King of the Hill Revisited: "Luanne's Saga" and "Hank's Unmentionable Problem"

Continuing my retrospective review-caps of the first season of “King of the Hill,” with “Luanne’s Saga” (fourth in production order but fifth to air) and “Hank’s Unmentionable Problem” (the seventh in production order but sixth to air).

“Luanne’s Saga”

First things first: this episode features the debut of that most memorable of recurring characters, Chuck Mangione. Getting him as the Mega Lo Mart spokesman is a joke on the tendency of stores to use washed-up celebrities in their commercials, and maybe even to a certain extent a joke on the whole “special guest voice” concept. This was the first episode in production order to use a celebrity guest (“Hank’s Got the Willies” was done after this one) and the first guest is… the “Feels So Good” guy? (The actual “Feels So Good” recording is also used as the music for an instructional video elsewhere in the episode, part of a multi-season running gag about Mangione’s one hit turning up everywhere in Arlen.) Though KotH would use lots of celebrity guests — particularly in seasons 2 through 8, when they were able to attract many big names — this is like a subtle statement that they’re going to have a quirkier approach to star cameos than The Simpsons did.

This is the first episode written by Paul Lieberstein: Toby Flenderson, Greg Daniels’ brother-in-law, and one of a seemingly endless number of successful TV writers who cut their teeth writing for the Weird Science TV series. (How many of them put it on their résumés, I don’t know). His episodes often — not always, but often — tended toward the darker end of the comedy spectrum, and while this episode is relatively lighthearted, it is the most dramatic of the first batch; Dale even comments that “this neighborhood is turning into Melrose Place.”

In case the title wasn’t clear enough, this is the first episode focusing on the odd person out in the Hill household, Peggy’s niece Luanne. (By the fourth season she had become more a recurring character than a regular, making her sort of the Ryan of the series.) I always liked the character, mostly because of how she played off Hank. Some characters are very versatile and can play well off anybody: that’s why Bobby was such a useful character, because as a chameleonic character with a shifting personality, he could be funny in different ways with different characters. Luanne, a more stereotypical character created mostly to bring out Hank’s discomfort with sexuality, wasn’t easily paired up with other characters, but she and Hank were always funny together, in a different way from the show’s core Hank/Bobby team. (I always thought this helped explain why fans of the show didn’t like her pairing with Tom Petty’s “Lucky” character later in the series. It wasn’t about ‘shipping; it was that the new character prevented her getting many scenes with Hank. Look at a post-Lucky episode and you’ll see that he’s usually the one talking to Hank.)

What provides a good foundation for Hank/Luanne scenes is that he just doesn’t like her very much, something that became clearer every season and was funny and different from most relationships on domestic comedies. Usually there’s an underlying sense of connection between every character, no matter how different. But Luanne is not only an annoying person (so is everyone in Hank’s life) but she’s everything that annoys Hank most — absurdly emotional, constantly talking about feelings, hanging out with his Mega Lo Mart nemesis Buckley — and she’s not his blood relative, meaning that he feels a duty to do right by her but not to like her. One of the running themes of the episode is that everybody seems to expect Hank to act like he’s Luanne’s father (Dale asks him why he lets her go out with a “hairball” like Buckley, Peggy constantly pushes him to be more of a father figure) and, as a man who believes everyone should play their proper roles in society, he doesn’t see it as his job to be a father to anyone but his actual child. If a Hank/Bobby episode is about Hank trying to do what he thinks a father is supposed to do, a Hank/Luanne story often has Hank trying to keep his proper distance from her life, and failing at it.

In this story, Hank’s desire to stay out of her life collides with his irritation at the screaming emotionalism of her generation, and he finds the excuse he needs to get involved: he’ll teach her to be more like him, set her up with a guy he likes, and generally treat her like one of his beloved mechanical projects. (This leads to one of the definitive Hank lines: “I went in there and fixed her, like fixing a carburetor. And you know what? It was fun, like fixing a carburetor.”) A key component of Hank’s character, throughout the series, is that he can enjoy new things only if he can relate it to something he already likes. Once he’s decided to train Luanne, he can have a girls-night-out type of scene with her without any shame.

