King of the Hill Season Three Review

There’s a moment in the fourteenth episode of King of the Hill’s third season, The Wedding of Bobby Hill, that sums up perfectly what the series is about. Hank and Peggy, for reasons too complicated to explain here, end up in Boomhauer’s bedroom and discover that their neighbour has a camcorder hooked up to a TV and pointed at his bed. Instead of being outrageously shocked as you would expect the clean living God-fearing couple to be, they are amused by it, and take it in turns to perform in front of the camera (with Hank taking particular delight in pretending to be a news anchor), the true use of the camera having gone completely over their heads. They are so innocent that, for them, a camera in the bedroom has no licentious implications at all, it’s just there to see yourself goofing off on TV. The scene, as with so much else in the series, works on a couple of levels. First of all, we are amused that Boomhauer has it there at all, further enhancing his reputation as the show’s lothario (at least John Redcorn only has one lover of whom we know). On another, we share a smile at the fact that the Hills have led such sheltered lives that not only they have never encountered such a thing as this before, they could never even in their wildest dreams imagine a camera being put to such a use. Like a gentler Blue Velvet, they are completely unaware of things going on behind their neighbours’ closed doors. This combination of innocence and subversion is at the heart of what makes King of the Hill tick.

Mike Judge’s animated sitcom has now run for nine seasons but, as the box to this DVD set proudly proclaims, it was this season (running from 1998-9) that won the series its only Emmy for Best Animated Series (although Pamela Segall, playing Bobby, has gone to subsequently to win for Best Actress in 2002). At first glance it might appear baffling as to why this season in particular won the award, as it doesn’t do anything tremendously different from what it did in the first two, or has gone on to do subsequently. Over twenty-five episodes it tells broadly similar tales of the goings-on of the Hills and those that live close by them, encompassing all the minor crises that affect their lives but which rarely have any wider connotations. Its realistic suburban setting, coupled with the small scale of most of the stories, makes the cartoon much more similar to a regular sitcom than its animated brethren – there’s no sign of Hank going into space a la The Simpsons, or facing a robotic Barbara Streisand as in South Park, or or owning a talking dog like Family Guy. It is, instead, a much more mundane life, being just about a guy who sells “propane and propane accessories” for a living, a regular, really rather unremarkable Joe. The fact that the show is animated is only taken advantage of by the increased number of locations used (complete with the odd shot of a supermarket exploding) and the easier access to guest stars – voices this season include those of Sarah Michelle Gellar, William H Macy, Billy Bob Thornton, Matthew McConaughey and Mary Tyler Moore. In every other way there is absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be shot on a soundstage in front of a live studio audience.

In that way Hank Hill (ably voiced by Judge himself) follows in the tradition of the great father figures of American Comedy. He is baffled by the antics of those around him, whether it be the constant exasperation he gets from his son who will not conform to how he feels a good all-American child should behave, through to his nutty neighbours, in particular the paranoid Dale (Johnny Hardwick) and the depressive Bill (Stephen Root). He longs for a quiet, private life, one in which he can drink beer chewing the fat in the alley and watch football on a Sunday. Life, of course, isn’t that kind to him, and in the best traditions of the genre, is constantly throwing up challenges and embarrassments his way, whether they be having to produce a sperm sample in a clinic or accidentally arousing a dolphin in a swimming pool. In this respect it is an entirely traditional set up, albeit with a more seditious bent.

Where the show wins out over its flesh-and-blood rivals, however, is in the consistent quality of the writing, and the genuine wit that is on display. Unlike a series that faces a live audience at every recording, it doesn’t have to strain to make every second line funny, but rather takes its time, building up jokes naturally rather than artificially spouting in one-liners. In that way, it is more akin to the more modern comedies we are seeing now on both sides of the pond, like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Although it doesn’t hit the heights those shows have, it certainly shows that audiences are willing to wait for a punch line a little longer and as such, there are more proper laugh-out-loud moments to be found here than in ten seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond or something similar. It also has something to say about how the country is run, with episodes such as those about bounty hunters and county jails showing how those institutions can easily be abused – at times, the series has a serious social conscious about it, using the familiar weapon of satire to make its point, something cartoons seem much more able to do than flesh-and-blood comedies.

Where it slightly loses out to those comedies, however, is in the emotional moments. The very fact it is a cartoon puts a distance between the characters and the viewers, and as such scenes that would have undoubtedly have had an impact with flesh-and-blood actors – Hank explaining to Peggy how he really does want to try for another baby, Bobby’s rejection by his first real girlfriend and so on – don’t really tug at the heart strings in the way they should. As if aware of this, the writers often put in more extreme examples to play for laughs, such as Luanne’s reaction to her hair being lost in the explosion, or the numerous jokes about Bill’s depression (the most effective of which is the simple teaser in which we just see him burst out crying while with the others in the alley).

The other problem with the more heart-felt moments is that it is actually quite difficult to have much sympathy with many of the characters. The women in the Hill household come off particularly poorly in this regard, both Luanne and Peggy being shown this season to be occasionally spiteful, scheming women. Equally, when Hank’s neighbour Khan loses his job, the episode only vaguely tries to get us to feel for his predicament, seemingly aware what a tough job it would be to do so given the character’s arrogance and constant baiting of his “redneck” neighbours. At times the show runs the risk of outright caricature and perhaps this is why, ultimately, the show wouldn’t work with real people – the characters have potential for being fully rounded personalities but the writing sometimes fails to go just that extra distance to finish them off. It can be a little frustrating because in most cases they really are extremely close to doing so, but maybe the animation (which, compared to some shows, is a bit flat to look at) holds them back.

