Celebrating King Of The Hill’s understated joys

Mike Judge and Greg Daniels' King Of The Hill was a smart, tender human comedy that deserved more attention in the UK...

King Of The Hill ran for thirteen seasons, 259 episodes. A mainstay of the Fox network’s primetime lineup, it won two Emmys, four Annies, and is routinely ranked as one of the all-time great animated series. Yet bring it up in casual conversation in the UK, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare or, at best, a vague recollection of a fellow named Hank and his love of propane. Everyone knows The Simpsons; it’s rare to find someone who’s not familiar with South Park or Family Guy; even Futurama has solid name recognition, thanks to never-ending repeats on Sky1. But King Of The Hill? Nah.

The relative anonymity of the show here isn’t too surprising. Animated suburban families aren’t the most difficult sell, but King Of The Hill is set in the south of the USA, all country music and thick accents. While The Simpsons‘ primary appeal is its universality – the everyman patriarch, the just-getting-by nuclear family – King Of The Hill traded in specificity, submerging audiences in Texan tableau and counting on a broad church of viewers to invest regardless. This gave the show a palpable sense of place and a unique tone. But it also may well have proved the primary stumbling block on the show’s road to mainstream success in Britain, one that it would never truly overcome.

What a shame that is. Delve beyond that superficial obstacle and you’ll find one of the most complex, interesting and laugh-out-loud funny programmes in television history.

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The brainchild of cartoonist Mike Judge, then best-known for originating MTV dimwits Beavis & Butthead, King Of The Hill was originally envisaged as an outlet for Judge’s socio-political satire. Set in the fictional city of Arlen, Texas, the show would follow the life of a man named Hank Hill, a traditional, social conservative who works hard as a propane salesman and finds it difficult to come to terms with contemporary mores. He lived with wife Peggy, an over-confident substitute Spanish teacher with a comically poor grasp on the language, and tubby tween Bobby, whose lack of masculinity would perturb Hank on a regular basis.

Neighbours and friends also featured; Hank would regularly share a cold beer with them in the alleyway. Stories were expected to focus on Hank’s fight against political correctness and social liberalism, casting a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a character often vilified in contemporary media, and sourcing comedy in conflict.

Production studio Fox teamed Judge with Greg Daniels, who had been writing for The Simpsons for three years, during its popular and critical heyday; he was more character-driven, feeling that a strong emotional core would juxtapose nicely with the show’s more overtly comedic elements. He expanded Judge’s planned character set, bringing Luanne into the fold, Peggy’s niece, who lives with the Hills, and with whom Hank has a challenging relationship. He invented Cotton, Hank’s abusive and hateful father; their relationship would prove one of the most complex and challenging in all of sitcom. Daniels felt that moral lessons and complex character development would serve to enhance, rather than compromise, the show’s humour. He was absolutely right.

Judge shared creator credit with Daniels, and the two made for one of television comedy’s unsung duos, a combined force for funny, small-scale stories with genuine heart. As the series unfolded, it became clear that King Of The Hill was no mere Simpsons cash-in, but a genuinely excellent show on its own terms. It had a strong grasp of observational comedy that sought not merely to mock the socially conservative or the excessively liberal but to understand the foibles and feelings lurking beyond those two-dimensional faces.

Its world-building was on a par with The Simpsons, too; we grew to understand and care for not just the immediate Hill family, but their dog, their co-workers, their friends and classmates – and yes, those neighbours. Dale, Bill and Boomhauer would become as critical a part of the show as Hank, Peggy, and Bobby – Dale’s conspiracy theories, Boomhauer’s way with the ladies, and Bill’s chronic depression would prove the source of many of the series’ most memorable moments.

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The Texan outlook the show embraced – likely the very barrier to entry for so many – became its own character, too, one of the show’s greatest assets, enhancing the show’s density and three-dimensionality. As Jaime Weinman notes in his (definitive) episodic reviews, it doesn’t matter whether we can relate to the cultural specificity of the show so much as whether we believe it, and it’s certainly plausible that a steadfast Texan like Hank would enjoy, say, lawn maintenance. It adds texture and nuance, making Arlen, TX feel truly lived-in in a way a sprawling Springfield never quite manages.

Throughout its thirteen years on air, the show shifted tonally and thematically. Early on, it played with form and style, as it settled into its groove. Seasons two and three, arguably King Of The Hill‘s greatest, struck a remarkable balancing act between the joke density of The Simpsons and the realism of a serial drama, as characters became more complex and the programme weighed heavily on emotional realism and naturalistic dialogue.

These seasons were also the most-viewed, occasionally outrating even The Simpsons. Episodes included one of the greatest, and darkest, Christmas episodes of all-time, and a two-parter that kills off a key secondary character, with wide-ranging emotional ramifications for years to come.

