King of the Hill Season One Review
Nowadays Mike Judge is quietly one of the most talented men working in Hollywood but the route he took to get there was anything but simple. Born in Ecuador and raised in Albequerque, he graduated from the University of California in San Diego with a degree in Physics and for some time after worked on electronic systems for F-18 fighter jets. Finding this an unsatisfactory way of making a living, he took the bold step of relocating to Austin, Texas. Although he had in mind the aim of becoming a rock star, he was also attracted to the idea of working in comedy, and while attending various animation festivals he got the idea of making a couple of cartoons to showcase his ideas. The first of these, Office Space (which eight years later he made into a live action film of the same name) ended up appearing on Comedy Central while the third, Frog Baseball featured the first appearance of two characters who were swiftly to become icons for US adolescents, Beavis and Butthead. The two dopey teenagers made their debut in 1992 at a midnight showing during “Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation” (a festival dedicated to cartoons “too revolting or adult in nature” which has toured the United States annually since 1990) and within a year had their own show on MTV. Capturing the mood for some much needed subversion, the two morons were a global hit and, as such characters often do, ended up appearing on everything from baseball caps to underpants, before eventually graduating from the confines of television to their own feature-length movie Beavis and Butthead Do America in 1996.
At the same time he was making that first film, Judge was playing with an idea for a new TV show, another cartoon but one with a different, more conventional style, based around some of the Texan characters he had encountered in Austin. He pitched the series to Fox as a show similar in theme to The Simpsons but, while the response to his first draft pilot was generally positive, the executives had some qualms about putting it on the air. As he was still busy working on his film, he called in writer Greg Daniels to help develop the show further and iron out some of Fox’s sticking points. Daniels was a good choice as not only did he have a background in comedy, having worked for three years on Saturday Night Live, but also had an exemplary record with animation, having been co-executive producer on The Simpsons during its fifth, sixth and seventh season (which in those days was just about as good as you could get). He took Mike’s pilot script and worked out the problems, his main contribution being to flesh out the characters surrounding the main character Hank. The collaboration between the two writers proved a success and Fox, liking the revised draft, commissioned thirteen episodes, the first of which debuted on Fox on the 12th January 1997.
The series revolves around Hank Hill, seller of propane and propane accessories. He lives in the heart of Texas in a fictional town called Arlen, where he spends his days working as Deputy Manager of Strickland Propane and his evenings and weekends drinking beer in the alley behind his house with his three neighbours Dale, Bill and Boomhauer. Living with wife Peggy, son Bobby and Peggy’s niece Luanne, all Hank wants is a quiet life in which he doesn’t have to think about anything more complicated than sports, propane and keeping his lawn the right length. The principal source of humour comes from the fact that Fate refuses to allow him to lead such an idyllic existence, constantly throwing spanners in the works and trying to cause him as much discomfort on a weekly basis as it can. Being brought up by an overbearing father and a weak-willed mother, he’s a bit reserved, and is desperately uncomfortable dealing with anything that could be classed as “personal issues.” As such, most episodes revolve around him having to do just that, whether it be the extreme embarrassment of his constipation being the major topic of conversation in the neighbourhood or his having to comfort Luanne when she's sobbing her eyes out. Private matters are, to him, just that, achingly embarrasing things that go on behind closed doors and should be discussed - or even admitted to. He is, in short, a typically repressed Southerner, more comfortable in hero-worshipping Willie Nelson than telling his wife he loves her.
Of course the show delights in throwing problems at him, and practically every character surrounding him is there to cause some kind of embarrassment. Greg Daniels' main contribution to improving the pilot and the premise of the series generally was to up the ante in regards to the characters surrounding Hank and their propensity for making him squirm. He created the character of Luanne, a curvy teenager who constantly wears figure-hugging clothes, to make explicit the fact Hank doesn’t like thinking about sexuality and his father Cotton, a rude, impertinent male chauvinist pig who goes round slapping waitresses on the bottom and shacks up with a bimbo with all her brains in her chest. Meanwhile Judge already had in play son Bobby who, on the cusp of adolescence, is at that difficult age when awkward questions will be asked, questions Hank really doesn’t want to think about.
Although the humour is subversive, it also has a warm heart. It would be wrong to say that it’s one of those shows where Hank learns a lesson in every episode, and promises to be a little more relaxed from then on – his upbringing and internal moral sense of decency ensures there’s no chance that will happen – but he does manage to squirm his way through the problems he’s presented with, and usually ends up helping. While he sits at the centre of a society which is more comfortable turning a blind eye to neighbour Bill sitting at home quietly sobbing for the memory of the wife who walked out on him fourteen years ago instead of helping him, they would argue, if pressed, that ignoring it was the best thing for him, that he’s happiest when he’s shooting the breeze with his friends. Denial is the only policy, as is evidenced by the fact the whole neighbourhood is aware that Dale’s wife Nancy is carrying on with her “spiritual healer” John Redcorn behind Dale’s back. Dale dotes on the son he thinks is his, but obviously isn’t, and it would crush him if he knew the truth – even more so when he found out everyone else had known all along. (This subplot was another of Daniels’ improvements to the series). Is it the right attitude to have? Certainly not, but while it might be argued that Hank’s running away from the important things in life, he can’t help it. He’s a good man, and a good father, he just can’t cope with these matters and believes things are better left unsaid.
