King of the Hill Revisited: Season 2, Episodes 7 & 8

Season 2, Episode 7: “The Man Who Shot Cane Skretteburg”
Written by Johnny Hardwick
Directed by Monte Young

It’s hard to believe that the “paintball episode” was ever a new thing, but of course the game itself is relatively new as games go, and this was one of the earliest examples of a TV episode built around it. It’s such a perfect game for television comedy, because the game is inherently a parody: it’s extreme violence, played very seriously with a lot of rules (not to mention a lot of guns) but with paint instead of bullets. The most reliable basis for a half-hour comedy plot is having the characters take something very seriously when it isn’t serious at all. So having them go onto a paintball field and play at fighting and dying – and get really upset about the consequences of losing – is irresistible.

[youtube= http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DrwQSocPZk]

So that’s how we got this episode, which is about Hank and his friends trying to use the game of paintball to re-assert themselves and come to terms with the advantages and disadvantages of getting older. It starts with the four men teasing an elderly next-door neighbour who sees them the way they still see themselves – as young guys. (This includes a reminder that jokes about old people watching Touched By an Angel had replaced Matlock jokes by this time. Now, for reasons I don’t really get, every show must do a joke about The Mentalist as the ultimate old-people show.) But then they meet Cane Skretteburg, a teenager with all the typical teenage stuff – a band that plays loud music, a rebellious and snarky attitude – and are defeated by these young creeps at paintball. Before executing Hank, Cane administers the final humiliation by calling Hank “Pops,” which is what Hank called the old man a few scenes ago. As he goes down in a hail of paint, Hank realizes that he’s not the Alpha Male to anyone except his three friends; to everyone else, he’s just a middle-aged man with a paunch, an easy mark for young hotshots with a paintball gun.

Much of what follows plays on the idea that people react to paintball exactly the way they would react to an actual war: Hank and the gang show symptoms of PTSD and have scary war flashbacks, and when they finally decide to take on their nemeses for a final battle, the music is a parody of military themes from movies like The Great Escape. Thematically, it shows Hank learning to embrace his status as a middle-aged man, or at least assert the advantages of middle-aged wisdom over youthful impetuousness. He and his friends observe teenagers, make notes on how awful they are (“Teenagers can be so cruel”; “teenagers show no respect for a man in uniform”) and use their newfound knowledge of teenage psychology to outwit Cane and his buddies, defeating them with smarts rather than speed. The reward for winning, of course, is that they get to take away the amplifiers from Cane’s band, preventing them from bothering the neighbourhood with their noisy rock n’ roll music.

This is halfway between a straightforward teenagers-suck story and a spoof of that kind of thing. But it is a minor triumph for Hank, who gets to be smack in the middle of the road as usual. He can’t be young and cool, and he realizes that, but he doesn’t want to be like the old man, who doesn’t even try to understand young people (“they can’t be understood. Just shake your fist at ‘em like this!”). Instead he studies them, plots against them, defeats them, and re-asserts his status as king of the neighbourhood. A lot of KotH episodes have Hank finding some way to deal with a challenge to his iconic status in his own little world; anyone who threatens to be the new King has to be defeated by Hank.

The teenagers are voiced by Green Day, with Tre Cool assuming the lead role of Cane. It was the first time a big-name current musical group had appeared on the show. (I recall reading that Mike Judge said there was another band originally considered, but I can’t remember what it was, or even he even said what it was.) Obviously, they don’t play themselves, and they don’t sing their own songs; they play a group that would plausibly turn up in this neighbourhood – a literal garage band.

I suppose it also has to be noted that the rules of paintball are wildly and freely violated in the episode. It doesn’t matter. One, it’s for comedy. Two, the whole point of the war analogy is that the Stubborn Stains stand in for the new breed of soldiers who violate the old rules of war, while Hank and his pals are the old soldiers who expect everyone to play by the old rules.

This is also one of the last episodes for a long time to include a really surreal dream sequence, full of shapeshifting and horrific images. Later dream sequences would be a little more “normal” and logical than these early sequences, which are more rooted in Judge’s alternative-animation background. Toward the end of the series, as if tipping their hats to the show’s early years, the writers and animators would occasionally put in dream scenes that seemed to be stylistically inspired by the one in “The Man Who Shot Cane Skretteburg.”

