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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Re-Animated #5: King of the Hill

In 1993 a friend of mine tried to explain what "Beavis and Butt-Head" was to me.  He explained that it was two boys and they were bad and it was hilarious.  I couldn't even really understand if it was a cartoon or not.

(Don't worry, we'll get back to what, exactly, "Beavis and Butt-Head" was in a later installment of Re-Animated because...well, look, just trust me, it fits into the tapestry better later.)

My confusion disappeared real quick because even though at that time I wasn't allowed to watch MTV at home, "Beavis and Butt-Head" quickly came to dominate the national zeitgeist.  Reactionary opinion of the show basically boiled down to, "This is a show about delinquents who do nothing but watch TV and hurt themselves and one another, and they're inspiring our nation's children to do the same."

Of course, anyone who's ever watched "Beavis and Butt-Head" for even an episode knows that the kids are not supposed to be role models.  They're supposed to be laughingstocks.  They're the objects of derision.  This show clearly came from the perspective of a long-suffering authority figure who watched as stupid, ignorant people just seem to go about being stupid and ignorant and never learning from their mistakes.

That authority figure was Mike Judge.  Today, of course, we all know his shtick and movies like "Idiocracy" and "Office Space" have raised him to the level of anti-anti-intellectualism icon.  But back in the '90s all anyone knew him for was "Beavis and Butt-Head," a show whose provenance was dicey enough that half the country still thought he was encouraging kids to play baseball with frogs and set trailers on fire.

But all that would finally start to change in 1997, with the debut of a cartoon series in some way unlike any other before or since: "King of the Hill."

"King of the Hill" is rife with the DNA of "Beavis and Butt-Head."  For a long time it was practically impossible to tell the main character, Hank Hill, apart from B&B's long-suffering neighbor, Mr. Anderson.  In fact, Judge's original proposal for the show was to have disturbing, uncanny animation of a family of rednecks with buck teeth and other signs of inbreeding.

I suppose that lost show proposal would've had its merits, but somebody at Fox put the kibosh on it and Judge created a realistic show instead.  In fact, "King of the Hill" is so realistic in so many ways that it's hard to think of a compelling reason why it had to be a cartoon at all.  Except for some of the staging of some of the more outlandish episodes (none of which have scratched even the surface outlandishness of your average "Simpsons" or "Critic" episode) "King of the Hill" could easily have been a live-action series.

In fact, "King of the Hill" is excruciating in its realism and specificity, traits that make it almost impossible not to relate to the Hill family.  Or, to put it another way, their trials are so unique to them as individuals that anyone who's ever felt like an individual can relate.  Even the setting was so exquisitely drawn to be a part of a particular type of suburban Texas town that anyone who's ever lived anywhere can relate.  Sure, Tom Landry Middle School is not your middle school, but it's just as real as your middle school.  And Sugarfoot's is not your local themed restaurant, but it's just as real as your local themed restaurant. 

And the characters!  Hank is almost impossibly square, the sort of person who is constantly extolling the virtues of any place even smacking of some form of authority: government, military, even the post office.  Sports are his religion (although, with the church being hierarchical, he loves church, too) and he draws almost all of the joy in his life from fixing up his yard and home.  As for work...well, in one episode, he states, "I can't just leave 15 minutes early on a Friday!"  And then proceeds to sit inside at his desk for the next 15 minutes before leaving with his friends.

Peggy, his wife, is similarly square, but is saddled with the worst of all possible delusions.  She thinks she's amazing at everything.  She thinks she's a genius because she's a substitute Spanish teacher, but in reality her Spanish is worse than mine.  She thinks she's beautiful when really...well, let's just say she's lucky Hank loves her.  She thinks she's cool, but about the "coolest" thing she does is play Boggle well.  The great distance between Peggy's actual worth and her sense of self-worth are a constant source of drama for the show.

And rounding out the loving little family unit is Bobby.  Bobby is such a good kid it's almost heartbreaking to see the way his father misunderstands him.  Bobby doesn't have a malicious bone in his body and truly, genuinely just wants his parents to be proud of him, but he's just a little...odd.  To his father's chagrin, he has zero interest in sports, but is damn good at comedy.  And while his father fell in love with the one girl he dated in high school, Bobby's sense of humor seems to attract all kinds of girls.  Hank and Bobby seem to constantly be at loggerheads because their obsessions are so superficially different.  But when either one squints just so, and realizes what it is about their disparate hobbies that appeals to the other one they can usually bond over their shared obsession with obsession.

I could go on.  Over the thirteen seasons it aired, "King of the Hill" built up a commendable cast of characters and though it often went over the same ground with the same character motivations, it never felt like an episode was just another trip to the well.

"King of the Hill" could have felt exploitative.  As I said, in its original iteration, it apparently was condemning the sort of small-town Texas types it starred as hicks and yokels.  That's the way "Beavis and Butt-Head" went about satire.  But as it turned out, "King of the Hill" was a very different animal.  It would've been easy to make Hank an object of derision for his reactionary attitudes.  But instead, in almost every episode, Hank struggled to make the changes of turn-of-the-century America fit into his worldview.  It gave the show heart.  It made you root for Hank, even when he was almost an object of slapstick, being kicked around by the realities of the changing times.

And there were also no formulas for success.  In some episodes, Hank's old-fashioned morals turned out to be right, even in the face of an entire society seemingly poised against him.  In other episodes, Hank realized that not everything was black and white, and that he still had things to learn.  Ultimately, everyone on the show was a good person, trying to support the people around them, and sometimes they just had different opinions and beliefs.  It made every episode just like real life: the stakes were just continuing living, and that can feel as high or as low as you let it be.

Perhaps most importantly, "King of the Hill" stuck around.  Premiering in 1997, it remained on the air, opposite "The Simpsons" in various time slots until 2010.  Never a ratings giant, but it made a big splash when it first premiered and then carried enough goodwill watchers to last 13 seasons, it proved that "The Simpsons" wasn't the only primetime animated show that could survive.  And in some ways, that opened the floodgates... 

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