Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hail to the King! A Final Tribute to KING OF THE HILL, I Tell You What!

KING OF THE HILL Series Finale Review:

- I've written a lot about King of the Hill here on the blog, through many ups and downs. The show has been, throughout its thirteen year run, a true survivor. Many times, it got shelved, preempted, tossed aside, ignored, or just plain neglected. It even got cancelled, more than once, but came back from the dead. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I don't know if any long-running series in the history of TV has taken as much abuse from its home network as KOTH. FOX rarely if ever gave this show the respect it deserved, and even now, at the end, the show goes out unceremoniously in the early Fall. For all this - for the 7 pm timeslots, the lack of promotion, the misguided cancellation attempts ... I hereby bestow FOX with a FINGER OF SHAME that's been some thirteen-odd years in the making. King of the Hill deserved better, plain and simple.

Because it took a while for this consensus to build, and it took several years for even I to realize it ... but the fact is: King of the Hill will go down as one of the great TV comedies. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever contained such well-realized, fully-formed, and downright *human* characters. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever portrayed America with such an observant and good-humored eye for detail. And few, if any other series have ever had, as Hank Hill might say, so much danged heart.

King of the Hill is one of the few shows I can think of that actually got better and better as the years went on. I remember at first, I wasn't crazy about it. It seemed like just another Simpsons wannabe, and I remember being put off by the then-crude animation. But by the time KOTH debuted, I was already a big Mike Judge fan, mostly due to Beavis & Butthead, and so I kept watching. Afterall, FOX's Sunday night lineup in the mid-90's was sacred ground. Any show that aired between The Simpsons and The X-Files had my attention, no questions asked. So I continued to tune in, and something funny happened ... the show just kept growing on me, and that's in large part because it kept getting better. Several years into KOTH's lifespan, The Simpsons was experiencing a sharp decline in quality, but KOTH was finally in its prime. Right around the time I was in college, I think, was when KOTH was relly hitting its stride, where every week new episodes were alternatively hilarious and oddly touching.

Some people say that KOTH wasn't funny. Well, not every episode is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The show has Mike Judge's sense of subtle, subdued humor. It's one of those shows that sometimes doesn't make you break out in laughter, but it always makes you smile. That said, King of the Hill can be uproariously funny. I remember sitting around with my roommates at BU watching the now-classic episode where Bobby takes a women's self-defense course. His yells of "I don't know you - give me back my purse!" had us all doubled-over in laughter. KOTH could be very, very funny, and it's also up there as one of the most quotable shows ever. There are so many classic lines from Hank, Dale, Peggy, and Bill scattered throughout the series. The show has had consistently sharp writing for years.

During that period when I was in college and when the show was really firing on all cylinders ... I think that's when I started to fully appreciate how well it captured a sort of timeless sense of the American family. So many sitcoms come out of the gates trying so hard to seem cool and current. Oh my god, these kids are like totally texting! Or whatever. But King of the Hill was different, and it's a lesson to so many comedies that immediately date themselves beacuse they are so concerned with being "cool." The fact is, KOTH always just felt "real" to me. The Simpsons is known as the ultimate animated satire, but KOTH has long had a very sharp satirical eye. It was a show that commented on things that you wouldn't have thought of, but that sparked recognition. The writers of the show were known for actively seeking out trends to comment on in the show, and so many times, there was a pretty biting commentary on American culture at the heart of a given episode. So many episodes made me smile in recognition - both because of the concept and the characters. The central relationship of Hank and Bobby always felt to me like the realest, truest father-son relationship in the history of TV. Peggy was a bit more of a cartoonish cahracter, so to speak, but she's a character type that rings completely true. So many times, I've met someone and thought "that was such a Peggy Hill thing of them to do," or "wow, she is a real Peggy Hill." The same can be said for Bill - brilliantly voiced by Stephen Root, Bill was a sadsack character you couldn't help but love. Some of KOTH's best episodes were Bill episodes - and the show was never afraid to go very, very dark with Bill. Bill is like the embodiment of every guy's worst fears about themselves, the guy you do not want to end up like. Although everyone knows a Bill - that one friend who you look at everytime you think you've got it bad and think "nope, he's got it worse."