That said, the characters are great fun, with one exception. Personally speaking, I find Cotton, Hank’s father, an irritating rather than amusing factor in the show. Yes, he’s meant to be that to the other characters, but his constant badgering grows wearing and is not particularly funny. A glance down the episode list shows he’s only in a handful of shows this season but it feels like he's always popping up. Fortunately only he, and perhaps Khan who only has one trait to him, are the bad apples. Bobby Hill as the son Hank can’t understand is wonderful, both tenacious (in his cross-country attempt to get to a Prom despite having gout) and obtuse, both a thorn in his father’s side and the apple of his eye. Bill and Dale, meanwhile, are both deeply sad individuals, although only the former realises it. The writers fall back on Bill’s sadness at his wife’s leaving him once too often (although it does provide the story for one of the season’s funniest episodes, Pretty, Pretty Dresses) but his downtrodden, gloomy form, as well as his barely-contained envy at Hank having Peggy, make him the all-important “pathetic” character in the show, one who will pretend his mop is his ex-wife and dance with it when no one is looking and who still keeps old Christmas presents wrapped up in the forlorn hope she will one day return to him. Dale, too, the man who sees conspiracies everywhere apart from the one place he should be looking, his wife’s bedroom, is pitiful but also, ironically, the one character who generates a real emotional response. The only times he “lightens up” and shows happiness is in the pride and pleasure he gets from his son, the son who everyone else knows isn’t even his, moments that are surprisingly moving.

Are these characters there simply so we can laugh at them, and their foibles? Is King of the Hill such a hard hearted show that it presents a group of underachievers and people with simpler notions for our ridicule and merriment? Fortunately not. While there is plenty of opportunity to do both of these things, there is also an affection there, especially for the Hills themselves. While the comedy is quite often cruel, there is also a goodness running through these characters, despite what they themselves might think. During one of Bill’s particularly despondent periods when the others are keeping a constant vigil on him to ensure he doesn't try and kill himself, Dale demands to know how long they’re going to have to look after him as “Caring is not part of my nature” but he still does it all the same. Similarly, Cotton is full of bluster, but inwardly he knows what a rotten person he is, at one point breaking down and telling his son that he is not even in the same league of being a father as Hank is to his son. And then there’s Hank who is governed by a set of morals and common decency that, while it may be slightly twee or naïve for our tastes, is still a good man who believes in his family, his state and the country he lives in. (“Shame on him,” is his reaction to David Copperfield’s famous trick of making the Statue of Liberty disappear). The fact that Hank is based on Mike Judge’s own father is enough to show that at heart this isn’t a mean portrayal of the man. There is a lot of subversion in the show, a critique of a society in which everything seems to be fine on the surface and people won’t delve too deeply into one another’s problems for fears of affecting the status quo – almost an emotional stiltedness – but this is matched by a strange sort of affection, one the viewer can’t quite put his finger on but is there none the less.

King of the Hill is one of my favourite animated shows, and this season is a perfect example of why. The twenty-five episodes slip by effortlessly and it’s difficult to point the finger at any one of them and call it a dud. Highlights include the aforementioned Pretty, Pretty Dresses, while Nine Pretty Darn Angry Men, Sleight of Hank and Hank’s Cowboy Movie are also highly recommended. If one had to point the finger at an oddity in the bunch, it would be Wings of the Dope, a slightly bizarre tale in which Luanne is visited by Buckley’s ghost. Any episode you care to choose, however, brings with it a good solid story with plenty of spot-on gags and a bit of social commentary. It’s not an angry show, it’s not setting out to change the world (although it does want to point out its inconsistencies and how things could be changed for the better), it’s just happy with its lot and its place in the order of things and produces consistently good work. Not unlike its leading man.

The Disk
The season comes on three dual-layered double-sided disks, each one presented in a slimline case that fits into a surrounding box. The cover art on both the individual boxes and the slipcase itself is similar to that of previous seasons. The three cases have a large picture of one of the Hill clan on the front, with synopses of the episodes on the back, while the slipcase itself has a specially drawn piece of artwork that could have been taken from an episode of the show.

The menus continue this reflection, all six sides of the disks opening in the same way, with the scene from They Call It Bobby Love in which the four set up their newly discovered couch. The A-sides of the disks then have the same looped animation of the four using the couch, with their customary "Yup"s. The B-sides, however, each have a different, amusing looped sequence that continues the theme of the couch but is not taken from the episode. You won't watch any of them more than once, but they are good fun. The submenus with the episode titles are a little slow to load - selecting an episode leads to a small image of that episode appearing, as well as a brief synopsis and original airdate, which all take a moment to appear. These are a nice touch, but avoid reading them on a first watch, as they do contain spoilers for the episodes.

Both the Video and Audio are perfectly acceptable. The Video transfer of the original 4:3 prints is extremely accurate, with little sign of any blotches or digital problems that have affected other animated series. The Audio has little to do but is fine too, with the opening theme sounding raucously loud. All episodes are subtitled in both English and Spanish.

Disappointingly, there are no extras at all. The previous two seasons both came with standard fare such as featurettes, deleted scenes and commentaries (including, on Season Two's, from the characters themselves) but there is nothing at all here (aside from the episode synopses and airdates themselves). A shame.

Although the lack of extras this time around is disappointing, the episodes in this set are easily strong enough to not need supporting. I'm not a big fan of double-sided disks as I think they can be damaged more easily, but there's no arguing with the compact neatness of this attractive set which continues the standard set by the first two.

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Last updated: 24/06/2018 16:47:12

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