King of the Hill Season Two Review
King of the Hill came to Britain a couple of years too early. When it first appeared on this side of the Atlantic in August 1997, some eight months after its debut in the US it was not a huge success, largely down to the fact that much of its humour depends on a certain degree of familiarity with the Texan society it satirises. Although it has a completely typical sitcom set-up – a leading man with a difficult family, odd neighbours and so on – a lot of its jokes are deeply rooted in the culture that have made giving a child a gun as a present second-nature and steak-eating-competitions a spectator sport, which is not conducive to those unfamiliar with such matter - in the same way that, say, Peep Show would be meaningless to someone living in the Deep South, so too were the foibles and oddities of the conservative, right-wing south Deep South both strange and also apparently insignificant to those living in Britain, and as a result the series didn’t really catch on. Which is a shame, because relatively shortly afterwards the foibles and oddities of the Deep South were suddenly going to become extremely significant to just about everyone on the planet when one of its own sons rose to become the Most Powerful Man on the Planet. Ever since George W Bush entered the Oval Office, both he and the homeland that shaped his beliefs have become more and more well known, both through his own actions and also through the work of people such as Michael Moore. King of the Hill’s humour, which before now had seemed remote and uninteresting suddenly assumed an importance that no one, not even its creators, would have expected back in '97. Sadly, by the time it did it was a spoilt property in the UK, no longer "new" and as a result had been consigned by Channel Four to the occasional airing in a graveyard slot.
The Region Two debut is, therefore, to be celebrated by us relatively few fans on this side of the Pond, and it’s been very pleasing to see over the past few weeks the near-universal praise the series has been getting in reviews both in print and online (hell, even the Radio Times featured it, although frankly these days that’s not necessarily a good thing). However, there’s one thing the otherwise complimentary write-ups have been getting wrong. Nearly without exception, all of those that I’ve read have included the opinion that, to paraphrase, “Season Two is not the best of the series, which got better as it went along.” This just isn’t true. Although the series is arguably the most consistent long-running cartoon series there’s been on television, this is the season that is just a step above the rest.
Both structurally and in terms of wit this is a superior year. Whereas in later seasons the episodes have been generally content to concentrate on one single plotline, here there are often two or more happening simultaneously, both major and minor, which weave around each other to enjoyable effect. In addition, rather like in a good stand-up, the writers will often throw in little throwaway gags that hit their pay-off only near the end of the episode, seemingly insignificant moments that nonetheless are in fact leading somewhere further down the line. Although it’s a series far closer to its three-dimensional sitcom siblings rather than other animated shows, this is the closest it ever comes to being a “proper” cartoon, and the balance feels exactly right here, with the stories being both multi-layered but straightforward enough not to divert down anarchic cul-de-sacs it doesn't need to. The dialogue, too, is the sharpest it’ll ever be, with skilfully observed nuances of character painted in with just a couple of unexpected one-liners and with a higher level of quoteability than the show will ever have again. If the first season saw the writers trying to establish just how far they could push their stereotypes of Texan life, this season sees a confidence in knowing exactly where – and more importantly, what – the line is, performing a perfect balancing act without being either too soft or too cruel to its intended targets. From a purely technical point of view, this is the season where King of the Hill is at its peak.
However, what’s interesting to note is that even if the style of the show has found its form, the content is still working itself out. As if realising this time around that they’re in for the long haul, the writers spend a lot of time this year working out exactly what they’re going to do with the characters over the next few seasons, and how exactly they want them behave while they do so. As if reflecting their creators’ uncertainties, all of the main characters find themselves pondering and confronting their place in life, so much so that nearly all them try temporarily to change where they are at and where they are heading. Hank has his faith in propane shattered when he discovers his boss uses an electric rather than gas oven, Peggy spends at least one episode railing against her role in the household, even unconsciously writing a song about it and Luanne temporarily has to move back to her trailer park and also finds herself confronted with her reprobate mother – hell, Cotton even temporarily leaves Deedee. Bobby has the most development of any of them; he tries his hand at several part-time jobs, discovers his love of performing comedy and finds himself a permanent little gang of friends with Konnie and Joseph, a bond between them sealed when they spend the night lost in a cave. In the first season he occasionally came across as a less aggressive type of Bart Simpson, a mischievous, slightly slow boy but with no real direction in his life, and it’s interesting to compare his portrayal there to the one seen in early Season Three, which is very different indeed; that change happens right here during these episodes, a transformation that can be seen happening show by show.