I was just thinking tonight, as I was watching the final episodes, how Bobby Hill might be one of the most realistic kids ever on TV. I love that, unlike other shows, KOTH always kept Bobby as a realistic kid. Bobby had a unique personality, and sure, Hank was often convinced that "that boy ain't right," but Bobby's adventures at school - with Joseph, with Khan Jr., - and his relationship with his family always reminded me of what it was like to be thirteen or fourteen years old, where you're never quite sure what "normal" really is.

I love that KOTH had many self-contained episodes, but it also had its own continuity that progressed quite a bit over the years. It gave the show a dramatic weight that no other animated comedy has ever had. There was real story and real emotion that ran through KOTH's thirteen years. We saw Hank's relationship with his father, Cotton, go from bad to worse. Cotton's death made for one of the best-written but most heartbreaking episodes of the show. When KOTH started, we saw Hank's niece Luanne move in with the Hills. First, let me state that Brittany Murphy gets a lifetime pass from me for the awesome voicework she's done over the years as Luanne. Second, it really is amazing to look at the characters story progression over the years. When all was said and done, Luanne was the show's true success story - she ended up married, with a kid, and happy. And by the way, who says you can't teach an old show new tricks? Late in its run, KOTH introduced Luanne's future husband Lucky, voiced by Tom Petty, no less, who proved to be a fun and oftentimes hilarious addition to the show. Luanne and Lucky's wedding was another high point - when the usually stoic Hank choked up during the ceremony, well, I'll admit it, I just about lost it. The series' most long-running ongoing plotline involved Dale and his wife Nancy. For the longest time, conspiracy theorist Dale was, ironically, oblivious to the fact that Nancy had been in a long-term affair with her "therapist" John Redcorn. Even worse, Dale's son, Joseph, was clearly a product of that extramarital affair, even though Dale either didn't realize it or refused to believe it. Dale, Nancy, and John Redcorn went through all kinds of ups and downs, and like I said, the show was never afraid to go to some fairly dark places with the storyline.

And that's something that a lot of people forget about King of the Hill. Sure, it was often a feel-good, heartfelt show. But it also had moments where it went dark, offbeat, or just plain weird. There are some truly oddball episodes of the series, that's for sure. One high point was the series' gloriously zany two-parter in which the Hills take a trip to Japan, and meet Hank's long-lost half-brother, who turned out to be practically an exact doppleganger of Hank. So hilarious. But even more than that, the show always had a very interesting moral center. Sometimes, KOTH did kind of use the "Hank vs. the World" type of episodes as something of a crutch. But the show never let you forget that ALL of its characters were flawed. Hank had a solid sense of right and wrong, but he could also be pigheaded and obsessive and close-minded. Peggy was a supportive wife and mother, but she was also somewhat stupid and borderline delusional. Dale was oblivious and selfish. Boomhauer was a womanizer. Bill was just pathetic.

Still, King of the Hill almost always left you with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside by episode's end. I hate sitcoms that try to force-feed you emotion, shows that don't truly earn their "aww shucks" moments. But like I said, KOTH's characters are so well-realized, and its plotlines so authentic-feeling, that its emotional payoffs worked. It sounds cheesy to say it, but I find that I'll watch King of the Hill and come away reminded of what really matters in life. Whether I was caught up in the craziness of college or the oftentimes upside-down world of Hollywood, King of the Hill took me back. Back to quiet suburbs and freshly mowed-lawns. Back to awkward adolescence and down-home values (whether they be right or wrong). It made me look at things from a simpler, clearer perspective.

