King of the Hill: Season Six Review
King of the Hill did not have a good start to the new millennium. The first complete season of the new decade, the fifth in the show’s run, was, while not exactly bad, desperately tired, a collection of episodes which strained to find anything new to do with the characters and instead resorted to dumping them in a collection of uninspired and far-fetched tales that were a pale shadow of earlier years. Watching the season at the time of first broadcast, one had the uneasy suspicion that the show might be coming to the end of its run - after all, five or six seasons is pretty damn good going for an animated show not targeted specifically at children, especially when one considers that neither Family Guy nor Futurama got anywhere close to that number in their first run.
Fortunately that’s not how things worked out. The show, instead of rolling over quietly and fading into a Texan sunset, returned with a bang, producing a season as superior to the previous one as the golden years of The Simpsons are superior to the dreck of, say, their Season Thirteen and on. The contrast is so striking that at times it’s difficult to believe what you’re watching is only a year apart from that previous lot: if one was given the two seasons blind and asked to place them in chronological order, there’s no way you would put those two next to each other. After an admittedly slow start - a hurdle KOTH seems to have to overcome every year - there follows a run of episodes as consistently strong as any in the show’s life up to that point, a collection of stories bristling with confidence, wit and a renewed sense of what the show is about and what it should be doing with its principal characters. Indeed, even in those first few mildly inferior episodes there are hints that things are going to pick up later on, most notably in the amusing Lupe’s Revenge, and once we get over a rash of average Bobby and Cotton episodes - Bobby Goes Nuts, The Father, Son & JC, Father of the Bribe, and I’m With Cupid - the show hits its rich vein of form, starting with another Bobby episode Torch Song Hillogy. Of the ensuing sixteen shows, there are only two which don’t make the grade, namely Unfortunate Son and Of Mice and Little Green Men, and even the latter show benefits from the memorable - and, arguably inevitable - scene in which Dale tells Hank he doesn’t believe Joseph is his son. Regrettably the punch line to this long awaited moment is weak (he believes he’s an alien instead) but this is a rare example of the writers going over-the-top in an otherwise disciplined and intelligent year. (And it's not all slow-going in that first wave; even in the episodes mentioned above, there are usually moments that redeem them - see, for example, Hank’s waking up after being attacked by Bobby in Bobby Goes Nuts or the moment we learn the truth behind Boomhauer’s success with women in I’m With Cupid, which is quietly one of the best scenes of the entire year).
The success of the season is down to the writers going back to basics and re-examine the fundamentals of each character and what makes them tick, the result being we get show after show which springs naturally from their personalities and helps to enrich and broaden them even further. One of the show’s strengths has always been taking a core part of a character’s personality and challenging it by presenting the antithesis of all they hold most sacred - see the many embarrassments Hank has had to face over the years, for example, or the times Peggy has come up against someone smarter than herself. After the contrived scenarios of the last season, the writers have remembered that this is an approach that works, and found plenty of aspects of their psyche that haven’t been prodded with a stick yet. The result is a far more satisfying collection of stories, one which doesn’t rely on unlikely situations or high-concepts but rather flows naturally from the neuroses and prejudices of Arlen’s residents that have always been one of the thematic building blocks of the series.
Each character faces a moment of truth this year. The womanising Boomhauer, who over the years has grown from an essentially one-joke character into a slightly unlikely fully-realised individual, finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence when he is dumped by the woman of his dreams in Dang Ol’ Love. Bill, the show’s whipping boy, is finally tipped over the edge into the chasm of a minor breakdown when he believes the army, previously the one part of his life he could trust not to let him down, have used him as a guinea pig for experimental drugs in Tankin’ It To The Streets while Dale has to face up to a father who has far more secrets in his closet than even his conspiracy-loving son could conceive in My Own Private Rodeo. The joy of many of these episodes is not just in their premises, strong as they are, but also in the way they enhance the relationships between the characters. Hank and his temperamental neighbour Khan (a man who can’t stand the fact he has to live among a group of “red-necked hillbillies”) find themselves unexpectedly bonding twice this year, once when their respective offspring run away because of undue pressure from their parents in The Bluegrass is Always Greener and also when both men are being used by a golf club for its own ends in Man Without a Country Club.
Unquestionably the character who benefits most from this increased examination is Peggy, who gets more of the spotlight than any other character this season. Hank’s wife, who has been from day one a smug, self-satisfied, utterly deluded woman, finds her self-belief challenged in just about every way, with variable consequences. The long-running gag that she’s a Spanish teacher who can’t speak Spanish very well is given an entire episode, Lupe’s Revenge, as is the fact she is nowhere near as smart as she thinks in The Substitute Spanish Teacher. The fact she doesn’t have many friends is ruthlessly exposed in Fun With Jane and Jane, her desperation to teach in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Hill while she even finds her marriage to Hank challenged when he starts having erotic dreams about Dale’s wife Nancy in the amusingly-titled Sug Night (the characters pronouncing Sug "Shoog"). Previously always a largely unsympathetic character, these episodes succeed in presenting the more vulnerable side of her personality in a way the series has only rarely visited before and makes her a far more attractive personality as a result, as well as showing that the Hills’ marriage is stronger than ever. Hank is very protective of his wife, ensuring in Lupe’s Revenge that she never cottons on to the fact her Spanish skills are on a par with Basil Fawlty’s, but it’s not entirely one way. In both The Substitute Spanish Teacher and Joust Like a Woman she manages to extract herself from tricky situations and save the day, both times after Hank has tried and failed to do so. It’s a relationship far more equal than even Hank realises.