Hank’s plan backfires, as plans always do, because people are not like machines but also because relationship problems are too complicated for men to handle on their own. This is one story point that’s a bit… I wouldn’t say dated, exactly, because it’s still with us, but the idea that men and women approach relationships in different ways, and that there are all these complicated relationship “rules” that men don’t understand, was really becoming huge in the mid-’90s. (“Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” had come out a few years earlier, and is actually invoked in this episode.) Fortunately, it never became a big part of this show — fortunately, because it would have made Peggy the wife who’s wiser than her husband on matters of the heart, and that kind of character is rarely funny. In this episode, Peggy’s lecture on how hard it is to manipulate relationships does give rise to one of the weirdest moments in the whole run of the show: a totally out-of-left-field hallucinatory fantasy sequence. The show would never do anything like this again, outside of dream sequences.

Despite the title, this is mostly Hank’s episode, as he gets a lot of development here while most of the other characters aren’t quite there yet: Peggy is, as I said, a bit too wise, and Luanne isn’t dumb yet. (It wasn’t until a couple of episodes later that the writers realized that they might as well start giving her dumb-blonde jokes and non-sequitur lines.) Boomhauer does get a bit of character development — we get to see his house, learn more of his reputation as the neighborhood ladies’ man, and his moral code — and Bill is nudged one step further toward what he will become, as we learn (twice) that he cries in his house over his divorce. There’s also a structural trick used here that the show will often use, having something happen in the first act that is “echoed” near the end of the episode to create a sense of development or change. In this case, the first act has Luanne crying because she was dumped by her boyfriend; near the end of the third act Luanne starts crying again, and Peggy points out that this time she’s crying not over being dumped by a boyfriend, but being dumped by Hank.

“Hank’s Unmentionable Problem”

This is the only episode after the pilot on which creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels get a writing credit. Unlike live-action shows, where showrunner/creators can write episodes fairly regularly (they don’t always, especially if they’re doing more than one show, but they can), on prime-time animated shows it’s usually not practical for the creators to write episodes once the show has been picked up for a second season. The extended schedule means that two seasons have to be produced at once — editing and rewriting the current season while writing and recording the next one — so the showrunning job usually precludes individual episode credits.

On a new series, the second creator-written episode sometimes has the feeling of a follow-up pilot — sort of a way of building on the experience of the first few episodes and clarifying what the show is supposed to be about. This episode definitely has that feeling, because it returns to some of the themes of the pilot but presents Hank in a more sympathetic light, and presents the themes of the show in sharper focus.

The first batch of episodes after the pilot all had Hank acting like a jerk and learning his lesson. This will still be part of the show for a while, as it should be (as I’ve said, the weaker episodes tend to be the one where Hank is Mr. Reasonable from beginning to end). But it’s not quite right in terms of what the pilot was going for, and specifically in terms of making Hank a sort of populist hero. The character from the last few episodes is more of a nicer, non-racist Archie Bunker, confronting the modern world and learning to adjust to the fact that things have changed. What this episode does is to bring us back to the flip side of that: sometimes the changes in the world are just irritating, and we can sympathize with Hank because he holds out against them.

That’s a pretty big theme to hang on a story about constipation, which is the foundational joke of the episode. Heavily influenced by Seinfeld, shows in this era were looking for small things that they could make big, recognizable things that hadn’t been talked about much on TV before because they were just too trivial or tasteless. Seinfeld had actually done a constipation story (with Kramer, of course) but it was only a subplot. Here it’s the whole episode, and a lot of the humour, as on Seinfeld, comes from the fact that the characters take this thing much more seriously than people in real life normally would. Much of the story has the air of a medical drama, becoming funny only because the dread disease they’re talking about is constipation.

But the episode isn’t really about constipation, anyway. It’s about Hank vs. the modern touchy-feely world, and this time, instead of him being a jerk to everybody, we get to feel like everybody is being a jerk to him. As in “Luanne’s Saga,” Hank believes that when you have a problem, you shouldn’t talk about it, and that especially goes for “toilet things.” (In a way, he’s like a spokesman against the new freedom of scatalogical subject matter that ’90s TV was experiencing, prodded by cable. Many viewers, particularly older viewers, felt that all this sexual humour and toilet humour would lead to a lowering of standards — and since Two and a Half Men is now the most popular comedy, you can’t exactly say they were wrong. Hank is representative of that viewpoint, which is often expressed in real life but very rarely represented favourably on television.) Peggy, who is genuinely worried that this might develop into a genuine health problem at his age, believes that it’s better if you talk it out and ask other people for advice.