This subversive take on southern attitudes (and, having never been to Texas, I can’t say whether it’s an accurate summing-up of what it’s like there) underlines everything in the show, but its satiric attitude shouldn’t be taken as a condemnatory one, at least as far as its specific characters are concerned. While the commentary could be seen as a criticism, it’s as a criticism of the society as a whole, rather than the individuals caught up in it who are, in its point-of-view, as much victims as anything else. There’s real affection for the characters here, especially Hank and his brood, and while we are asked to laugh at their attitudes we are not asked to laugh at them per se, which is a crucial difference. And indeed, its not just southerners that fall under the writers’ satiric eye: in one episode, a prospective client for Strickland Propane comes to Arlen from Boston, and his East Coast monied way of thinking has as much fun poked at it. All characters have foibles, and the residents of Arlen are no different, but they also have a lot of good qualities. Even Dale, who on the surface is a supremely unsympathetic character (“Nobody cares Bill,” he snaps at one point when Bill is trying to tell a story), has the tragedy of his wife's infidelity and his pride of his "son" to balance things out.
Because of these nuances, King of the Hill has perhaps the most three-dimensional cast ever to appear in a regular cartoon. In many ways the show is more akin to a proper sitcom, and it would be quite easy to film before a live studio audience: all you’d need are standing sets for the Hill residence, the alley behind it, Strickland Propane and the school, and it would be set. But if that became the case we would lose the pitch-perfect actors – with the exception of Brittany Murphy and (no insult intended) Stephen Root who plays Bill, none of the voice artists really look much like their animated counterparts. They all do a first rate job, though, with obvious applause being directed towards Mike Judge’s Hank. Originally Judge was not keen to voice Hank and many actors – including Mark Hamill, would you believe – were auditioned. Judge ended up voicing him for the initial animated pitch for the studio and it was so good that it quickly became apparent he was the only man for the job. My own favourite is Root’s doleful playing of Bill, the actor giving Bill an almost desperately cheery tone which one senses could – and quite often does – crumble at the slightest provocation, a man trying to forget his lot in life but completely unable to. This is a personal preference, though, and it’s very hard to distinguish any of the cast who let the side down. Sadly Victor Aaron, who was to regularly guest as John Redcorn (and was himself a Native American, a member of the Yaqui Tribe), died in a road accident shortly after recording his first two episodes – the role was recast a couple of years later with Jonathan Joss taking over.
The writing is consistently sharp, and never goes for the easy gag. Although most of the trailers advertising the series when it first came on showed the hood falling on Hank when he was examining his engine and Bobby getting hit, Charlie-Brown style, on the head with a baseball, in general slapstick is almost non-existent (another difference from most cartoons). Instead, the writers prefer to tell proper, convincing stories with genuine wit and class, never resorting to cheap vulgarity in the effort to get a laugh. Even in the episode concerning Hank’s constipation, which seems to invite such things, there’s not one fart joke to be found, showing that the show has higher things on its mind. The scripts for this first batch of episodes don’t quite have the polish that later seasons would, but are at times just as sharp. If the manipulative Bobby of the pilot isn’t quite the character who develops through the rest of the season, this can be excused as teething pains as everyone beds in and gets to know their charges.
Looking back now, it’s interesting to see how much of King of the Hill’s enduring elements were established in these first thirteen episodes. We have the Khans moving in, Peggy’s dismal teaching, Hank and Cotton’s relationship, Dale’s paranoia, and so on and so forth. With the exception of Luanne’s puppet show Manger Babies (which I could have sworn debuted in the first season before re-watching it), someone could watch a season one episode and then a season eight or nine and see few changes, besides Joseph’s deepening voice and the change in Dale’s relationship. This shows how strong the initial set-up is, and how little it has had to be varied through the years – this show has legs, as they say, and it’s clear from the very start. This first year, while not as confident as later seasons, is a solid beginning with several episodes that remain benchmarks for the series to this day – episodes such as Hank’s Unmentionable Problem, Peggy the Boggle Champ and Plastic White Female which define the characters perfectly. It’s a much more confident start too than some others – whereas in the first season of The Simpsons you could sense the writing trying to work out exactly what the show was going to be about, here they have it down pat from day one. An excellent starting off point, then, for this most subtle of animated series. Yup.