In addition to the characters challenging the status quo, there’s also a fair degree of introspection and reflection going on amongst them, particularly in regards to the aging process and the difference between the generations, an interesting preoccupation that only really appears in this season. In one memorable episode, The Man Who Shot Cane Skretteburg, Hank and his friends find themselves humiliated playing Paintball against a group of local youths, and question when they became their own fathers, the older generation that’s there primarily for the younger one to rebel against. Later on this leads to a similarly themed episode which reveals a Dark Secret from Hank’s college days when he was first romancing Peggy, one which, of course, Peggy discovers, upsetting the applecart of their domestic bliss in the process. Things were much freer when they were all twenty years younger, these episodes say (Hank certainly was, as we see him indulging in much dubious behaviour that his older, much more moral - if uptight - self would balk at) but there was also less responsibility, a more carefree attitude without worrying about consequences. That attitude is revealed to be, unsurprisingly, always the best policy: in the afore-mentioned Cane Skretteburg Hank and his friends start off by mocking a geriatric whom they refer to as “Pops” but end up teaming up with him, showing that older isn’t necessarily so bad. (In fairness, their maltreatment of Pops is completely out of character, but as it’s making a certain point I think we can forgive it its slight indulgence). In Life in the Fast Lane, Bobby’s Saga Hank tries to instil in his son the ethic of the value of a dollar, but it seems his own youth was similarly feckless, and in the end he didn’t turn out to be so bad. He even manages to come to terms with some childhood traumas, such as in the premiere episode How To Fire a Rifle Without Even Trying or with the always Freudian-concept of knowing his parents have had sex; in The Unbearable Blindness of Laying he initially greets the sight of his mother making out with her new beau by going blind, but eventually manages to work through his issues, developing a more mature attitude to such matters, at which point his sight is restored. We see Hank growing up all the time, and even if he is still a stiff-ass at the end of the season, at least he’s a stiff-ass with a wider awareness of his own condition and development; he even joins in and helps Bobby out with his comedy in Traffic Jam and forsakes the Superbowl to help Luanne in Meet the Manger Babies.
So much focus is given the four leads that it seems at times that Dale, Bill and Boomhauer are being virtually ignored, and used only for the odd running gag (eg Dale’s complete ignorance about his wife’s affair) or when a plot needs to use their characteristics specifically (such as Luanne’s Saga in which Bill’s loneliness is used to develop the relationship between Luanne and her mother). Admittedly this is often the case – this is the season with the greatest (and admittedly most amusing) jokes centred around the fact everyone in the show can understand Boomhauer perfectly but the audience can't (a conceit that, having run its course here, all-but-disappears over the next few years) – but when one is developing a series for the long haul it is right that it is the central characters who get worked on first before those surrounding them get fleshed out. There’s still much amusement to be had from them: in Three Days of the Kahndo the Hills, and Dale, spend a weekend with the Kahns in Mexico which has much to recommend it, while The Final Shinsult starts to show there might be more to discern from Dale’s character than the simple caricature he’s been thus far. One does search in vain, however, for any episodes principally starring one of his drinking buddies, which I suppose is a mild shame but an understandable one, and given that there are plenty of episodes in the future revolving around them, I don’t think we should deny the Hills their virtual exclusivity in these first two years.
Besides, for those looking for variety in the characters, there are plenty of one-off visitors to the Hills’ life who are almost as fully-formed as the regulars. We have the odious archaeologist who both takes advantage of and sneers at the Hills in The Arrowhead (still one of the most memorable guest characters in the show’s history, as well as one who gets the most fitting, yet simple, retribution, in that episode’s climax). There’s Junie Harper, the militant church member who attempts to ban Halloween in Hilloween, and the exploitative crack addict whom Hank hires to work at Strickland Propane and who nearly brings the company down in Junkie Business. Bobby’s employee at the race track, the frustrated comedian who runs a traffic school course, the feminist guitar teacher who Peggy falls under the spell of, the list of memorable one-offs goes on. One of the best is Luanne’s mother Leanne who makes a triumphant debut here and works as a perfect mirror-version of Luanne herself, while Hank’s mother’s new boyfriend is also a welcome and warm addition to the series, one who works both in contrast to Cotton’s harshness and also as a genuine character in his own right. Many of these are voiced by the guest stars from the world of showbusiness all cartoons must have but which this cartoon uses particularly well; this season we hear, amongst others, Dan Butler, Jennifer Coolidge, Green Day, Sally Field, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Carl Reiner, Chris Rock and Wallace Shawn. All of these do a fine job and compensate for the fact that in general the regular cast of the show are not as versatile in their acting as casts of other cartoons such as The Simpsons, lending some much needed variety to the soundtrack.
