It ain't better than beer. But it's close.
Toiling in the shadow of The Simpsons in the Fox television line-up, King of the Hill shows us that there is far more to Mike Judge than Beavis and Butt-head. Smart and funny, but never mean or outrageous, King of the Hill is a supremely well written animated series that appeals to adults and children alike.
Facts of the Case
As shamelessly copied from the helpful Fox press release:
"The Order of the Straight Arrow"
"Hank's Got the Willies"
"Westie Side Story"
"Hank's Unmentionable Problem"
"Shins of the Father"
"Peggy the Boggle Champ"
"Keeping Up with Our Joneses"
"Plastic White Female"
"The Company Man"
"King of the Ant Hill"
Hank Rutherford Hill (voiced by Mike Judge) is a fairly normal kind of guy. Living in the fictional city of Arlen (but the real state of Texas), he enjoys the simple pleasures in life. Pleasantly passing the time and the beer with his friends—the pathetic William Dauterive (Stephen Root), the paranoid Dale Gribble (Johnny Hardwick), and the incomprehensible Jeff Boomhauer (Mike Judge)—Hank revels in his daily work in the job of his dreams, namely selling propane and propane accessories as an assistant manager for Strickland Propane. His home life is not quite as idyllic, with sweet but out-of-her-depth wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy) and mystifying son Bobby (Pamela Segall). Mind you, Hank is utterly devoted to his loyal wife and loves his son without question (even when Bobby disappoints him in any number of ways).
All of this could very easily deteriorate into cheap-laugh sitcom territory, where Hank would be the object of endless mockery for his small town, middle class Texan ways, and traditional views. For a cartoon, King of the Hill is an awfully "real" sort of show. Aside from Hank's father, Cotton (Toby Huss), whose shins were blown off by a Japanese machinegun in World War II, the characters of King of the Hill are recognizable as people who we might know (or know of) in our own lives. The situations are grounded in reality as well. Let's face it—a middle-aged man's experience with a colonoscopy ("Hank's Unmentionable Problem") is about as real as it gets.
Having said that, King of the Hill puts a twist on the wonderfully subversive ability of animation to let the creators get away with things that they could not do with a live-action show. I can hardly imagine a live action show being able to handle such embarrassingly intimate problems as Hank's extreme constipation or Peggy's sex-ed class with care and good humor, entirely avoiding the cheap laugh temptation. Therein lies the key to the long-lived success of King of the Hill, now on the verge of an eighth season.
The creative team behind King of the Hill uses Arlen, Texas, the characters, and their situations to have fun "with" them but not make fun "of" them (for the most part). Hank's views on life do place him into humorous situations, but King of the Hill allows Hank to find his way out on his own terms. Much the same can be said for the other characters, even when an oblivious and black helicopter paranoid like Dale is simply begging to be mercilessly mocked. This is a show where the details are well researched and the humor is gentle, affectionate, and thoroughly wry. If this is anywhere within the parameters of your sense of humor, then King of the Hill is right up your alley.
The video transfer is of high quality. Though not breathtakingly colorful, the picture is generally sharp and solid, without notable digital artifacts, and with only a trace amount of flecks and blips. While I might wish that the audio track was more impressive, I cannot honestly say that I expected more than what is on this set. The voices and action are clear and distinct in the center channel with only minor contribution from the other front channels (and, of course, from the rear and subwoofer). I was disappointed only because I wanted to crank the theme song and get a pleasingly wide and thumping sound going. Ah well!
The extra content, spread out over all three of the discs, strikes a good balance between quantity and utility.
Disc One has commentaries for "Pilot" (co-creator Greg Daniels) and "The Order of the Straight Arrow" (director Klay Hall), plus a "Becoming King of the Hill" featurette and an Easter egg.
Disc Two has commentaries for "Hank's Unmentionable Problem" (Dale Gribble and Bill Dauterive), "Westie Side Story" (co-creator Greg Daniels), and "Shins of the Father" (Bobby and Peggy Hill), a collection of stills and video clips on each of the major characters, and a "Do's and Don'ts of King of the Hill" section. The latter is quite intriguing as much for the level of detail for various facets of the show as for the apparent difficulty of having Korean animators mass produce the final product.
Disc Three has commentaries for "Plastic White Female" (Peggy and Bobby Hill), "King of the Ant Hill" (Dale Gribble and Bill Dauterive), and "The Company Man" (director Klay Hall), a collection of promotional clips, a Barenaked Ladies music video [Editor's Note: Which I find odd, since the theme song is by one-hit wonder, but still very cool, The Refreshments], and a "Thank You" for the production staff.
Each disc also includes deleted (or extended) scenes for most of the episodes, though sometimes this footage features "raw" animatics and unfinished audio. Hard-core fans will appreciate this material, but without some context (such as an overall introduction or commentary) these scenes fall flat for a more casual viewer. Finally, the main menu and cover art for each disc is themed for different main characters, namely Hank (Disc One), Bobby (Disc Two), and Dale (Disc Three).
There is enough to be informative and humorous, but not so much that going through all of it feels like a chore. Similarly, the character commentaries are handled with a light touch, both light and mock-serious, thus avoiding the deadly Saturday Night Live sin of belaboring a joke past the point of humor. For unknown reasons, Mike Judge only appears in the featurette but none of the commentaries. Co-creator Greg Daniels and the episode directors cover plenty of detail on their own, but felt a little boost from Mike Judge would have been quite welcome. However, given his sharp feelings regarding 20th Century Fox and the whole Office Space SE controversy, perhaps his reticence is to be expected.
For those of you who collect box sets, King of the Hill Season 1 introduces yet another mode of packaging (although I note the recent Homicide: Life on the Street Season 1 & 2 is similarly packaged). Each disc is in its own slimline case, with individual cover art and back of the box content listing. If not the best packaging for a box set, it comes very close. It looks nice, handles easily, and seems durable for the long-term.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No series, particularly an animated one, is going to be perfect right off the bat. The actors are still getting to know their characters, so that the voices (notably Mike Judge's Hank Hill) are sometimes not pitched as we have become accustomed. Similarly, though the animation is hardly going to impress a Pixar-friendly audience, the animation (particularly in the pilot) is more primitive than the modestly more colorful and slick look that King of the Hill grew into as it has progressed.
With a dry, wry and affectionate sense of humor for friends, family, and the state of Texas, King of the Hill hit the ground running right out of the gate in its first season with only minor wrong notes. Whether for rent or for purchase, this is a DVD box set that will sit very well on your shelf and hold its own amongst its animated (and live action) brethren. Show it to your family with peace of mind!
All charges are dismissed, with one exception. Fox, blow the moths out of your checkbook, and make Mike Judge a sizeable offer. The court demands Office Space: Special Edition!
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