Season 2, Episode 8: “The Son That Got Away”
Written by Jim Dauterive
Directed by Tricia Garcia

Though it’s only a throwaway bit, I have to start by pointing out that this episode is the first appearance of the soap opera Los Dias y Las Noches de Monsignor Martinez. There had been many shows-within-a-show on The Simpsons (because the family was constantly watching TV), so as part of its attempt to distinguish itself from The Simpsons, KotH did not have a lot of TV parodies. But this one stuck, and Monsignor Martinez episodes would pop up on the show until around season 8. The approaches to TV parody are another example of how The Simpsons and KotH are different. The Simpsons also had a parody of Mexican TV in the form of Bumblebee Man, but he was half an L.A. inside joke (the show he was based on was on all the time in the L.A. market) and half an absurdist joke. Monsignor Martinez is supposed to have more of an “authentic” feel: it’s an over-the-top exaggeration of what Mexican soap operas are like, which is what makes it funny, but it’s not so exaggerated that it seems like a show no one would ever watch.

[youtube= http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96yaqZftDYY]

The writer of this episode is Jim Dauterive; this was the second episode he wrote but the first to air (for reasons I’ll get into in the next episode, “The Company Man”). He remained with the show for most of its length, was an executive producer for the last few years, and is now running Bob’s Burgers. One of the native Texan writers on KotH, he seemed to have a gift for introducing quirky new bit-player characters who caught on and came back: Monsignor Martinez, Lucky, the sleazy used-car salesman Lane Pratley, Bill’s entire extended family, and most of Hank’s co-workers (including boss Buck Strickland) made their debuts in episodes written by Dauterive. He seemed to be good at writing episodes that had a mix of authentic Southern flavour – including linguistic ideas a Northeasterner probably wouldn’t think of, like having Hank’s co-worker Joe Jack call everyone “honey” – and a cartoonish exaggeration of that authentic style. At its best it’s a mix that is sort of like a comedy version of Tennessee Williams (who is referred to in this particular episode, and was the subject of an episode-length parody in another Dauterive script).

The plot of the episode combines the coming-of-age story with the reliable “stuck-in-a” story: tired of being treated like little children, Bobby, Connie and Joseph go off to explore the forbidden caves, particularly the notorious Boneyard (“it’s either where old people go to die and young people go to make out”). They get stuck in there, as do Hank and Kahn. The fathers once again realize that they’re not so different after all, this time bonding over the fact that both American and Laotian teenagers are interested in making out.

The kids’ story is a little more complicated than that, since it’s about them trying to act like teenagers – the teenagers they’ve seen in the media, who make out, defy their parents, and have lots of angst – without really “feeling” it. It’s another episode that gets a lot of comedy mileage out of the gap between the way the characters think they’re acting (bad to the bone and rebellious) and they way they’re actually acting (nice, harmless and sweet). There are some teen TV themes that the show plays straight, like Connie’s crush on Bobby and Bobby’s sense of inferiority compared to his cooler, physically superior friend Joseph. But these themes become funny, rather than dramatic, because the kids just aren’t old or experienced enough to have sexualized adventures. Which is part of the comic theme of the episode: the kids are not as old as they would like to pretend to be, but the experience makes their fathers realize that their kids are on the verge of no longer being kids – it was plausible that they might be going to the caves to make out, and someday, just like their parents, they will.

This is also probably the first episode where Bobby really feels uncomfortable with himself. Unlike “Husky Bobby,” which was mostly about him feeling too good about who and what he is, “The Son That Got Away” really confronts him with his own limitations. He starts the episode by being a typical class clown, making up song parodies like his hero, Al Yankovic (“leading to Hank’s famous line “Al Yankovich [sic] blew his brains out in the ‘80s when people stopped buying his records”). His sense of humour is what makes Connie like him, even if he doesn’t realize how much she likes him. But in the caves, where his jokes don’t work, where he doesn’t get the “adult” jokes in an old Playboy, and where his lack of strength and athleticism really makes him look bad, he starts to get his first glimpse at what he might become when he gets older: a fat guy making bad jokes and desperately trying to get girls’ attention. It doesn’t work out that way in this episode, of course; by the end, Bobby is on top again because of his good heart and sweetness. But there is a hint, as there often is in the series, of why Hank doesn’t want Bobby to stay the way he is: it’s not just because he can’t accept his son, but because Bobby is getting too old to act this way and get away with it.

Besides Monsignor Martinez, the teacher voiced by John Ritter would return a couple of times before Ritter’s untimely death. He is a nerd with an Eastern accent who believes that kids’ problems are their parents’ fault, and that everyone should settle arguments using New Age-y psychobabble. In other words, he’s the type of character who is always wrong on this show (and, really, any comedy), and a guy Hank and Kahn can hate equally.

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