Tuesday, July 20, 2010

25. King of the Hill

It's fashionable (and easy) to champion various instances of pop culture as either “over rated” or “under rated”. Depending on your feelings towards “Beavis and Butt-head”, its creator Mike Judge may have been one of those qualifiers when “King of the Hill” debuted in 1997. He was riding pretty high with “Beavis and Butt-head” after six seasons on MTV and a movie. He had made headlines when he said that he was walking away from the show in order to work on “King of the Hill” which left some fans perplexed. Why was he leaving “Beavis and Butt-head? Why was he going to Fox?

Fox was quick to jump on this buzz and in many of “King of the Hill” promos they would routinely trumpet, “From the creator of 'Beavis and Butt-head'” as a way of getting viewers to watch their new show. Obviously, this is not a new marketing scheme. Hundreds of television shows and movies have used this trick as a short-handed way of making the new show, movie, record, etc. seem cool. It works on me all the time, I enjoyed “Clerks” a lot, so I saw “Mallrats”. I love “The Simpsons” so I tune into “Futurama”. I liked “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” so now I'm reading “Eating the Dinosaur”. You get the point.

But there is an inherent problem when using this tactic; what if the old show that you're comparing is nothing like the new show? There is a danger of turning off a potentially large chunk of you audience if they feel that they were fraudulently sold a bill of goods. “King of the Hill” (KotH) is nothing like “Beavis and Butt-head” (BaB). It's smarter, more subtle and more nuanced than BaB ever was. This was a different take than what we were used to, after all one of the first episodes of BaB was called “Frog Baseball” that showed the duo playing baseball with a frog.*

* Don't get me wrong, BaB is a funny show. It really is, and while there is a bit of social commentary bubbling under the surface, it's still a stupid-funny show. And that's ok. However, in the years since BaB, Judge has proven himself to be such a great writer (“King of the Hill”, “Office Space” and “Extract” leap to mind) that it's almost as if BaB were written by a completely different person.

KotH was such a completely different show from BaB that it took me awhile to adjust. I remember being so hammered with Fox's references to BaB that when I first watched the premiere, I was looking for signs that this was a prime-time, different network cross-over.* I was expecting Beavis and Butt-head to walk down the streets of Arlen, push Bobby Hill around or mess with Dale Gribble's shed.

* What made me even more confused is that lead character Hank Hill sorta looked and sounded exactly like BaB next-door-neighbor and main foil Tom Anderson. During the first half of the first show I thought that Judge was spinning off Anderson without any explanation of where BaB went, which I found jarringly strange.

What also worked against this type of promotio (for me at least) was that I was at my absolute saturation point with BaB. Even though it was a year or two past its prime, it was still run on MTV constantly. The movie had come out the previous winter with a gigantic media blitz and the overarching joke was being run into the ground (I get it, everything sucks). I didn't know much about Judge's background, but I was initially worried that he was going to do another version of BaB which I was convinced would have sucked. (Heh-heh)

My fears were elayed. KotH didn't play anywhere near the BaB universe, which was a very risky gamble. If Judge and Fox wanted to hedge their bets, they could have had BaB guest star in a couple of episodes, jack up the ratings and see what happened. But they took a more dangerous (and ultimately more satisfying )path in letting Judge team up with veteran TV writer (“The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live”) Greg Daniels to let the show build on solid characters and great scripts.

And it worked as KotH lasted on Fox from 1997 to 2009 (actually, some unaired episodes were broadcast on Fox affiliates in 2010 too) and during the first few seasons the show was a major hit on the network, sometimes outperforming “The Simpsons”. As the newness of the show wore off, KotH settled into a nice rut. Not time-wise, in the early part of the new millennium there were weeks when the show was simply not broadcast without explanation, as it was often preempted for the national late Sunday afternoon football game. The rut (and this isn't used as point of derision) that the show settled into was in the story telling and the characters.

And this is why the show was so successful.

At first glance, I would have nothing in common with the characters from “King of the Hill”. I'm as East Coast as can be, my views skew liberal, I'm not afraid of technology, I'm not middle aged and I've been to Texas a grand total of twice in my life. Yet I was able to identify with many of the KotH characters who were a complete 180 degrees from my every-day life and beliefs. Add to the fact that the characters are cartoons and it's quite a neat trick that Judge pulled off. He was able to make his cartoon characters more realistic and more universal than most sitcom characters.

How did he pull this off? To be honest, it wasn't a trick. Trick implies that there was some sort of underhandedness or luck involved and it's clear that there wasn't either. Because of his own creativity and skill, Mike Judge was able to sketch these characters out really well and he (along with the writing staff) were able to craft stories that played to his characters' strengths.

