasons, Fox’s King of the Hill proved to be a prime-time hit, an animated success that showcased a right-leaning, Christian family in Texas. (The show’s reruns still air on Cartoon Network. It’s also streaming via Amazon and the first ten seasons are available on DVD.)

Co-created by Mike Judge (who also executive-produced and starred), King of the Hill revolved around life in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas. Hank Hill (voiced by Judge) was a sensible, old-fashioned father who took care of his son Bobby and wife Peggy. Each week it was Hank, the show’s voice of reason, who would calmly deal with difficult neighbors and the challenges of raising a son who confounded him. The program’s low-key tone echoed that of the Andy Griffith Show.

Often the target of nasty insults in Hollywood, it was conservatives who were the ones dishing out jokes at liberals’ expense on King of the Hill. In the season-three episode “Junkie Business,” Hank, the assistant manager at Strickland Propane, has to hire a new salesman. While interviewing various candidates, he asks an elderly man to explain certain gaps in his resumé. The senior citizen offers this:

Well, from ’33 to ’45, FDR was in the White House. So, I was on the welfare. And in the ‘60s, you had Kennedy and LBJ, so, I was on the welfare. And then from ’76 to ’81, Jimmy Carter. So, I was on the welfare.

In the season-two episode, “Bobby Slam,” Hank’s wife, a substitute teacher, is managing the girl’s gymnastics team. When one young woman wants to join the men’s wrestling team, traditionalist Hank objects. Peggy argues, “Did a woman judge ruin the Supreme Court? Huh?” Hank retorts, “Yes. And that woman’s name was [Chief Justice] Earl Warren.”

Though the show never directly labeled Hank a Republican, references to GOP hero Ronald Reagan were common. The season-seven premiere, “Get Your Freak Off,” deals with permissive parents. When one group of liberal neighbors observes Hank in public with another set of progressive parents, the latter become targets of the ultimate left-wing insult. “Nice job, Ronald Reagan,” mocks one hipster neighbor. The liberal father angrily retorts, “Don’t call me that!” Reversing the insult, a horrified Hank chimes in, “Yeah, don’t call him that!”

In another episode, the mere mention of the 40th president caused a wistful Hank to assert, “I miss voting for that man.”

When asked about the conservative bent of King of the Hill in a May 2006 interview with the website IGN, Judge evasively responded, “I try to not let the show get too political. To me, it’s more social than political I guess you’d say, because that’s funnier.” He added, “I don’t really like political reference humor that much.”

Could this be a case of flying below Hollywood’s progressive radar? It’s not just King of the Hill that is replete with such humor in Judge’s oeuvre. In 2009, he created the Goode Family, an animated program about an aggressively liberal family who struggles to be as politically correct as possible. The program skewered left-wing sensibilities on issues such as environmentalism. On May 27, 2009, the New York Times huffed, “Who really thinks of wind power — an allusion to which is a running visual gag in the show — as mindless, left-wing nonsense anymore?” The liberal website Slate reviewed Judge’s 2006 sci-fi comedy Idiocracy and insisted that the writer/director had an eye “so ruthless that at times his politics seem to border on South Park libertarianism.” In 2013, Judge publicly came out against gun control, telling radio-host Alex Jones, “I own guns and I think if you look at it statistically, you actually are safer.”

Whatever Mr. Judge wants to be called, King of the Hill showcased conservative values in a deep, authentic manner. Perhaps the best example is the season-seven episode “Reborn to Be Wild.” In it, Hank deals with a rebellious and disobedient Bobby. He attempts to reintroduce his son to traditional church, telling him, “You know what’s not cool, Bobby? Hell.”

The younger Hill falls in with a crowd of trendy Christian rockers, boys who ride skateboards and sport Jesus tattoos. Throughout the episode, Hank fights the new, unconventional religiosity of his son. The episode culminates with Hank punishing Bobby and trying to explain the value of authentic faith. Standing in the garage, he pulls out a box of his son’s old, discarded toys and calmly explains:

I know you think that stuff you’re doing now is cool. But in a few years, you’re going to think it’s lame. And I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.

Faith is important; it’s not a fad. King of the Hill made this point and many other traditionalist ones like it on network television for 13 seasons and 259 episodes. Conservatives who think the culture is lost might learn something from Mr. Judge: Express your values openly, thoughtfully, and with a sense of humor. That’s something that Hank Hill’s hero, Ronald Reagan, would have agreed with.

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