Pilot (Season One, Episode One)
Original air date: January 12th, 1997
Writers: Mike Judge & Greg Daniels
Director: Wes Archer
King of the Hill premiered at 8:30 pm on January 12th, 1997. Sandwiched between The Simpsons and The X-Files on Fox ensured it an audience, yet shows previously occupying that slot had flopped. Fox breathed a sigh of relief when King of the Hill (hereafter KOTH) proved a hit – little anticipating the rocky history between network and show.
KOTH merged two very different talents. The show’s main creator is Mike Judge, then best-known for Beavis and Butthead, which mixed scathing cultural satire with anarchic vulgarity. Co-creator Greg Daniels had written some excellent episodes of The Simpsons (“Homer and Apu,” “Lisa’s Wedding”) and later created The Office. KOTH blends their strengths into a unique show.
Like Judge’s previous work, KOTH parodies the mundane annoyances of modern life. Where Beavis and Butthead satirizes slacker culture, KOTH contrasts Arlen, Texas’s small-town values with pervasive bureaucracy. Judge created a proto-Hank for Beavis, the neighbor Tom Anderson. Where Tom was the butt of Judge’s jokes, Hank’s the commonsense hero opposing the stupidity of overbearing functionaries and Christian fundamentalists alike. Judge’s work evinces a libertarian slant, but savages liberal and conservative idiots with equal relish.
Daniels complemented Judge with his skill for characterization. Jamie Weinman explains that Daniels fleshed out Judge’s initial cast: Hank’s niece Luanne and father Cotton were his additions, as was making Dale Gribble a Hunter S. Thompson-like conspiracy nut. KOTH’s large, closely-observed cast (not only the leads but incidental characters) grant it a depth and immersive credibility lacking in most animated shows. Heck, lacking in most sitcoms period.
Slice-of-life animation is pretty rare: from KOTH’s era, Nickelodeon’s Doug tried it, along with Daria (a Beavis and Butthead spinoff) and a respectable subgenre of Japanese anime, but most cartoons don’t bother mimicking real-life. The Simpsons did in its early seasons, but quickly grew detached from reality. Most post-Simpsons animation (South Park, Family Guy) doesn’t even try. KOTH occasionally got wacky or surreal, especially in later seasons, but remained the most grounded cartoon on American TV.
The Pilot starts with Hank, Bill, Dale and Boomhauer drinking and discussing Hank’s truck. This introduction goes on for several minutes at a slow, almost static pace, less concerned with rapid-fire jokes than banal dialogue. It’s not the most dynamic scene, yet establishes KOTH’s world pretty well: we’re in a semi-realistic small town with mundane concerns.
In the story, Hank squares off against an obnoxious social worker, Anthony Page, who thinks Hank has abused his son Bobby. Page is an LA-born wimp with a wrist brace who mixes worrywart tendencies with condescension (calling Arlen “Redneck City”). Hence the ultimate Southern hate figure: a meddling outsider, physically weak and undeservedly arrogant. Anthony returned at least once (Season Two’s “Junkie Business”) and presages hundreds of twig-boys, bureaucrats and eccentrics who’d torment Hank Hill over the next 13 years.
But the Pilot’s meatier strands involve Hank and Bobby’s relationship. Hank’s defining traits here are anger and uprightness. Certainly we sympathize with his frustration against the bureaucrat’s misguided meddling. Yet watching his rant, we can understand why Anthony might assume the worst. Earlier in the episode Hank berates a Megalomart employee in public, leading gossipy neighbors to think he hurt Bobby. Here at least, Judge’s affection for Hank doesn’t blind him to his shortcomings.
Meanwhile, Bobby’s a weird kid who worries Hank. He’s terrible at baseball (where he’s really injured) and interested in pursuing comedy. Bobby uses events to manipulate Hank, even lying when Anthony’s boss calls off the investigation. Their relationship became KOTH’s bedrock, its most dependable story generator. Unlike most shows, Hank doesn’t “learn” to love his son: however awkward, his affection for Bobby is unconditional. But he must adjust to Bobby’s quirks and eccentricities – and steer him right where necessary.
Other scenes introduce supporting characters. Peggy establishes her teaching job and imperfect Spanish. Dale rants about global warming (“We’ll grow oranges in Alaska!”) before Hank shoots him down; Boomhauer displays motormouth incomprehensibility. Luanne succinctly describes her background (ditzy blonde from a trailer trash family). Nancy Gribble and John Redcorn have a great visual gag establishing their affair (and son Joseph’s parentage). And Cotton Hill gets a five-second flashback establishing him as the Dad from hell. Only Bill Dautrieve remains relatively vague.
Pilot’s definitely a work in progress: the animation is incredibly crude, the tone very low-key, the plotting and humor uneven. And the very sitcom ending, with Hank admitting his affection for Bobby, seems pat. Nonetheless, it provides a nice introduction to KOTH’s world. Wherever Judge and Daniels go from here, they’ve already created something special.
Quotes and Notes:
- Don’t worry, not every review will be this long.
