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”.