King of the Hill Revisited: “King of the Ant Hill” and “Plastic White Female”

These are the last two episodes of the first season (there was one other episode produced in the first 13 episode order, “The Company Man,” but it was held over for the second season when its ending was completely re-worked). I’ll hopefully get to the second season soon, but I may do another show in between, or I might find a slightly different format for these posts — possibly one episode at a time instead of two.

“King of the Ant Hill”

This instalment is written by Paul “Not Yet Toby” Lieberstein and Johnny “Already the Voice of Dale” Hardwick. It’s the first episode to focus on Dale (and to really establish his job as an exterminator), as he becomes upset when Hank won’t let him spray his lawn, and also when Hank — the alpha male of the group — gets more respect from Bill and Boomhauer, even on things that Dale actually knows more about. Dale retaliates by using fire ants to sabotage Hank’s new, store-bought grass.

This is not an episode that lends itself to extensive commentary. It’s not a bad episode, though it is a bit more predictable than most, especially in the way it solves everything by having Dale save Bobby’s life. When a sitcom puts characters’ lives in danger in the third act, it’s often a sign that the plot isn’t really working that well. Adding the threat of death to an episode, unless it’s a setting where the threat of death is common, is a bit of a cheat. A half-hour comedy usually tries to find an emotional reason for one character to forgive the other; here the only way for Hank to forgive Dale is if he almost dies.

Of course, that’s a reflection of how far Dale goes in this episode, and that’s the most interesting thing about it, since future episodes will build on this and establish him as the go-to guy for things that would be too horrible or ridiculous (or both) for any other character to do. This story takes him from being the wacky conspiracy theorist to being a full-blown psychopath who is willing to commit property damage as revenge for being fired. He’s also a coward, who runs and screams when Hank is after him, and an idiot, who puts his evil plan right out in the open and is surprised when Peggy finds it. There’s really nothing conventionally likable about him at all, and the only thing that redeems him — until his designated redemptive moment — is that his bad qualities all cancel each other out: he’s too stupid and cowardly to be dangerous to anything other than a lawn.

Speaking of lawns, the most important character trait this episode introduces for Hank is his obsessive pride in his lawn. We’ve seen him on a mower before, but this episode shows us that his lawn is almost the most important thing in his life. It’s implied that it’s a way for Hank to channel the emotions that he represses in other areas of life; depressed that his lawn isn’t as good as Kahn’s, he laments that he’s given it “the tender feelings I’ve held back from my family.” But it’s also a very culturally-specific idea, something that makes sense in the context of where Hank lives. In suburban Texas, where keeping a lawn fresh and green isn’t easy, a good lawn is a point of pride and a bad lawn is a sign that the homeowner isn’t going the extra mile to make his home better. Hank, a man who believes deeply in rituals and seemingly meaningless titles, is the sort of guy who would decide that it’s his civic duty to have a perfect lawn, or that his status as Block Captain means that he has a special duty to keep his home in perfect shape.

And once you accept that, it makes perfect sense that Hank would be branded a cheater for buying grass instead of growing it himself (to the point that Kahn even suggests the destruction of his lawn is karmic punishment). The whole idea of the episode is that people take lawns really, really seriously, like a sport, with its own rules and its own moral code. When I saw the episode for the first time, that was the thing that intrigued me most: I grew up in the suburbs, but the lawn was not the main point of interest in front yards — it was the kind of car in the driveway, or the flowers being grown near the lawn, that people focused on.

The lawn stuff, which KotH would pick up on and spin into several other episodes, is a little way of implying that this is a very specific culture and world that we’re in. Even if we don’t know about this area or this culture, it feels specific enough that it could be based (loosely) on something real, and that makes it intriguing. And I think that’s one way of explaining why King of the Hill took off where other animated comedies didn’t. The Critic was set in New York, but it was sort of a fantasy New York, based on New Yorker cartoons and jokes about what New York is like; by the time it was on Fox, its New York seemed hardly distinguishable from The Simpsons‘ Springfield, and that was another strike against it in trying to prove it could offer something The Simpsons didn’t. King of the Hill is not only set in Texas, but it’s constantly giving us the impression that this is a unique culture with its own rules, and that Arlen is not like Springfield. Jokes about lawn care or high school football or propane are cultural signifiers that ward off any accusation of Simpsons wannabe-ism; that show’s world is generic, and this is anything but.

I haven’t said much about the subplot of Bobby being hypnotized by the Queen Ant and forced to do her bidding, because it’s just so damned weird I don’t know what to say about it. It’s a sign, I guess, that the show is still figuring out what should and shouldn’t happen in this world. The idea of a human being controlled by an ant, and actually behaving like an ant, is something that just doesn’t quite belong on this show. It may be a take-off on something real (that happens with ants, not with people) but the way it plays out it’s more of a Simpsons type of joke. It is arguably necessary to set up the final plot twist where Bobby is almost killed by the ants, though.

“Plastic White Female”

This was produced before “King of the Ant Hill” but selected as the season finale, and for good reason: it’s the best episode from the first batch of 13, as well as the most unique twist on a familiar story. Every show deals in basic situations that we’ve seen before — there are only so many plots available. I sometimes think that you can tell a great show not by whether it gives us a story we haven’t seen before, but whether it takes that story in a direction we haven’t seen; that’s a sign that the characters are unique. And unique is the word for what writer David Zuckerman (who went on to develop Family Guy) does with a seemingly simple premise: Bobby is invited to his first boy-girl party, and he needs to figure out how to be less shy around girls. This normal set-up leads to a second act break where he’s caught kissing a plastic head. That’s one we haven’t quite seen before.

