Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees doesn't even have a grill, but she's become a big believer in propane, I tell you what.
Hank: Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while
their husbands did the cooking.
King of the Hill fans don't need me to tell them what's so brilliant about this show. Which is a good thing, because explaining its brilliance is surprisingly challenging; like everything that's truly great, its greatness defies description. This is a show that simply features some of the best comedy writing on TV, and as Keats might have said, "that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." If Keats had been a Texan, at any rate.
Facts of the Case
At the close of Season Two, chaos had reared its head in the lives of the Hill family. Hank, the benevolent patriarch (Mike Judge), had lost his much-prized job at Strickland's Propane due to the invasion of that bastion of cut-rate evil, Mega Lo Mart. Forced to the ultimate degradation—taking a job at the enemy headquarters itself—he was on the scene when Buckley, monosyllabic boyfriend of his niece Luanne (Brittany Murphy), made a deadly propane error. A massive explosion left Peggy (Kathy Najimy) and Bobby (Pamela Segall) wondering if Hank had been killed.
As Season Three opens, we find that Hank (and Chuck Mangione) have survived the blast, but Luanne has lost her hair—and her boyfriend. Over the course of the season, Hank must overcome his crippling new propane phobia; Luanne continues to struggle in beauty school but finally finds new focus thanks to the departed Buckley, who appears to her as an angel; and Bobby ventures into more grown-up territory like kissing, partying, and deer hunting. Peggy must cope not only with Bobby's encroaching adolescence but with her new awareness that her friend Nancy Gribble is having an affair with John Redcorn; nevertheless, she also finds new interests like writing a "musings" column and (briefly) catching beauty pageant fever. Their friends are going through changes too, like Dale, who becomes a bounty hunter. ("You're telling me there's a poorly trained, quasi-legal police force that operates with few, if any, government controls? It's about time.") The biggest change of all, though, is that Peggy and Hank decide to try for another baby. The season ends on a cliffhanger episode, when Hank and Peggy go skydiving for their twentieth anniversary and Peggy's chute malfunctions.
King of the Hill stands out for many reasons, but perhaps one of the things that makes it most unusual is its unapologetically Southern flavor. You don't see many shows that are brave enough for that; even the über-Southern Designing Women made a point of debunking Southern stereotypes as much as embracing them. The South must be scary to TV executives, linked as it often is with patriotism, racism, religion, and all-around non-PC conservatism. Yet King of the Hill has a lot of love for Texas and its people, and while it may poke gentle fun at stereotypically Southern qualities, it does so with affection and understanding. In the hunting episode, for example, it finds gallows humor in the image of all the neighborhood kids proudly returning from the hunt with dead deer strapped to the tops of their parents' cars, but it doesn't dismiss the way that deer hunting can be everything from a significant life milestone to a practical means of pest control—or simply an excuse to hang out with the guys enjoying the outdoors. (It also offers some perceptive insight into another function of hunting when Peggy scolds Hank for not taking Bobby on a deer hunt to provide a release for his raging hormones: "He has a chemical need to kill! I was counting on you to channel that need away from humans.") It's remarkable that the episode, while showing different perspectives on hunting, doesn't criticize its centrality to the life of many a Southern male.
Likewise, we laugh at Hank's horrified reactions when Bobby fails to meet his conventional standard of manliness, such as when he quits the football team—or, as Hank puts it, "leaves sports and joins a soccer team." But we care enough about Hank to feel sorry for him too. By his lights, Hank is trying hard to be a good father, and it's not really his fault that he doesn't understand Bobby—just look at the way Hank was raised, by venomous, chauvinistic old ex-soldier Cotton. Sure, Hank's standards are old-fashioned, even reactionary, but we realize that they're standards he never had to question before; no wonder he's baffled by his son, who approaches everything with a blissful openness that's totally foreign to anxious, repressed Hank. There's also something paradoxically refreshing in Hank's old-fashioned nature, whether it's belief in the values that football taught him or reticence about sex. Ultimately, conflicts like this one end up giving father and son some insight into each other's point of view. It's not surprising, then, that King of the Hill can be genuinely insightful in its depictions of family dynamics and intergenerational relationships.
But that's getting much too clinical and dry. Time to stop with the intellectual analysis and talk more about comedy—say, about Bobby, who is one of the most consistently hysterical parts of the show. Bobby is the pinnacle of the unexpected. The writing for his character reminds me more strongly than anything else in the series that Simpsons veteran Greg Daniels is one of the masterminds behind King of the Hill: There's a Homeric quality to Bobby in his innocent optimism and the way he isn't restrained by conventional, or even linear, thinking. The world in Bobby's head is a whole different universe, and the glimpses we get into it—such as when he presents a Sunday School report on Jesus as a magic show, or aspires to be a golf course drink girl—are comic ambrosia. When a guy passes Bobby and Luanne sunbathing and yells "Hey, good lookin'!" I defy you not to hyperventilate when Bobby responds with a flattered "Hey!"
I also love the other ways the show turns the expected on its head. In what is surely a nod to Very Special Episodes of countless TV shows of the past, "Jon Vitti Presents: 'Return to La Grunta'" deals with the attempted molestation of Hank by a dolphin. Humiliated, Hank tries to hush up the shameful incident and put it behind him, but he finds that the only way to come to terms with the trauma is to face up to it and go public. He even ends up empowering other silent victims of dolphin harassment, like poor Bill Dauterive. The deadpan handling of the absurd plot makes it one of the most bizarrely funny—and yet somehow right—treatments of sexual harassment I've ever seen. In another great reversal of the expected, when Bobby gets a girlfriend, Peggy doesn't respond by feeling abandoned by her son; instead, her competitive spirit is aroused, and she sets out to prove that Bobby isn't the only one in the family getting some action. And since the characters have been well established by now, there are episodes that take advantage of our familiarity with them to make us laugh by presenting them in surprising ways, as when Luanne turns activist or Boomhauer objects in perfectly articulate language to his friends' clowning around (in the inspired "A Firefighting We Will Go").
In terms of packaging and audiovisual quality, the Season Three boxed set remains consistent with its predecessors. Visual presentation is clear and strong, with bold colors and a clean image. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio mix renders dialogue, sound effects, and the distinctive acoustic guitar in the musical score with perfect clarity and distinctness, making unobtrusive but effective use of the side speakers for dimensional sound that enhances the naturalism of the aural landscape. The only real use of bass comes during the opening theme song, but for a dialogue-driven show, the audio is quite fine.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After the bounteous extras that came with Seasons One and Two, I was shocked to see that this is a bare-bones set. I can understand that the cast members may not want to keep assembling for commentaries, but it doesn't seem like it would have taken much searching to add extra material that was already available, like deleted or extended scenes or an image gallery. Season Two featured no less than 197 deleted and alternate scenes, for goodness' sake! I can't believe there weren't any to be found for Season Three. Adding to the stripped-down feel of this season is the change to double-sided discs, so the entire season fits on three discs instead of Season Two's four. Sure, it's nice to have more room on one's shelf, but it feels like some of the love got lost along with the bells and whistles.
Season Three of King of the Hill shows off all the qualities that make this series outstanding: the clever writing, spot-on voice acting, and perceptive character development that audiences have come to expect. Plus, the Hills and their motley assortment of neighbors and relatives have come to feel like good friends. If I were somehow sucked into a cartoon vortex and allowed to live in an animated universe, I might start with a tour of the French countryside of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but the Hills are the folks I'd want to move in with.
Hank Hill is guilty only of trying to live up to traditional standards of decency, respectability, and responsible propane use. The court now adjourns for lunch so everyone can go get some barbecue.
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