The thirteen episodes of Season One are presented on three single-sided, dual-layered disks. Each disk is housed in a slim-line jewel case with a picture of a different character on the front, complete with quote, and episode synopses on the back. The three cases are contained in a bigger slipcase, which comes with appropriate artwork on the front and a brief season synopsis on the back
Each menu opens with a brief “greeting” from one of the characters, respectively Hank, Bobby and Dale. The resulting menu then correspond to these greetings, so the first disk’s main menu is set by the garden fence, the second looks like Bobby’s Gameboy and the third is based around Dale’s basement. Each has little animations and/or soundbites from the characters that loop after a minute or so. The main options are Episode Selection, Language Selection and Special Features. The Episode Selection screen lists the episodes with brief synopses and there is an option to Play All. The extras are accessed from a submenu, which in turn gives another submenu from which you can access the commentaries. It’s a bit of a roundabout way of doing things, and it’s a shame the episodes don’t have their own individual menus – especially considering all have deleted scenes and over half have their own commentary tracks.
All the episodes are subtitled but none of the extras are.
Decent. A few artefacts have crept onto the print, and there's a bit of grain if one examines the picture closely enough, but there's no apparent sign of encoding difficulties. One thing that’s noticeable is that the colour is paler than usual during the first few episodes, but this was just part of the look of the show during this early period.
It’s a standard TV audio track, which doesn’t do anything spectacular but does its job, with both dialogue and music pitched at the right level.
There are commentaries on eight of the thirteen episodes, a very generous selection given later sets will have none. There’s no Mike Judge, but Greg Daniels contributes two, one for the pilot and one for Hank’s Embarrassing Problem, the two episodes he co-wrote. He has lots of tidbits to share (including a lengthy and amusing list of alternative names for the show the writers came up with) but does meander a little at times. Much better are the two by director Klay Hall, whose chat tracks on The Order of the Straight Arrow and The Company Man are consistently interesting, concentrating on the technical side of how the show is put together.
The commentaries by characters from the show is a cute idea that has mixed results. Not being scripted, the actors fall back on the characters’ tics that after nine years they have become so familiar with, but there is a fair amount of waffling in there. The better two are “Peggy” and “Bobby”, the former having a nice line of irony in keeping with her more scripted dialogue, which means their two commentary tracks are mildly amusing. On the other hand, “Dale” and “Bill” don’t have much to say on their two other than pretend to admire the women in the show, and Bill in particular sounds like he’s struggling. That said, there is an amusing moment halfway through their track on King of the Anthills when he says to Dale, “Didn’t you write this episode?” (the writer being Hardwick who also plays Dale) and Dale struggling to come up with an answer that keeps to character.
Very good twenty-five minute documentary that covers the show’s origins, from Judge’s initial pencil drawings through to table readings for the first season. All the voice artists feature, some from archive footage from the show’s start in 1996 (including a very different-looking Brittany Murphy), as do the animators involved in the various different stages of bringing the cartoon to the screen. Of particular interest are the first pencil test which Judge and Daniels made to pitch the show to Fox, which shows how they nailed the main characters from the start. An excellent example of what these sorts of featurettes should be like.
Meet the Hills
A collection of the guides the artists were given on how to draw the various main characters, as well as a brief single page giving the characters’ main details. A nice extra if only in a completist’s sort of way.
The Dos and Don’ts
More guides for the artists taken from the official guide they use, this time covering every aspect of the drawing and animation. The tiniest details are covered, emphasising how much care and attention goes into the show, and includes some amusing instructions, including “Stop using Hank without hand rubbing neck in every show – invent original acting!” and how not to draw sexy Peggy. Very interesting.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Extra scenes from all thirteen episodes are included, those that went no further in their raw animatic form. All the material was cut from time and, while most of the scenes don’t last longer than a minute, there are some funny gags here. Includes an alternative ending to The Company Man.
Bare Naked Ladies Music Video
The video for the group’s song Get In Line which appears on the KotH soundtrack which sees the band interacting with the characters. Although neither the song nor the group are to my taste this had a few amusing moments in it.
Thirteen well put together ads for the show, with a mixture of segments just showing clips from the show and some especially made as trailers. Includes the terrifying site of Hank, Dale, Bill and Boomhauer doing the full monty.
There are two sneaky easter eggs to be found. The first, on Disk One, is Mowing Lessons With Charlie, what seems to a American Public Service film which, from the age and style, looks to be around forty-fifty years old. Although it appears to be genuine, there are so many surely-not? moments (it appears the dangers of mowing are far greater than I ever realised) that it makes me wonder whether it's actually a spoof. Either way, it's a quirky and highly amusing extra which is most welcome.
The second is to be found on Disk Three and consists of Hank introducing a list of everyone who worked on the first season. Which isn't nearly as exciting as Charlie's adventures with his lawn mower.
To access Mowing Lessons With Charlie on Disk One, go to the Commentaries menu and select the lawnmower. To access Disk Three's, highlight "Special Features" on the main menu then click left to highlight the map.
A highly enjoyable first season for the show, complimented by a fine selection of extras. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you’re a fan it’s well worth a purchase.