King of the Hill Season Four Review
You have to feel sorry for Hank Hill. All he wants is a quiet life: to be able to sell his beloved propane during the day, to come home and pass the evening enjoying a few beers with friends like him, and to spend the weekend engaged in such simple tasks as watching sports, doing the odd bit of DIY and moulding his son into becoming another fine example of American manliness. He would be quite content with this, leading a normal life unaffected by anything more extraordinary than the odd leak in a gas tank or a lawnmower breaking down, leaving history to be made by gods such as Randy Travis, Don Meredith and the head of the Arlen zoning board. But Fate, that most mischievous of elemental forces, isn’t having any of it. Instead, he finds himself working for a philandering boss with no sense of decency, living next door to a bunch of social misfits and being the head of a family which includes a self-obsessed wife and a son who (and this is perhaps worst of all) would rather make people laugh than score the winning touchdown at the Superbowl. And as for head of the Arlen zoning board? Don’t even ask. As Hank himself says more than once, “Why God, oh why?”
King of the Hill has always been centred around putting Hank in as many excruciating positions as possible (in that respect it has a very traditional set up), but the fourth season sees a slight shift in how he deals with it, a gradual softening of his formerly stiff-as-a-pole character. The change comes about soon after an early episode, "Not In My Back Hoe," in which he makes a new friend, Hal, who is almost exactly the same as him, with the same outlook on life and with the same hobbies. After years with Dale, Bill and Boomhauer this is like a breath of fresh air and Hank spends more and more time with this “normal” man, a situation that puts the other three out, leaving them rather lost without their leader (this episode being the first overt sign that that is how his friends see him). However, the episode ends, as it must, with Hank returning to them, both because the distance between him and Hal makes it impractical for them to continue their friendship and also because, without him, Bill and Dale end up trapped down a pit in a construction truck. In this way he accepts his fate: this is his lot, these are his friends and without him, they end up stuck in a hole, literally in this case. After this, there are signs of his beginning to relax slightly in his reaction to the life he finds himself leading, none more so than with his attitude towards Bobby. Whereas up until now his son has been a complete mystery to him, now he begins to accept that, while Bobby might never be the athletic star he himself was in his youth, he still has a lot to give. The turning point in their relationship is "Rodeo Days," an episode in which Bobby becomes a clown at a rodeo. This is anathema to Hank – those people are figures of fun! – but by the episode’s end he’s even helping Bobby put on his make up (lipstick, no less) and sending him out to the crowd (admittedly, to save the day, but still). This new appreciation is cemented in "Meet the Propaniacs" when he actually spends time with Bobby as the latter puts together his comedy routines. “Boy, you sure know a lot about comedy,” he says admiringly in an episode that sees more bonding between father and son than there's been in the entire first three years. Gone, it would seem, are the days of “that boy ain’t right,” a reflection on Hank’s character as a whole. He’s more accepting that the world won’t conform to how he thinks it should be – the season finale finds him even turning the other cheek when a country and western star, one of his idols, claims credit for a rescue he, Hank, actually performed. He’s still the same reserved Texan, who will be utterly embarrassed by almost anything (see his reactions to, amongst other things, Konnie asking for his help when she has her first period, his smoking marijuana and, in the same episode, a girl talking dirty to him) but this year he’s added another string to his bow: increased understanding.
This development is a sign of how season four differs from its immediate predecessor. Whereas in the third year the writers tried to crowbar in a running storyline that didn’t really go anywhere (namely Peggy’s desire to have another baby), this year the writing focuses more on character developments, a subtler approach that is ultimately a lot more satisfying. This is most noticeable with Dale and wife Nancy. Near the end of the season Nancy reconsiders her philandering relationship with John Redcorn, the local Indian who “heals” her right under her husband’s nose. Up to now, the thought of her changing the situation would have been inconceivable, but there are a couple of episodes preceding this one in which we see more of her and Dale’s interactions, a subtle preparing the way for the seismic shift that was coming and which makes the resolution much more believable. (It’s also a sensible plot development – the irony of Dale’s being a paranoid conspiracy nut who doesn’t spot one happening in his very own bedroom was beginning to wear thin, as was the more blatant gag of him repeatedly saying “Wait a minute, there’s something funny going on here,” before explaining he’s thinking of something utterly unrelated to Nancy’s adultery). It’s a good year for relationships – Bobby and Konnie finally formally become boy and girlfriend, another factor in Hank’s softening attitude to his boy (his reaction to Khan’s, Konnie’s father’s, complaint about Bobby sneaking into Konnie’s bedroom, is “Good for you Bobby.”) Even Bill gets a piece of the action in an episode entitled "A Beercan Named Desire," in which he ends up in a house full of women who, for reasons too complex to go into here, want to sleep with him. Although it’s one of the weakest episodes of the season, Bill’s not complaining – after fourteen years of celibacy, anything looks good (which might explain his unending fascination with Peggy). Indeed, Bill has a positively euphoric year (for him at any rate), the writers evidently thinking that they had spent too much time the previous year on extracting the humour from his misery and wanting to make amends. His theme is redemption – not only does he get to return to the high school football field in triumph to reclaim his touchdown record in "Bills are Made to Be Broken," but the army, who up until now we’ve had the impression only allow him to hang around out of pity, make it quite clear he is indispensable to them, even breaking the rules to ensure he can remain working at Fort Blando. Although we wouldn’t want him to ever fully regain his happiness (as if thinking he’s had too much fun this year, this fact is made abundantly clear in the rather perverse late episode "Bill of Sales"), he has plenty more reasons to be cheerful by the year’s end, and is another example of how the production team evidently thought about the characters as a whole this year rather than making it up as they went along.