Peggy’s viewpoint is presented sympathetically, since we can identify with the fear that a seemingly small health problem is a sign of something bigger. But once she tells someone about it (Dale’s wife Nancy, who for the first time is established as Peggy’s best friend) everyone in the neighbourhood knows, and everyone feels he or she has a right to express an opinion about Hank’s constipation. And that’s how much of the first act progresses: Hank wanting to be left alone, while no one accepts that he has the right to be left alone. The following scene doesn’t really have to be about constipation, though it’s funnier because it is. It’s about Hank’s old-school stoicism against the let-it-all-hang-out values of the modern era. For Hank, certain things are just not acceptable to talk about; for everyone else, it’s all fair game. And for the first time, we can get fully on Hank’s side against the modern world — because everyone is piling so much humiliation on him, and also because Mike Judge’s voicing of the character has become more dynamic and appealing. The best line in this scene, by far, is the matter-of-fact “No, you don’t” from Ashley Gardner as Boomhauer’s latest girlfriend. It sort of sums the whole thing up: even people who don’t know Hank feel they have the right to give their opinion on the condition of his intestines.

Much of the rest of the episode is a tour, with Hank, through all the different kinds of humiliations a person can undergo in everyday life. The second act takes place at a medical center, where Hank goes (under pressure from Peggy) to see a doctor. He has to talk about his bowel movements in detail to total strangers, take off his pants and underwear, and lie on a table while everyone — including his son — can see his exposed rear end. This is where the show’s leisurely pace really comes into its own as an advantage. Because it’s slower than other comedies, we can really feel each humiliation as the scene sort of lingers over it: by the time the doctor brings in a female medical student to examine Hank’s butt, we can fully appreciate what it must feel like to be Hank in that situation.

The second act also establishes a distrust of professionals, or at least young, modern professionals, something that was dealt with in the pilot with the child services guy but didn’t figure very strongly in the other episodes. Here the doctor, while not precisely incompetent, spends most of his time making life miserable for Hank: seemingly oblivious to the unpleasantness of the things he’s telling Hank to do, incredibly condescending, and with a habit of saying things that Hank’s old-fashioned common sense exposes as ridiculous:

Then comes act three, where Hank has to try to change his lifestyle and diet so he can get un-constipated and avoid a colonoscopy. This brings about still another category of humiliation. In fact, the episode is basically structured around those categories. Act one was about people talking about things that shouldn’t be talked about; act two was about the invasiveness (in every sense) of modern medicine; and act three is about the demand that you change the way you live, eat and behave. The antagonists in this last act are purveyors of New-Age food and healing, and Hank’s own wife, who — out of genuine concern for him — starts forcing him to adjust all his habits.

In keeping with the fact that this is the first episode where we can sympathize with Hank most of the way through, it’s the first episode where it isn’t Hank who has to atone in the end. It’s Peggy who realizes she was wrong (though Hank, being established as a hero who makes up his own mind, announces that he’s going back to his old lifestyle even before Peggy tells him it’s okay). Of course Hank then de-constipates and rushes into the bathroom for a triumphant bowel movement; there’s some suggestion that feeling at ease with himself and the way he lives — and knowing Peggy is okay with it too — is what cures him. But in any case, as so often with this show, whether or not he succeeds is not really the main issue. The main issue is that Hank collides with the late ’90s world and asserts his right to do things his own, old-fashioned way. That not only becomes the template for many other episodes, but it gives extra dimension to other, later episodes where Hank is wrong: now we have a much better idea of the positive, heroic side of his old-fashionedness, and can accept him as the show’s hero even when he’s acting like a jerk.

In terms of character development, we get a hint that Bobby is so weak-willed that he will imitate anyone he meets: upon meeting the proctologist, he announces that he wants to be a proctologist. This character trait is the basis for about half of all future Bobby stories. Peggy, as I said, gets to be in the wrong, and that sets the stage for moving away from the Homer/Marge paradigm where the husband is the nut and the wife is the reasonable one. And though Bill doesn’t have much to do, one throwaway line in Peggy’s dream sequence establishes a rule for the show: everyone considers Bill the most pathetic and expendable member of Hank’s group.


That’s six season 1 episodes down, six to go. The next post, either next week or in the New Year depending on scheduling, will cover two big “debut” episodes: “Westie Side Story,” introducing Kahn, Minh and Connie, and “Shins of the Father,” the official debut of Cotton Hill after several appearances in flashbacks and dreams.

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