That said, not all the characters are explored in this depth, and indeed it’s notable that, with the exception of Peggy, the Hills themselves are the ones who benefit least from the show’s renaissance. The most notable absentee is Luanne, who appears but rarely this year, reflecting the fact that Brittany Murphy’s onscreen career was busy taking off at this time. It takes eight episodes for her to appear at all, and even when she does she gets one line which is evidently taken from an earlier episode. It’s not until the seventeenth episode she gets a show, the cult-bashing Fun With Jane and Jane, and even in that she has to share the billing with Peggy. To be fair, the writers did seem to be running out of things to do with her in the last season, something they also struggle this time around with Cotton and Bobby. Cotton has softened a bit over the years since his first abrasive appearances, but an episode in which former President Jimmy Carter tries to reconcile him with Hank is gimmicky, while Unfortunate Son, the other Cotton-Hank heavy episode, says nothing new about their relationship. Equally, Bobby is left floundering - episodes in which his father ignore his talents and just focus on his lack of perceived manliness are by this time a dime-a-dozen, and even the literal manifestation of this in the season opener Bobby Goes Nuts, in which Bobby takes a woman’s self defence class and then protects himself from bullies by kicking them in the groin, is more an extended gag rather than a solid basis for an episode. As with Luanne, Bobby has to share his best episode with another character, in his case Connie, in The Bluegrass is Always Greener, in which Hank spends his time encouraging her musical talents while ignoring Bobby’s comic potential.
But the Hills’ loss is their neighbours’ gain, with some of the best episodes focusing on one or more of Hank’s best buddies. Two which have already been mentioned - Tankin’ It To the Streets and Dang Ol’ Love - raise the four’s friendships to new levels and give them an emotional realism not seen before. Both have climaxes that show just how much the four mean to each other, with Dang Ol’ Love, the best episode of the season, having arguably the most touching climactic scene of the entire series thus far - one which notably doesn’t feature Hank at all but rather Bill and Boomhauer. KOTH has always aspired to a realism other animations have eschewed but it is only here that it truly achieves its goal of presenting three-dimensional, believable people. Dale doesn't miss out either, and if his stories are not quite as successful then it’s only because Bill and Boomhauer’s raise the bar so high.
Fortunately the Hills are not forgotten completely, and as a final symbol of the confidence this season shows the double-length climax is hard to beat. After making a mess of the last couple of season finales, all is redeemed here in an epic story in which the Hills travel to Japan and Hank meets a hitherto unknown member of the family. (Be wary of the DVD menus incidentally: if you’ve not seen the episode before, the menus give away clearly what happens). It’s instructive to compare this episode with The Simpsons's visit to Tokyo a couple of years previously as they provide a good illustration of the thematic difference between the two shows; whereas Matt Groening’s cartoon is essentially a cynical critique of modern society and culture Mike Judge prefers to simply reflect in an amused, caricatured but ultimately affectionate and non-judgemental way what he sees around him. So while Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo relishes poking fun at the more hyperactive absurdities of Japanese life, when the Hills go there in Returning Japanese they find a far more down-to-earth, respectful portrait of Oriental culture. Although they might seem kindred spirits the two shows are actually poles apart in what they want to say, and perhaps that’s why KOTH has lasted so long as opposed to other animated shows (with the exception, obviously, of The Simpsons themselves): whereas the majority of animations are often contemptuous about the world in which they live, KOTH is essentially placid, having a live-and-let-live ethos. It doesn’t shy away from being critical at times (its yearly attack on the cynicism of big business corporations this year is to be found in the episode Beer and Loathing, in which Alamo Beer try to cover up a tainted supply in Mexico) but in individuals it’s far less likely to condemn, far more likely to forgive. Whether this is a good thing or not is a moot point; it’s just different, and is perhaps one of the few cartoons out there that takes this more positive outlook.
And a positive outlook is what this season gave to the health of the series as a whole. As we know now, it’s gone on to chalk up another four seasons at least, and this is the season that gave the series its second wind. It’s not perfect by any means, with a few dud episodes and others that squander good opportunities, but the positives usually outweigh the negatives by quite some distance. The voice cast is on top form, as are the guest stars (as usual there’s a whole coterie of famous names popping up, the most amusing being Alan Rickman hamming it up in Joust Like a Woman), the scripters have returned to their very best and even the animation itself looks a little crisper, more detailed and more sophisticated than in the past. The makers evidently had great fun putting this season together, and it shows on screen, making this an eminently enjoyable DVD set to settle down in front of and pop open an Alamo. Just as long as it didn't come from Mexico...
All twenty-one episodes of King of the Hill’s Sixth Season are collected together on three dual-layered double-sided DVDs. The presentation is identical to that of the previous three seasons, with the first two DVDs holding eight episodes, four per side, the last three one side and two the other (counting the finale as one episode). Each disk is held in its own slimline jewel case with each case having episode synopses, including airdates, writer and director credits and a screenshot, for all the episodes held on that particular DVD. The cases all have individual artwork, this time featuring Hank and his friends having a food fight during a barbeque, a theme reflected on the holding sleeve for the three cases.
The menus are a little less interesting this time around. The King of the Hill logo is accompanied by the words Season Six and a small window in the middle, featuring short clips from the episodes on that particular DVD, while along the bottom run the usual options of Play All, Episode Selection (which leads to a menu with information about the episodes similar to that found on the cases) and Languages.
All episodes are subtitled in English and Spanish, and there’s also a Spanish language track for all episodes bar Lupe’s Revenge (the reason being the latter show has plenty of Spanish spoken already, which is a bit daft). There are no extras.
Better than Season Five again. Colours are brighter and there’s far less flicker. That said, when the image is detailed the disk does struggle a little and tends to soften the picture somewhat. That aside, this is a step up.
Same as ever. No problems, but it’s not an aural experience that is going to excite very much. Fine for what it is.
A great season with good presentation and no extras, which is par for the course with KOTH DVDs these days. Worth checking out though.