Bobby and Hank in many ways couldn't be more different. Hank lives for sports and fixing things and propane, Bobby for comedy and junkfood and videogames. But they are similar because they are both characters who have a joy for the simple things in life. They both share a sense of common decency. They both cherish those little moments where all is right with the world. Sounds good to me.

As for tonight's episodes ...

- The first episode was a pretty decent Bobby-centric story in which Bobby befriends a group of spunky popular girls just in time for the upcoming Homecoming Dance. While Bobby loves all of their attention, the girls don't respect Bobby, they see him as a "project." Basically, he's there group mascot, not their real friend, and definitely not "boyfriend" material. Indeed, a perfect example of how well KOTH portrays random situations in a realistic, relatable manner. You had to feel bad for the naive and desperate-for-attention Bobby. Where the ep faltered a bit was that Hank's reaction to the whole thing was a bit much. Hank got legitimately mad at Bobby for "acting like a girl" (seemed sort of sexist, even for Hank) and letting his new friends walk all over him. Hank's point was valid, but his reaction seemed a bit over the top, as he ended up grounding Bobby just for not acting as manly as he should have. That said, the episode rebounded towards the end, with a nice father-son moment, after Bobby finally does man up and tells off the girls for using him and not respecting him. Overall, a solid episode, but it seemed to overplay the Hank vs. Bobby conflict a bit.

My Grade: B

- The second episode, and the series finale, was a nice ending to what's obviously been one heck of a run for King of the Hill. I don't know if this episode was planned as any kind of real finale, but it seemed like maybe the ending was altered a bit to provide more of a true "farewell" for the series. This one was another Bobby-centric ep, in which Bobby is recruited to join a competitive meat-judging team due to his previously unknown knack for evaluating the exact quality of a slab of beef. Hank, of course, is thrilled to see Bobby participating in any sort of competitive team. Plus, Hank is thrilled that he and his son now have something in common - a shared love for the finer points of meat. Bobby is at first gung-ho about the team, but soon discovers that his teammates are a bit too gung-ho - they have a bitter rivalry with a competing squad, one that's getting absurdly intense, with both teams intent on sabotaging the others' chances at the State finals. Bobby quits the team, much to Hank's horror, but Hank soon realizes that Bobby was right - the rivalry had gone too far. Despite that, Bobby returns to help his team win the State championship, and Bobby and Hank bond over the grill, with a who's who of Arlen's favorite residents joining in for a quality BBQ, Hill family style. The bulk of this episode was pretty standard KOTH fare, and again, it almost seemed like Hank's eventual conflict with Bobby was a bit forced and overdone. But ... what made this episode special were the numerous shout-outs to KOTH's illustrious history. Every major character got in a nice line or two - Dale, Bill, Nancy, Joseph, Khan, Luanne, Lucky, etc. - and there were also many references to the show's past. Chuck Mangione made a cameo, we finally found out what Boomhauer's job is (!), and Khan Jr. showed up after being MIA for way too long. Lastly, the final exchange between Hank and Bobby was indeed a perfect ending to the series, a heartfelt summation of everything that the show's always been about - that awkward but powerful bond between father and son. Sure, we know that Hank all too often thinks that Bobby is from another planet. But in the end, Hank can't help but be proud of what a good son he's raised. And that, King of the Hill told us in its final farewell, is what's truly important.

My Grade: A-

So thank you, King of the Hill. It's been a remarkable run, and Sunday nights won't be the same. It's the end of an era - the end of the last remnants of the glory days of FOX Sunday nights. The Simpsons is now the sole remaining flagbearer, and I of course hope that the upcoming 20th season of that show will mark a return of sorts to greatness. But even though The Simpsons will always be the king of animated comedy, I can't help but hold a special place in the pantheon for King of the Hill. It had a long, memorable run, despite the fact that it was never treated with respect from the network or from critics. It had some of the best-realized and best-written and best-voiced characters on TV. It had hilarity and it had heart. It was a darn good show, I tell you what.

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