A Brief History of King of the Hill

King of the Hill has been canceled again, though a) It’s been brought back at least once before after being canceled, and b) It still has enough episodes left for the rest of this season and probably next season as well. But I think this will probably be it. Mike Judge is no longer working for Fox after the disastrous mishandling of his movie Idiocracy (a film that Fox sat on for ages and then barely released); his new ABC show, The Goode Family, will not be a Fox production. Fox is developing new animated shows with its contractees, like Seth MacFarlane and Mitch Hurwitz, and contract players presumably get preference over people like Judge and Greg Daniels who are mostly working for competitors.

KotH has turned out some good episodes this season — the “McMansion” episode was a lot of fun — but as I’ve said on other occasions, I don’t think it’s ever really gotten back to the level of its early seasons. The recent years of KotH have been very much like the Al Jean years of The Simpsons: fairly consistent, but rarely surprising. But in its early seasons, it was, in my opinion (as Peggy Hill would say) the very best of all the animated sitcoms, exceptionally funny but with a depth and richness that The Simpsons couldn’t quite match.

The key to KotH was the meeting of two compatible but dissimilar talents. Mike Judge came up with the idea for the show, drew the main characters and wrote a pilot, and Fox, as was its usual practice, teamed the cartoonist with an experienced prime-time TV writer. Greg Daniels rewrote the pilot and came up with several important characters who weren’t in Judge’s first draft (Luanne, Cotton) as well as some characterization ideas (making Dale Gribble a wacked-out right-wing conspiracy theorist). Judge gave Daniels full co-creator credit on the show, a generous thing to do (usually the cartoonist gets a “created by” credit while the other writer gets a “developed by” credit, as on The Simpsons and Family Guy). Both Judge and Daniels understood the show as an opportunity to portray the world from the point of view of Hank Hill, the type of uptight middle-class conservative who’s usually the villain. Both of them set up the stories to pit Hank’s common sense against the forces of political correctness and legalism, inspired in part by the book The Death of Common Sense. And both of them wanted to do stories that were smaller and more realistic and obeservational than you’d get on any other animated prime-time show.

But Judge and Daniels were different kinds of comedic talents, and the differences enhanced King of the Hill. Judge’s humour is very direct and straightforward and passionate; he tells you simply and hilariously what he doesn’t like in modern life (MTV culture, stifling office rituals, politically-correct “twig-boys”). Daniels’ work on The Simpsons, KotH and The Office has been focused on the emotional lives of his characters; he said on a KotH DVD commentary that once he was satisfied that the comedy of the show was in good shape, he felt that his main job was to make sure every episode would build up to an epiphany or an emotional revelation for the characters. Paul Lieberstein, Daniels’ brother-in-law and one of his top writers on KotH and The Office, said on the same DVD commentary that after they plotted out a show about Hank not being able to shoot a gun (a huge shame for a Texan), Daniels came up with the idea of putting in flashbacks that showed that Hank’s problem was traceable to the pressure his father put on him as a child: “A show about Hank not being able to shoot became about Hank getting over the ghost of his father.”

The resulting combination was a show that was at once a social satire and a sort of comedic soap opera, a show where every episode had some kind of underlying theme about how people relate to each other. The characters actually grew and changed (Luanne quit beauty school and went to college; Nancy ended her affair with John Redcorn and fell in love with her husband again; Bobby and his friend Joseph got older) and the episodes could be wonderfully unpredictable. The episode “Pretty, Pretty Dresses” from the third season (probably the best season, available cheap on DVD), written by Lieberstein, is my favourite episode of television from the ’90s, period: Bill, Hank’s lonely divorced friend, repeatedly tries to commit suicide, and when Hank confronts Bill with the cold hard fact that his wife will never return to him, Bill snaps completely and literally becomes his ex-wife, dressing up in her clothes and speaking in a high-pitched voice. A cartoon comedy episode about suicide and insanity — and yet it’s really funny, and really moving; Judge, Daniels and Lieberstein have all done great things since then, but I don’t think any of them have ever done anything better.

A turning point for the show came in seasons 5 and 6, when Daniels and Judge were both somewhat less involved with the show (working on other projects, including several pilots that didn’t get picked up). The style of the show in those seasons was pretty similar to the style of the first few seasons, but a little broader and wilder — the way The Office is getting broader as it goes along. As I understand this from what I’ve heard, and I might be wrong, there was some difference of opinion as to how well this approach was working. Judge, for one, has been pretty clear in interviews that he thought the show was going wrong in these seasons, making too much fun of Hank and reflecting the obsessions of the Harvard-educated writers who were running it. Season 6 was a tumultuous season, with several episodes being completely rewritten after the animatics, and the showrunners were fired before production was finished. Daniels came back to handle the showrunning duties for a while, and the seventh season was sort of a transitional year, with both Judge and Daniels more involved than they had been in a while: it still had Daniels trying to give every episode a broader theme, but the stories were smaller and more episodes were about Hank being the common-sensical guy standing against the insanity of the modern world, which is what Judge prefers. The first episode produced for season 7 was like a template for what the show has been, more or less, ever since: Hank is appalled at the sexualized culture that kids are exposed to today; Bobby has a new girlfriend whose parents are polticially-correct, hip people who believe in letting kids do whatever they want; in the end, Hank is proven right, that kids are just too young to be exposed to this kind of thing.

Anyway, since then, the Judge side has outweighed the Daniels side a little more every year. The showrunners since season 7 have been John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who have been with KotH since season 2, know absolutely everything about the show, and are really brilliant and funny people. (And they’re not Harvard Guys, unlike the previous showrunners.) Their approach to the show has been extremely well-executed — unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, KotH rarely has really crummy episodes — but increasingly it’s an approach I’ve had my disagreements with as a fan. The show has been very much on Hank’s side, and most of the episodes follow the pattern of that first episode of season 7, where Hank is proven right and the forces of Northeastern liberalism are proven wrong. I don’t have a problem with this politically (the show does not deal with these cultural issues in a politicized way, and you can be a Northeastern liberal yourself and still agree with Hank about lots of things), but it’s become the equivalent of “Homer Simpson gets a wacky new job” — it’s made the show kind of formulaic, where at its best it was the least formulaic animated sitcom on the air. It also reversed the growth of many of the characters, freezing Bobby’s age and his interests, sending Luanne back to cutting hair after earlier episodes implied she was destined for something better (not to mention making a semi-regular out of Tom Petty as Lucky, a character I just plain dislike), and floating the idea of giving Bill a regular girlfriend only to drop the whole thing after one episode.

Part of that is due to Fox network demands; the network insists that all their animated shows have no continuing storylines or character growth, because they want to show the episodes in any order and at any time they choose. And the producers have done some great things at developing at least some of the characters within those limitations. But the show just feels more constricted than it did back in the first six or seven or eight seasons (I think season 8 was the last great season), when it really portrayed a unique world and had a sense of continuity from episode to episode. Now the episodes are fairly standardized stand-alone adventures, so much so that when Hank’s father died, the writers forgot to mention that he had a wife and baby son.

I will be sad to see it go, nonetheless, because these characters create an emotional attachment like no other animated sitcom characters, and because the KotH approach, even the approach of the last few seasons, seems so real and so refreshing compared to the joke-joke-joke style of other Fox animated sitcoms. The only show that really tried to do something similar was Mission Hill, a short-lived WB animated sitcom created back when KotH was a new show and a big cultural phenomenon; the cultural phenomenon didn’t last, and neither did KotH’s influence. (Though American Dad, under former KotH showrunner Richard Appel, had a bit of that spirit at times.) But I think a lot of us will really miss it when it’s gone.