In a wider sense, this season has two very clear messages to impart, namely that political correctness is nonsense and bureaucracy is an ass. Whether it’s a church minister denouncing Halloween as heathen, the absurdity of unisex wrestling matches or the irony of dressing overweight children in sports gear for a fashion shoot, this year comes down heavily on the idiocy of pandering to the idea that everyone is exactly equal and we should not exclude anyone from doing anything they want to do. Equally so, red-tape is shown to be utterly daft in episodes such as Hank’s Dirty Laundry and Junkie Business, systems which the nefarious can exploit to their own ends, ignoring the consequences for those trapped in the middle (a theme Judge would return to, with a slightly different bent, in Office Space). These swipes at the daftness of aspects of modern living, often told in beautifully understated ways, are one of the many joys of the season.
King of the Hill is my second-favourite animated show behind The Simpsons and I prefer it to virtually all the more regular US sitcoms that have emerged in the last twenty years. This is arguably the best season of the lot, and contains at least two bona fide classics; the sublime Hank’s Dirty Laundry which is almost perfect from beginning to end, and the excellent Propane Boom Part 1, the season finale. If one had a continuing criticism of the show, it’s that the writers rarely know what to do with the final episode of a season, and as often as not present a botched job that is a little flat and/or pointless. This time around, however, they get it exactly right, an episode that simultaneously manages to summarise the themes of the year (once again Hank loses his job and is forced to question his entire life), be consistently sharp and amusing and also works as a cliffhanger in its own right. It shows everything that makes this season superb. Recently I reviewed Season Five of the show in Region One and the contrast between that one, which was still reasonably good but a bit flaccid and dull, and this is striking. Well worth your time, this is just about the best time to visit the residents of Arlen, Texas and find out what makes them tick. You might even understand that guy who lives in the White House a bit more.
And make you even more afraid.
All but one of the Second Season’s episodes are presented on four double-layered single-sided DVDs. The one that is missing is The Company Man which was actually made as part of Season One but held over for this second year - this episode can be found on the Season One disks. Not having seen the packaging, I can only presume it to be similar to the Region One release, which holds the four DVDs in individual slimline jewel cases with artwork and episode details on them, held in turn by an overriding case.
Once again the disks open with the anti-piracy advert, something that is so common nowadays it actually makes me want to buy pirate DVDs a little more, just so as I don’t have to skip through the flipping thing. There then follows the studio logo before we’re brought to the Main Menu. These, as with the Season One R2 set, are not as charming as their R1 equivalents, being static versions of that region’s animated presentation. This is a shame because Disk Four loses a rather amusing gag, and it’s difficult to know why these animations have been removed. In all other respects, the menus are near-identical. The four options on the front page are Episode Selection, Language Selection, Special Features and Coming Soon, a R2 exclusive which includes trailers for Family Guy and The Simpsons.
All episodes and extras are subtitled, including the character commentaries.
Video-wise, this wasn’t one of the better years on the Region One transfer, and the flaws in that issue are reflected again here. The prints were quite dirty to begin with, with lots of artefacts popping up regularly, all of which have been lovingly converted to the PAL format here, while several of the more prominent flaws have made it over as well: one of the more blatant is in a scene of Jumpin’ Crack Bass and which the following picture sums up nicely:
The waves overlap the characters all through this scene, and it's also worth noting the blending of Hank's shirt and arm - fairly often, line definition is lacking, but again this is a problem that is also present on the R1.
That said, the show is never less than watchable, and for some reason this batch of episodes suffers less than from the PAL conversion process than Season One, with less blurriness and oddity of light. It’s just a shame the prints themselves weren’t a bit more cleaned up.
Fine but unremarkable. Dialogue and music are both clear and don’t overlap each other, and there’s no hiss or extraneous noise. Perfectly acceptable.
As with the Season One set, the several commentaries found here are a mixture, with several by the actors in character and one by producer Greg Daniels and writer Paul Lieberstein, over the latter’s episode How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying. In comparison to the lively banter heard on The Simpsons or Futuruma’s commentaries, this is a more sober, but nonetheless interesting, reflection on the episode, its themes and the general writing process. While I wouldn’t want to hear a whole season’s worth from Daniels, it’s a shame this appears to be the last commentary he will do for a King of the Hill release, at least for the foreseeable future.
The character commentaries are, as with the first season’s set, a mixed bag. The most interesting is the first, on the episode Husky Bobby with “Peggy” (Kathy Najimy), “Bobby” (Pamela Segall) and “Luanne” (Brittany Murphy). Najimy is quite good at pointing out little jokes in the background but, more intriguingly, both she and Murphy seem to have a problem with the episode’s admittedly odd coda, and make their opinions, albeit through their characters, quite clear on the subject. Their second together, Luanne’s Saga, is more of a usual character commentary, and not especially worth spending time with.