- Early Installment Weirdness: both the cold open, something KOTH rarely did, and the lack of a stinger quote. As I recall, the latter didn’t start until Season Two.
- Voice actor alert: David Herman is Anthony. He became one of KOTH’s utility voice actors, and later costarred in Judge’s Office Space. He’s currently Principal Frond on Bob’s Burgers. Veteran character actor Gailard Sartain (Mississippi Burning, Elizabethtown) voices Anthony’s boss.
- Judge establishes Hank’s propane fetish and narrow urethra in two throwaway lines – the show’s longest-running gags. Talk about efficient characterization.
- Cotton doesn’t care about your bad day: “I got my shins blowed off by a Japan-Man’s machine gun, so don’t come cryin’ to me with your problems!”
- Hank struggles to control his anger: “Please respect my fence’s right to be a fence!”
- Hank mopes over Bobby’s mischief until Peggy reveals his lying. Hank’s snap response: “I’LL KILL HIM!”
- “Remember Dad – loud is not allowed!”
Square Peg (Season One, Episode Two)
Original air date: January 19th, 1997
Writer: Joe Stillman
Director: Gary MacGarver
Peggy Hill is KOTH’s most divisive character. By Season One’s end her self-assurance, weird hobbies and unshakable determination became her defining traits. But the writers ratcheted these tics up to absurd levels. By Season Four she’s an egomaniac whose modest achievements (teaching, skill at Boggle) swell her pride to monstrous proportions. Funny as Peggy is, many fans despise her.
“Square Peg” spotlights Peggy for the first time. Here she’s asked to teach a sex ed class, a subject she’s decidedly uncomfortable with. Local cranks (well, Dale) threaten her, while neighbors scoff and smear her. Hank isn’t thrilled either, to the point where he won’t let Bobby attend her class. But Peggy bones up on the topic anyway, putting her self-worth ahead of Arlen’s prudishness.
For longtime viewers of KOTH, “Square Peg” is jarring. Peggy’s surprisingly demure, even shy: the episode centers on Peggy overcoming her inhibitions, a problem she rarely had afterwards. Kathy Najimy’s voice acting increases Peggy’s likeability, meek yet forceful, without the abrasive tone of later seasons. “Square Peg” highlights her positive traits (her determination and pride in teaching) in a way few other episodes do: Peggy’s perseverance is admirable rather than absurd.
But sexual dysfunction runs in the Hill family. Cotton taught Hank about sex by watching copulating cattle. (Given future episodes, this seems one of Cotton’s better ideas!) Hank tries replicating the experience, but artificial insemination ruins the lesson. Peggy’s mother gave her a book, The Loveliness of Women, adorned with pictures of flowers. Between Peggy’s inhibition and Hank’s narrow urethra, they’re the last people to lecture Bobby about sex.
“Square Peg” extends these neuroses to Arlen, here a gossipy small town. Where the Pilot shows Arlenites spreading rumors about Hank, Peggy’s neighbors actively try to stop her class. Dirty-minded boys heckle Bobby at a baseball game; Peggy’s friends desert her. Dale threatens Peggy over the phone; fortunately, he’s too idiotic to be dangerous. There’s less moral objection than squeamishness: why are you teaching my kids that?
“Square Peg” retains the Pilot’s slow pace, but the humor’s more pronounced. The best scene has Peggy struggling to pronounce sexual organs, shocking Hank (“The whole neighborhood can hear you cussing!”). To vent his frustrations, Hank saws away at a tree. “I think Sigmund Freud might have a thing or two to say,” Bill opines about the result. Boomhauer unhelpfully lectures about condoms. For support Peggy leans on Luanne, who lacks her aunt’s inhibitions.
Like many early episodes, “Square Peg” reaches a compromise conclusion. Peggy finds the courage to teach class; Hank appreciates his wife’s bravery; Bobby learns about sex. But the episode cheats, with Peggy’s entire class walking out – except Bobby. It’s an odd, not entirely satisfying end to a mostly solid episode.
Quotes and Notes:
- Trivia note: Stephen Root goes uncredited as Bill Dauterieve for the first season. He was starring on NewsRadio and contractually couldn’t be credited on another network’s show.
- Peggy never kissed a boy until she was 20? Guess they hadn’t decided on Hank and Peggy as high school sweethearts yet.
- This episode introduces Dooley, Bobby’s classmate with a gift for snarky one-liners. Here he discusses Peggy’s class with Bobby: “We’ll get to see her boobs!”
- Peggy asks Luanne for advice: “Honey, tell me, what is it like to live without shame of any kind?”
- Bobby confides in Peggy: “I’m a little worried about being a slut.”
- Bill’s better-versed: “I didn’t take sex ed in school. The Army taught me everything I needed to know, and in four different languages, too.”
- Hank defends the double standard: “Don’t knock it, we got the long end of the stick on that one.”
Next, we’ll join “The Order of the Straight Arrow” and meet a rock legend in “Hank Gets the Willies.” Please like, share or comment if you enjoyed!