Unlike a lot of writers, Judge wasn't afraid to let his characters grow and did not let them fall into the same old clichés. Yes, every character had his or her own perspective and a catchphrase or two and would sometimes fall back on their time-worn behaviors. But they were never defined by the catch phrase. However even 10 or 12 seasons into the show there were still surprises where characters did something out-of-character that still made sense.

An obvious parallel to what I'm talking about is “The Simpsons”, as the seasons move along Homer has gotten dumber and dumber and dumber, ultimately culminating in doing things no real person would ever consider (Jerk Ass Homer). It can be argued that Homer is a cartoon character so it shouldn't matter, but one of the things that was so endearing about Homer Simpson (and the rest of the family) is that they were the (slightly cracked) mirror held up to society. Because we see a yellower verison of ourselves, that's the reason why we loved them.

But Hank Hill and the rest of his brood never wavered in the years the show was on the air. Aside from a minor difference or two, the character of Hank Hill was as consistent in 2009 as he was in 1997. And that is pretty awesome feet. If you have a revolving group of writers penning a show for 14 years, there are bound to be diversions from the original. Through erosion of truly understanding the characters or the writers wanting to simply add their own flair, the character at the end of a long-running TV show is usually not the same character that began it.

When changes were made, they were usually done to strengthen the characters. For example, Dale Gribble's wife Nancy. For more than a few seasons she was having an extramarital affair with John Redcorn that was known to pretty much everyone on the show. Redcord would sometimes interact with Gribble, who would be blissfully unaware of what was transpiring between the two. Gribble was so clueless he never noticed that his own son (Joseph) looked exactly like Redcorn. In one memorable episode, Nancy ended the affair saying that while Dale might not be the most conscientious person around, he was still her husband and she owed it to both him and her son to make it work.

The clueless cuckold is a comedic staple that has been around since Shakespeare took up a quill, so it takes a pretty strong will to stop mining this comedic gold and show some sort of respect for three characters. One, it makes Nancy look better. Two, it makes Dale less of a complete moron (Jerk Ass Homer in reverse). Three it makes John Redcorn seem like more a sympathetic figure as he still pines for Nancy and knows that he is much more a man than Dale will ever be. Plus it also eliminates a lot of Three's Company type situations that can grate on the nerves of experienced TV watchers.

Judge was also careful to make sure that the the guest voices were as timeless as the stories. In other words, he didn't have a lot of guest stars appear as themselves to take immediate cash grab of their current popularity. Tom Petty was a featured voice in later seasons as he played Luanne's husband Lucky. Even when it seemed like it was the flavor of the week guest starring on the show, Judge and company made them go the extra mile and play someone other than themselves. And in most cases, the character was completely different than the public perception of the celebrity.

This timelessness is what's going to keep KotH fresh. I'm sure people may get a chuckle remembering a guest star as unique to the 2000s as Kelly Clarkson, but they will no doubt (who also guested on the show) know who Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston or Snoop Dogg are.

Speaking of voices, Judge was able to assemble quite a vocal cast as he, Stephen Root (Bill), Kathy Najimy (Peggy), Pamela Adlon (Bobby), Johnny Hardwick (Dale) and many more brought a ton of depth to their characters. It's not always easy to animate emotion and if you don't get the right people to connect with the characters, then they're going to fall flat. All of the characters are fleshed out here, you can almost imagine them as real people. And while a lot of the credit goes to the writing staff, you need to also credit the people who make the characters believable.

I mentioned this earlier, but another reason why the seasons were so strong is because like the philosophy behind the guest stars, the writers made sure that each story wasn't filled with jokes that dated the episode in years to come. There weren't a lot of Monica Lewinsky jokes or George W. Bush guffaws that seem clever at the time but age quickly. Most episodes revolved around a situation that could happen today or 10 years ago or five years from now.

Another thing that Judge and his writers did was respect their audience. While this wasn't "Nova" or any other "deep thinking" show, it wasn't dumb either. There was a logic and a cause and effect for most of the situations the characters got themselves into and they did bring up some issues. Whether next-door Laotian neighbor Kahn was calling Hank and his buddies hillbillies* and ultimately becoming friends with them or finding out that Dale's father was gay, these story lines were done with a sort of sensitivity and mature attitude that other shows are afraid to do. Yes, it's a funny show but not everything has to be done with knee slap and a spit take.

* I always thought that Kahn being the racist towards Hill and his alley mates was a brilliant twist on the generic notion that all Southerners are racist hicks. Bigotry comes in all shades and Judge was able to portray this without smashing it over the viewer's head. Very subtle.

