So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some gems you might not yet have seen. Our Saga-like Hannah Dunleavy gets almost emotional about Mike Judge’s Texas-set animated sitcom.
A few months ago I had to answer the question, “If you had to live inside a TV programme, what would it be?” and concluded that, fun though life in an HBO drama or a classic 70s kids’ TV show might be, I’d probably fare best in the company of Hank Hill. The man’s got a ride-on mower for God’s sake. And a huge Willie Nelson collection. And, perhaps most importantly, we would never, e-v-e-r, have to talk about our feelings.
King of the Hill is a square peg of a sitcom: an animated show without a reset button. People age; relationships die and lives end. It’s not particularly well suited to dipping in and out of, in the way that The Simpsons or Futurama is.
And it’s not wholesome family TV. It might not skate close to the edge of outrageous, like (the very funny) Archer and (the not so much) Family Guy, but Mike Judge’s Texas-set sitcom is dark in a way most other comedies can but dream of. Peggy’s unfulfilled desire for more children, the ongoing fallout of the parentage of Joseph Gribble and the tragic day-to-day existence of Bill Dauterive (more on that later) are all goldmines for comedy and pathos.
But yes, I hear you, is it funny? Of course. But not in the way you might expect.
“Be it the time Peggy got a job teaching a sex education class, the time he didn’t have a poo for weeks, or that problem with his narrow urethra, Hank’s often in a situation where you know he’d rather face death than the next conversation.”
Hank’s a Republican, a former high school football star, a guy who likes a beer in the alley with his mates, talking about how much he loves America and how much he hates bureaucracy. Yes, he shudders at hippies and pollutes at will but he’s none of the other things you might have presumed. He’s not a racist or a homophobe, he doesn’t love guns and if you’re going to praise Jesus he’d rather you did it quietly.
I’ve seen it argued that his rigid enforcement of gender norms means he’s sexist and while I can’t disagree, Hank (voiced by Judge) is always supportive of his wife, Peggy, even if she’s about to do something rash. He’s a pretty hands-on Dad, regardless of how successful that actually is, and a very hands-on son, regardless of whatever Cotton-related horrors are hinted at in his childhood. And he’s probably the most loyal friend that ever existed.
He’s not a ball-scratching Neanderthal, is all I’m saying. It’s not that sort of comedy. It’s about one man’s desire to keep his business to himself.
Right from the start, King of the Hill thrived when focused on Hank’s excruciating discomfort with anything personal, medical or sexual. Be it the time Peggy got a job teaching a sex education class, the time he didn’t have a poo for weeks, or that problem with his narrow urethra, Hank’s often in a situation where you know he’d rather face death than the next conversation.
With 259 episodes to choose from, it’s impossible to say there’s a best one, but my personal favourite is Aisle 8A, where the conflict between Hank’s desire to do the right thing and his horror at bodily functions hits critical mass when his 12-year-old neighbour Connie starts her periods while in his care.
What I can’t decide is which of Hank’s coping strategies I like best: when he throws a blanket over her, when he reassures her he passed the OSHA Emergency Management course each of the nine years he was required to take it or when he gets the police involved.
Talking about his feelings doesn’t come any easier. He loves his wife and his son. Hell, under duress he’ll even say it. But other than that, no thank you. One of the most forthright declarations of love between the Hills comes in the episode Peggy’s Headache:
“You know, Hank, I really.”
“I know. And, Peggy.”
“All right, then.”
This episode, incidentally, is the one where Peggy submits her initial ideas for the ongoing comedy goldmine that was her Musings column in the Arlen Bystander. Those first corkers included: ‘Sunburn, too much of a good thing?’ and ‘Is it my imagination or does no one talk about World War One anymore?’
Aah, Peggy Hill. Voiced by Kathy Najimy, she’s got a life most sitcom mums would die for: she works (in fact, when she is out of work she hates it), she has hobbies, she has friends, she’s active in the community. You know, like real women do and are.
That she doesn’t do these things well might be a comedy trope, but the joke isn’t on Peggy, who enjoys a surfeit of self-confidence. She’s of average attractiveness, average intelligence and is rather naive, but she believes herself to be a gorgeous and worldly brainbox, a belief that never falters in 13 series. (Rather wonderfully, in Peggy’s Fan Fair, one of the few episodes in which Hank addresses his wife’s need to always be right; she is proven, in the end, to be absolutely correct.) So, yes, if you’re looking for an empowered woman in a sitcom, you just found her.
One of the most endearing things about Peggy is her commitment to being a role model to Luanne, her niece, who grew up in a trailer park but lives with the Hills as a member of their family (according to Peggy and Bobby) or on a temporary basis (according to Hank).
She has neither actual smarts nor street smarts, is a devout Christian* and supreme creator of drama. On paper, she sounds like a pain, but she’s a triumph of optimism in the hands of the late Brittany Murphy, who imbues her with a level of half-witted, breathless exuberance unrivalled in popular culture.
(*The seeming mismatch between Luanne’s religious devotion and her active sex life is dealt with in Luanne 2.0, an absolute belter of an episode in which she’s rebaptised a virgin and Hank has to talk about his sex life in public. Ugh!)
Luanne’s a babbling brook of emotion, but she’s not the person most likely to cry in Hank’s presence. That unwanted prize goes to Bill, a chronically depressed quarter of Hank’s social circle. (Who am I kidding? Bill would totally turn up to collect that prize.)
Don’t get me wrong, all Hank’s friends can be hard work. Dale Gribble, a conspiracy theorist, fails to spot the conspiracy right under his nose. Maybe too much cigarette smoke. Even Boomhauer, a womanising bachelor, who is mostly silent or incomprehensible*, has been known to throw a spanner in the works.
(*Periodically, he will throw out a nugget of completely coherent wisdom, such as, “Money is like the wind, you only feel it when it’s moving,” which I enjoyed so much I once used it in a debate on how to fix the Greek economy.)
“Peggy is of average attractiveness, average intelligence and is rather naive, but she believes herself to be a gorgeous and worldly brainbox, a belief that never falters in 13 series.”
But Bill? He’s the saddest of all the sad sacks. Once popular and athletic, he’s a depressed divorcee with such cripplingly low self-esteem that in his fantasy about saving a 19th-century prostitute and living on a farm with her, she runs off with a travelling preacher. Similarly, in A Firefighting We Will Go, when the narrative is told Rashomon-style, we learn that in Bill’s head he is even heavier, balder, shabbier and more stupid. It’s touches like this, combined with a sublime performance from Stephen Root*, that make Bill one of the great tragicomic characters.
(*If you just said, “Stephen who?” I urge you to watch something, anything, with Root in it. He’s a criminally underrated actor.)
It’s also the fact that, despite everything that has happened so far in his sorry life, Bill believes there’s something better around the corner. And Hank humours him. And Peggy humours Hank. And on and on.
I could suggest a dozen comedies for you to devour in great lumps. Some of them might even be funnier than King of the Hill. But I’m struggling to think of any that are as warm.3504 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.