The great thing about the episode is that it gets from the normal set-up to the crazy development with seemingly inexorable logic; there’s never a point where it seems like this is getting too weird to believe. It helps that the presence of the dummy is tied into the “B” story, a great example of how a show can use two plots while still feeling like an organic whole. Some “B” stories seem like they could fit into any episode, but the story of Luanne facing her big test at beauty school (where her teacher seems to be out to get her) is actually what moves the main story forward, because Luanne brings home that plastic head to practice for her test.

What happens then is sort of a plot-based play on the meaning of the word “practice.” The head is there for hairstylists to practice on, but Bobby sees it and realizes he, too, can practice for his big test (the party) by treating the dummy as if it were a real girl and acting out the things that boys are supposed to do around girls. That’s part of what makes the story so strangely logical, because it ties into something real: we know that people practice hairstyling on a dummy, so if Luanne can practice to be a better beautician, why shouldn’t Bobby practice his social skills in the same way? That implied comparison gives a sort of realistic foundation to the scenes with Bobby and the dummy, even the one with the musical montage set to the Beach Boys. (’90s shows could have surprisingly generous music budgets sometimes; it can’t be easy to clear an original Beach Boys recording like this.) It’s crazy, but it’s not totally implausible. And so Bobby comes off not as a freak but as a creative kid finding his own special way of fitting in.

And we see that the method is actually working for him, making him more confident around girls, albeit in a weird way: he starts to take on a sort of Hugh Hefner persona with clothes and speech patterns to match. And that leads to the end of act 2, where Peggy walks in on Bobby’s own idea of what a spin-the-bottle game is going to be like.

I should add here that all the voice actors really step up their game in this episode. Hank’s voice is more inflected, for example, Luanne gets a huge laugh with her delivery of the words “Don’t touch it!!,” and Pamela Adlon sells everything Bobby does, which isn’t easy when you’re a woman playing a twelve year-old-boy romancing a plastic head.

Though it’s not as rigid a pattern as it would become in some later episodes, the pattern that’s emerging here is one that the show would use a lot: Bobby can’t do something that Hank expects him to do, Bobby puts his own creative twist on it that makes him like it (but appalls Hank and Peggy) and then Bobby takes it too far and Hank has to pull him back from the brink. So by the time Bobby is doing that whole Hefner act, we become conscious that he’s crossed the line into freakishness, actually preferring the company of the head — which poses no threat — to real people. The episode doesn’t fall into the trap of just making Hank right and Bobby wrong, though. Partly that’s because Hank was portrayed as realistically insensitive to Bobby’s problems, so that Bobby almost had no choice but to find some weird way of dealing with them. And partly it’s because Hank actually causes more trouble when he destroys the dummy, since he leaves Luanne without any hair to cut for her big test. Apart from making Hank less than perfect, it ties the A and B stories together perfectly: the arrival of the head was what set Bobby’s story in motion, and the destruction of the head leads to the resolution of Luanne’s story, where Hank has to take the place of the dummy for the purposes of her test.

Finally, the “mislead” technique that Greg Daniels loves to use on all his shows — where we think the episode is building up to one thing, and then it turns out the real issue is something different — is in full force here. The basis of the plot is Joseph’s “boy-girl” party, but when Bobby finally gets to the party (in the final scene) everybody is as nervous as he is, and the kissing game is a complete disaster. Instead the episode resolves itself before Bobby gets to the party. First his mother admits that she’s been too controlling and too anxious to baby him, and that if he’s afraid of girls it’s partly because she encouraged him to be. And then Bobby undergoes his real rite of passage without even acknowledging that that’s what happening: he and Connie “practice kiss” so he’ll be prepared for his real first kiss. There’s a theme and even a lesson here, but unlike some of today’s comedies, nobody feels a need to spell it out (“It’s better to practice on real people than on inanimate objects” or “the only real way to become a more social animal is to find people you like to socialize with”). The show invites us to make the thematic connection that the characters don’t spell out or even fully realize.

Neither of them realize, or at least admit, that this is an important moment for them and a possible turning point in their relationship — but we do. And we see, for the first time, a prime-time animated character make some progress that may not be reversed in the next episode. Bobby will still be a weird little kid after this show, but he’ll be a little more confident, a little less introverted, and his relationship with Connie will be a more important part of his character for several years.

In terms of adding to what we know about the characters, this is the first episode to establish Hank as a Ronald Reagan fan, something that demonstrates a welcome sense of specificity: it’s completely realistic that a conservative middle-aged Texan would be a Republican, but most shows don’t bother (or are afraid to) get specific about a character’s politics.

And finally, for a glimpse at how a showrunner’s “touch” can sometimes be glimpsed in a show, the episode begins with Bobby and Joseph spitting at cars from an overpass — which is what Bart and Milhouse were doing in the opening scene of The Simpsons’ “22 Short Films About Springfield” episode, whose wraparounds were supervised by Greg Daniels. The content of the two scenes were completely different, of course, but you have to assume that this is a visual idea Daniels liked or at least approved of.


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