Parents aren't going to understand their kids, husbands and wives will butt heads, friends and neighbors will anger the blood and the world at large is a confusing place. But in the end, if you have a good family, good neighbors and a good head on your shoulders things will work out. That's the underlying message of the show. That's why even though Hank Hill has a narrow urethra and a solid middle-class life, he's always going to be “King of the Hill”.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Searching For Mr. Scary*

* Yes, I used the name of a Dokken song (and the name of lead guitarists' guitar) as a basis for one of my entries. I wish that it didn't have to come to this, but here we are. I'll never reference Dokken again. I promise.

When I was younger there were legion of pop culture boogey men (mostly musicians) that freaked parents out. This wasn't a product of the 80s, if you look back far enough, you'll see that just the idea of rock n' roll music was enough for parents to lock their children in their homes. You've seen the B-roll footage in scores of TV shows and movies: the small (usually) Southern town, the bonfires, the broken records, the town preacher yelling fire and brimstone. It's a complete cliché now, but it really happened.

As the late 50s/early 60s progressed into the Age of Aquarius and the mid 70s, the “pillars of the community” came to the realization that rock n' roll wasn't going anywhere and began to turn their attention to specific artists. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, among others were all public enemy number one when it came time to protect the fragile minds and squash the budding libido of America's youth. When the 70s bled into the 80s, parents were afraid of bands like KISS*, Alice Cooper and heavy metal before setting their sites on Madonna.

* As a junior high school student, I was an altar boy. During this time I was given a job which required me to be at the church for the mass on Saturday and three masses on Sunday, one of which I served. The other three masses required me unlocking the doors before services started, closing them after it ended and getting the altar ready for the day. Since I wasn't scheduled to work all the time, I'd hang out in the sacristy and listen to my Walkman. BTW, the sacristy is the room behind the altar—it's quite a boring place to hang out. Nothing to read except the Bible.

One day a priest walked by, saw me rocking out (as the kids say) and asked me what I was listening to. Stupidly, I told him that I was listening to KISS (and not classic KISS like “Destroyer” or “Love Gun”, but their piece-of-shit, we-don't-give-a-damn, we're-only-in-it-because-we-have-a-record-contract, 45-minute-harmonizing-group-vomit of an album “Crazy Nights”). He looked at me, got real quiet and said seriously, “You know that KISS means Kids In Satan's Service, right?”

Say what you want about Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley or Peter Criss or Ace Frehley or Eric Carr or Bruce Kulick or any of the other musicians that wore grease paint or spandex, but these guys were not Satan worshipers. They may be sex fiends, drug abusers, attention whores and money grubbers, but worshiping Lucifer was not on the bill.

As a kid, I was pretty naïve about a lot of things, but even I knew what the priest said was in no way true. It was then that I pretty much stopped taking the advice of adults about popular culture.

The thing about Madonna is that she really worked hard to get people all riled up. From her boring-ass book about sex (what a shock!) to her sexual overtones with religious icons in her videos, she was trying to get people to notice—and most importantly hate—her. And it did work. Pepsi dropped her as a spokesperson when the video for “Like A Prayer” came out and there were anti-Madonna protests in certain cities. But like most things Madonna, it never seemed genuine or visceral. It felt as if the right-wingers HAD to protest Madonna because she was working so hard to push their buttons.

The real anger of parents at that time settled on hip-hop. Man, did older people absolutely HATE hip hop. That's the main reason why I was so drawn to it when I was in high school. I felt that by buying an Ice Cube or an Ice-T tape it was like giving the finger to society. And as a white, middle-class kid living in a town where the only hassles were the police occasionally breaking up an outdoor party, you need an outlet for any type of antisocial behavior. Hip hop was that conduit.

And apparently there were a lot of disillusioned (about what, I don't know) white boys because hip hop pretty much dominated the angst and anger of middle America for a long, long time. From NWA to the Geto Boys to Public Enemy*, if there was an angry black man on an album cover, chances are someone was protesting it.

* When I was a senior in high school I worked at Friendly's Ice Cream with my mother. I became pretty good friends with a bunch of people in their early 20s, especially this girl Shelly. Shelly knew how much I loved Public Enemy (I'd draw that B-boy in a scope logo on so many things, I'm surprised I wasn't pegged as a future serial killer) and told me that her favorite band (Gang of Four) were playing in Boston with PE and wondered if I wanted to go. Of course, I wanted to go.

However, since my mom worked at the same place I did, she got wind of this idea and before I could put any spin to it, she said no. “Those concerts are just too dangerous!” So, I didn't go.

The postscript on this story is two-fold:

1. Now that I'm a 35-year-old man, I am going to see Public Enemy in concert, in Boston and I don't have to ask my mother's permission. Take that, mom!
2. A scant two years later, this same woman who was scared of a Public Enemy concert, let my brother (a sophomore in high school) travel to see a Grateful Dead show. I didn't get the logic then and I still don't.