Of the other main characters, Peggy continues to be entirely self-centred and mildly delusional about her talents (or lack of). We get a bit of a psychological insight into her character, both in the episodes that follow her recovery from the sky-diving episode and also in the penultimate episode of the season, in which we get a bit more of an understanding about why she is how she is. Luanne, meanwhile, gets a bit more to do this year, even getting a starring role in an episode "Movin’ on Up" but Brittany Murphy’s playing of her feels a bit more exaggerated than even her usual mildly hysterical twang (this could be down to the fact I’ve watched a lot of the series this year, but there is that definite impression). The voice cast in general, while not having as large a repertoire of voices as the masters over at The Simpsons (Stephen Root, whose playing of Bill I adore, has a particularly recognisable voice – whenever he plays another character, in particular Hank’s boss, I always wonder if that character is related to Bill, they sound so alike), are still excellent in their principal roles, Mike Judge as Hank and Johnny Hardwick as Dale especially putting their heart and souls into their characters. And, as with previous seasons, the series attracts lots of famous voices – amongst others, we have Meryl Streep, Kathleen Turner, Reese Witherspoon, Maura Tierney, Sydney Pollack, the Dixie Chicks and, for the finale, a bunch of Country and Western singers I’ve never heard of. All work together to give the characters an extra dimension, something which helps to enhance the good character work done by the writers this year.
Having said that, character development is all very well but if the stories themselves are no good it’s all for nothing. As is made clear in the intros on the DVD menus, this season’s individual gag count is still high, King of the Hill always scoring highest in its ironical observations of the idiosyncrasies of its characters and their attitudes (in that way, it’s at times like an extended version of a newspaper comic strip such as Peanuts). It’s another strong year for episodes, but there are no showstoppers this time around, no standouts to compete with, say, "Pretty Pretty Dresses" from Season Three. There are certainly many memorable moments to be found – Hank’s hallucinations in "Hillennium", Dale going native in "To Kill a Ladybird", Boomhauer, Dale and Bill all ending up in a mental hospital in "Naked Ambition" – but overall the episodes are all of a similar standard, leaving it down to individual choice which stories particularly tickle you – for me, the most enjoyable include "The Hanks-giving Episode", "Meet the Propaniacs" (which has one of the best moments of the season, Dale playing a tune while Bill gets his beer) and "Flush with Success". The not-so-successful include the central two-parter, in which Hank is accused of murder, which has an intriguing first part but rather squanders its potential in the second, not really seeming to know where to go, and the season finale which, while amusing, seems more of an excuse to get lots of big-name country and western stars to appear than a fitting send-off in its own right. One interesting thing is that one of the episodes that most sticks in the mind is one of the least amusing, "Cotton’s Plot", the second of the season, in which Cotton helps Peggy to recover from her sky-diving accident. (Thankfully, one plus this year is that, following this, Cotton completely disappears for the rest of the episodes – he is a character I find completely boring and it’s nice to have a season with so little of him).
Overall, though, the series remains almost effortlessly entertaining and witty throughout its twenty-four instalments. Indeed, that’s where its success lies, in continuing to chug along and produce consistently good episodes. Less flashy than some of its animated brethren, it quietly continues to be a class act. By the fourth season, some shows find themselves running out of ideas or beginning to take ever more perverse directions in a desire to remain fresh, but King of the Hill manages to resist all such temptations. While the odd repetition of ideas crops up from time to time (most notably Peggy’s competitiveness), there’s enough new stuff here to keep the show from becoming stale. It might not be good news for Hank, but it would seem that Fate hasn’t run out of ideas on new ways to make his life difficult for which we, if not him, should be extremely grateful.
As with previous seasons, the episodes are presented on three double-sided, single-layered disks, boxed in three slim jewel cases housed in a containing sleeve. Each case has synopses, air dates and a picture pertaining to every episode, while the covers this year have respectively Dale, Bill and Boomhauer on their lawnmowers in characteristic poses. I’ve seen some criticism online about the fact the artwork on the spine of the main box for these box sets never matches previous years which is perfectly true, but it’s not something that bothers me – the overall style is recognisably King of the Hill (although admittedly this set’s spine picture of Cotton isn’t very exciting or even relevant, given his absence from the majority of the season).
Each side of a disk holds four episodes. The menus this season consist of four or five short clips from the four episodes on that particular side. The clips are well-chosen, pithy examples of the series’ humour, but repeated use of the disks means that one quickly becomes over-exposed to them and so overall they are not as successful as the last season’s especially made menus. There’s an option to Play All episodes as well as selecting each individual episode. The slight but noticeable pause when scrolling down on the Select an Episode screen which was present with previous seasons is still there. All episodes are subtitled but be aware that, despite what some online retailers say, there isn’t either a French audio or subtitle track, just English and Spanish. There are no extras. Again.
The picture quality is generally excellent, the image sharp with no grain and bright colours. However, roughly half the episodes have at least one incidence of a flickering aliasing problem which, while usually only affecting the picture momentarily, is distracting when it happens. This is a very minor problem but is noticeable.
There’s never much to say about audio tracks for sets like this. The mix is fine, dialogue and music nice and clear, it’s a standard television audio track.
It's that old cliche: "if you liked the previous seasons, you'll like this." Season Four won't convert anyone who doesn't already follow Hank's adventures, but for fans this is another enjoyable season. The DVD presentation continues the high standards of the previous sets, but the lack of any extras again is disappointing - surely Mike Judge and Greg Daniels can be persuaded to contribute the odd episode commentary per season?