Mid-run, the show skewed a little more towards Simpsons-style sitcom setups, which divided fans, but also delivered a number of its most memorable comedic moments – who could forget Bobby kicking Hank in the groin? “That’s my purse! I don’t know you!” And in later years, episodes became a little more formulaic, as weekly Hank vs Political Correctness episodes occasionally started to dominate the character-driven core. But King Of The Hill never took the quality nosedive that so many of its contemporaries have; it was always consistent, and it’s nearly impossible to choose a ‘least-favourite’ episode.

What kept me in love with the show throughout its run was the way it always felt real, felt human. It’s by far the animated sitcom with the strongest live-action sensibility; it rarely exploits its form in ways that even early Simpsons did (Homer falling down the cliff twice, anyone?), allowing it, even in its afterlife, to distinguish itself from the stylised South Park and the cutthroat cutaway insanity of Family Guy easily. Its low-key humanity, calm and tender warmth, and refusal to capitulate to the pop-culture obsessions of the day set it apart from its brethren, and look set to only heighten the show’s reputation in years to come – sure, political correctness is a relatively contemporary subject, but the conservative/liberal divide is as old as time, and it’s subject matter that will age rather better than references to Lady Gaga and 80s theme songs.

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It mined quality television from natural conflicts that we can all recognise: on paper, a leftie teenager from rural England shouldn’t be able to recognise much of their lifestyle and family in King Of The Hill, but I did, and continue to spot wry comparisons a decade-and-a-half after I first fell in love with the show. Because King Of The Hill might look like it’s about socio-political conflict in Texas, and of course, to some degree, it certainly is. But it’s really about the conflicts that drive us all, the way inter-personal relationships in everyday life are funny and frustrating and loving and occasionally heartbreaking.

For several years, King Of The Hill seemed immune to cancellation, brought back from the brink several times before finally wrapping up in 2009 (although four final episodes didn’t air until syndication, in 2010, on Adult Swim.) A mainstay of Fox’s animation lineup, it continued to rate well until the end, delivering numbers comparable to – and often exceeding – the likes of Futurama and American Dad, battling valiantly against poor scheduling and frequent sports pre-emptions. It’s waged a strong afterlife Stateside, too, repeats rating well for Adult Swim – and the show’s removal from Netflix last year prompted mass outrage.

Here in the UK, though, it’s been a slightly different story. Originally picked up by satellite and cable channel Sky1, to sit alongside their existing US animated hits The Simpsons and South Park, it never rated as well as those, and was rapidly relegated to late (and, occasionally, disconcerting early) slots. It proved a handy utility player around 1999, as the rise of Futurama and Family Guy – as well as second-tier players like Dilbert and The PJs – led Sky1 to focus heavily on animated sitcom (it even got a primetime outing on Christmas Day 1999, as part of their ‘Animation Day’). But even a year later, it was increasingly sidelined in favour of other animated players, and eventually found itself in late-night-only positions on their schedule, before being dumped altogether.

It was likely a victim of the crowded animated sitcom world at the time; as previously mentioned, it’s a show that Britons may well have needed a few episodes to embrace – but when four episodes of the more immediate Simpsons and South Park are on in half an hour, why bother?

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Channel 4 took up the terrestrial rights around the same era, but had no obviously-compatible programming (remember, The Simpsons was on BBC in these days). It landed in the 6pm hour, generally, home to the likes of Home Improvement and Hollyoaks. It didn’t rate particularly well, and while they kept hold of the show for longer than Sky1 – right up to the late 2000s – it was usually in Friday late-night slots.

FX UK took up the digital TV mantle in the mid-2000s, but it’s disappeared from the schedule in recent years, in favour of non-stop Family Guy and American Dad repeats. Again, it didn’t rate particularly well, while Family Guy and American Dad do, with their more immediate appeal – and greater success on free-to-air platforms like BBC Three and, recently, ITV2.

It’s never too late to catch up, though. Every season is now (finally) available on DVD, both here and in the States, thanks to third-party companies picking up the slack where Fox. Regrettably, the perceived lack of demand for the show appears to have put paid to any streaming of the show here – for now, at least. But the first few seasons are bargain-basement prices on disc, and the minimal investment would assuredly pay dividends.

As steady as the titular patriarch, surprising depth – and hour upon hour of laughter – lurk beyond the propane-charred, southern sun-drenched exterior of King Of The Hill. If you wrote it off as uninviting or unexciting, give it another shot, and get to know the characters – you might just be surprised by one of television’s most humble, humane and hilarious pleasures.

If you’re stuck for suggestions on where to start, there’s no shortage of great writing about the show online – try Genevieve Koski’s primer guide. And if you’re already in love with King Of The Hill and are looking for an alternative fix, try Bob’s Burgers – it’s wackier, but it shares King Of The Hill’s strong character work and emotional DNA.