After people realized that much of this black anger was an act, the hip hop anger cooled, rock took center stage again with Marilyn Manson doing his damnedest to scare America. The dude did everything he could to rile up the right-wingers: sexual ambiguity, drinking absinthe, bestiality, claiming to worship Satan, fake mutilations, the works. He took all of Alice Coopers' theatrics (BTW, Cooper's quote on Manson is pretty awesome, “He (Marilyn Manson) has a woman's name and wears makeup. How original.”), turned them to ten and repackaged them for the 90s. It drove a lot of people crazy, sold a ton of records and ended up flaming out.

In fact, the Onion did an awesome parody on Manson back in 2001: .

The last real Mr. Scary was Eminem. Here was the ultimate nightmare: a poor, white-trash kid from bombed-out Detroit who rapped (this wasn't Vanilla Ice) about killing his girlfriend, taking a ton of drugs, homophobia and just being a gigantic pain in the ass. And, to top it off, he had major street (read black) cred which means this wasn't some white asshole pretending to be black. Marshall Mathers was the real thing.

And Eminem held the crown for a few years until the throne was abdicated. There aren't any music Mr. Scarys any more. Sure, for a little while, we got angry at Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for their sexy ways. But we weren't actually angry at them, we were angry at ourselves because we found those young women so good looking and it ultimately confused. We weren't supposed to be looking at girls that young, we weren't supposed to be sexualizing teenagers, but here we were. And since we couldn't get angry at ourselves, we got pissed at the people who were giving us exactly what we asked for. The American public is a Mobius Strip of stupidity.

Aside from that brief jail-bait, pop-tart hiccup, there isn't anyone who the older generation warns their children about and tries to shield them away. And here's the thing, I am in that older generation, I'm supposed to be the one gnashing my teeth, beating my breast and wondering why our country is going to hell in a hand basket. Only I don't know who to direct my anger to.

I'm not big on the music scene any more, but pretty much anything I've heard on the radio is both bland and inoffensive. I'm not going to get worked up over the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus or Bon Jovi or any of the other bands that sound like watered-down versions of Matchbox 20, excuse me, I mean Matchbox Twenty. Even hip hop isn't shocking anymore. The last time we were outraged by a hip hop artist is because Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards.

Oooh that Kanye! How I hate him!

And while it sounds like this would be a good thing (the elimination of popular music as a way to get parents angry), it's not. Pop music and rock and hip hop are genres that are made for young ears. It's supposed to angry up the blood of the old. As Pearl Jam once put it, “this (meaning their music) is not for you (meaning old timers).” It's supposed to be a language foreign to anyone outside the 18-34 year-old demographic.

And Lady Gaga, bless her little heart, is trying so hard to be confrontational. She walks around half-naked, she flips off the camera at CitiField (in Jerry Seinfeld's private box, no less!), she got banned from the new Yankee Stadium, she sings about something that sounds sorta angry. But it's not the same. She comes from the Madonna school of shock; it's all too canned, too planned, too ... boring. I've seen how this show ends. Wake me when she gets to the pointy bras, making fun of Kevin Costner stage of her career.

The age-old dance of a parent banging on their child's door to “turn down that damn electric twanger” is supposed to elicit a teen's eye roll followed by a bellowing sigh and maybe an argument of misunderstanding. Now, my two-year-old daughter annoys me by playing that stupid Black Eyed Peas song over and over and over again.

A few things that I realize about my daughter:

1. She's two-years-old. In 15-years I pray that her taste in music gets better. Hopefully she finds something that will get my blood riled up because of something “shocking” and not because her music choices are so shockingly lame.

2. I would much rather listen to the last band she was obsessed with, The Wiggles, than the Black Eyed Peas. They are less packaged, can sing better, their songs have better lyrics and make more sense. “Fruit salad, yummy, yummy” is a far more interesting lyric than anything that Fergie yelps, while trying not to publicly urinate on herself.

Why don't we have any musical bad guys any more? My thought is that the real world is in such a quagmire, that we have bigger fish to fry. How can one care about Marilyn Manson when there is 9% unemployment rate in this country? Why is Eminem such a big deal when the Gulf of Mexico is essentially destroyed? Does MC Ren or Gene Simmons really provoke any sort of serious thought than that of the recent financial crisis or the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the death of the automobile industry?

The gist of this entry is this, the next generation needs bad guys that the previous generation can focus on because that means we're living in worry-free times. We can worry about some rich Midwestern guy claiming that he owed his entire existence to Satan and the effect that it would have on our children. We can worry that an angry black man could rile up a nation full of apathetic white kids to some sort of revolution.

But right now, we can't because there are only so many tears you can cry.*

* God damn it, I did it again. Another Dokken reference. Crap.