The other three characters who band together to contribute a couple of yak tracks are “Dale” (Johnny Hardwick), Bill (Stephen Root) and Kahn (Toby Huss), on the episodes The Man Who Shot Cane Skretteburg and Three Days of the Kahndo. The former of these episodes is an odd choice given that Kahn doesn’t even appear in the show, and in general the three actors tend to ramble a fair bit. Although Hardwick is also a writer on the show, he doesn’t do much, and sometimes they break out of character, referring to the other actors (Brittany Murphy is mentioned) which rather misses the point. It’s amusing to hear them singing along to the opening theme, but otherwise these aren't great.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
A hugely generous selection of additional material from each episode. Both fully animated scenes excised from the final cut and initial animatics with recorded dialogue played over them are included for every single episode, many of which are just as amusing as the material which did make it to air. Never totalling less than two or three minutes, made up of multiple segments, these are a highlight and, for fans, are almost worth the price of admission alone – unlike most deleted scenes on DVD, here you get both quantity and quality (I didn’t count exactly how many individual scenes there are but two online sources listed 194 and 197 scenes). Excellent.
Apparently made solely for the crew’s amusement, these are short (no more than ten to fifteen seconds maximum) animations for nearly every episode of the season, with the exception of three. Each one uses motif from the episode in question (for example, the one for the premiere episode, How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying features the title being shot up on a shooting target) and make for a curious but amusing extra, the only shame being there isn’t an option to watch them automatically before each episode. (On a side note, was this a habit the directors continued past Season Two? And if so why don’t we get to see them on subsequent boxsets?)
A multi-angle feature comparing an initial animatic to the final result, using a sequence from the second episode of the season Texas City Twister, and including the audio differences as well as the visual. There’s also an optional commentary from Greg Daniels who briefly talks through the process which is nice, although he doesn’t say anything you won’t have heard before in similar features. Fine.
The Arlen School of Drawing
Laughably useless feature which purports to show how to illustrate some of the characters from the show, namely Hank, Peggy, Bobby, Luanne and Cotton. Animator Glenn Dion takes us step-by-step through the process of drawing one of the characters in a typical pose while we watch him at work over his shoulder. Dion devotes a considerable amount of time to each character, and none of these lessons last less than seven minutes. They would, in fact, be very instructive, except for one problem - you cannot see a blind bit of what he’s drawing. This appears to be because glare from overhead lights onto the paper completely bleaches out the pencil marks, making it appear as though he’s drawing with invisible ink. Matters get slightly better when the camera moves closer during the second half of these features, but it’s still hard to discern what’s going on, turning what could have been an excellent feature into a missed opportunity, thanks to sheer carelessness on the part of the makers.
That Boy Ain’t Right
Generous extracts from a King of the Hill spin-off book with the same title. Taking the form of a guide for future fathers, and apparently written by Hank, this is an excuse to put together some not-terribly-well-drawn pictures of the characters with some vaguely amusing lists and observations from Hank and associates. I never find these books funny – they always seem a cheap cash-in which recycle the humour of the show without really understanding it – and this was no exception, although there is the odd good joke to be found in its pages.
Music Inspired by the Hills
A couple of clips with songs from the series – namely Luanne’s Manger Babies opener and Peggy’s Turtle Song – are grouped together with some purely audio musical tracks from the episodes, some of which are quite good. A space filler in the main though.
There are two Easter Eggs to find. The first is a compilation of Monsignor Martinez clips which, watched together, are not as amusing as when they crop up in the episodes themselves. The second is a brief montage of clips of Boomhauer’s various utterances.
The Monsignor Martinez Egg is found on Disk One. To access it, go to the Language Selection screen, then highlight Main Menu, and press Right twice. This highlights a hidden television symbol which, if you select it, plays the Egg. The Boomhauer clips are found on Disk Four. On the Special Features menu, highlight Main Menu and then press up. This will highlight a B on Boomhauer’s back which, if you select it, will play the clips.
The best season of King of the Hill gets an excellent release. The extras are plentiful and, in general, interesting and amusing and it’s best to enjoy them while you can as from Season Three the episodes, if following the R1 form, will be released bare-bones. Again the overall release isn’t quite as good as the R1, with the missing menus a shame, but in truth there’s not a lot in it this season and, if importing’s a pain, this is still worth picking up on R2.