King of the Ant Hill/Plastic White Female

Today we’ll wrap up KOTH’s first season. Somewhat uncertain and erratic, as first seasons typically are, it nonetheless established the show’s unique voice and worldview. These episodes flesh out two characters who haven’t had much chance to shine until now.

King of the Ant Hill (Season One, Episode Eleven)

Original air date: May 4th, 1997
Writers: Johnny Hardwick & Paul Lieberstein
Director: Gary McCarver

King of the Ant Hill

You’ve got ants!

God bless Dale Gribble, who evolved from a weirdo spouting non-sequitirs into KOTH’s breakout character. From his inane conspiracies and exterminator job to his weird love triangle with Nancy and John Redcorn, Dale injects wackiness into an otherwise low-key show. In “King of the Ant Hill,” Dale shows a darker side than we’d ever expect.

Hank tries sprucing up his lawn for the Cinco de Mayo block party. Besides buying St. Augustine grass, he makes Dale stop spraying his lawn with pesticides. Dale gets revenge by implanting fire ants onto Hank’s lawn, forcing Hank to enlist his services. But Dale’s efforts destroy the lawn completely, leaving it a barren wasteland and Hank a wreck. Peggy discovers Dale’s plan, and Hank’s ready to kill him – until Bobby interrupts with a more immediate problem.

Like most Season One episodes, “King of the Ant Hill” starts with a mundane premise. Hank’s lawn care obsession is pathetic yet believable: besides offering banal satisfaction (giving it “the tender feelings I’ve withheld from my family”), it’s another status symbol for this suburban Texan. For Hank, a well-maintained lawn evinces manliness and prestige like a fancy car or big screen TV. Hank’s obsessions often lead him to trouble: here, putting mowing before friendship antagonizes Dale.

Dale’s cracked stupidity always defined him, so unsurprisingly it drives his first starring role. And what a crazy jackass he turns out to be. Unlike his usual harmless scheming, Dale’is actions are both malicious and destructive. Trouble is, this backfires because Dale’s a) spectacularly incompetent, b) leaves evidence where an interloper can easily find it. True Hank’s a single-minded weirdo, but the punishment’s wildly disproportionate.

There’s a disconnect between the show milking laughs from Dale’s silly rants and his deliberately destructive actions. Admittedly, ruining someone’s lawn isn’t the same as poisoning them, yet the principle’s the same. Put this down to “Early installment weirdness” perhaps: Dale was always more goofy than malicious after this. When he tries to kill Hank with a toaster or plots to torch Strickland Propane, it’s more a gag than serious threat.

Tonal dissonance is “Ant Hill’s” biggest problem. Many KOTH episodes punish Hank for his foibles but this seems mean-spirited. There’s also a subplot where Bobby’s brainwashed by the Queen Ant, something ludicrously out of sync with the KOTH universe. This dovetails with the main story, giving Hank and Dale’s conflict an easy out. Dale’s such a sociopath elsewhere in this episode that he can only redeem himself by risking his life.

“King of the Ant Hill” is funny enough for a generous grade, but it points to a persistent problem. Some episodes let Hank get away with questionable behavior; others punish him excessively for minor faults. Needless to say, KOTH worked best when finding a middle ground or treating his actions appropriately. Viewers will side with the grass-obsessed redneck over the destructive nutcase any day.

Grade: C+

Quotes and Notes:

  • There’s a weird exchange where Bobby acts surprised at Joseph calling Dale his dad. Does Bobby know about John Redcorn? If so, this is the only time it comes up.
  • “Why are men so attracted to hoes?” Peggy asks, in all apparent innocence.
  • Peggy, ever the Spanish teacher, notes that “you cannot make authentic guacamole out of lima beans and ritz crackers!” Next to that, spa-peggy and meatballs sounds downright appetizing.
  • Dale: “These fire ants are well-organized, highly trained insects. They’ll swarm all over you and sting you all at once without warning on a single command. It’s how they killed L. Ron Hubbard.”
  • Hank enthuses over an “all-natural” ant killing device: “This is exactly what those environmentalists should be spending their time on: Finding ways to use nature against other forms of nature that are inconvenient to man!”
  • Kahn helpfully spells out the episode’s theme: “Where I come from, we got a thing called karma. You do something bad, it come back and bite you in the ass. Big, white, stubborn ass!”
  • Peggy discovering Dale’s plan looking for a cup of sugar in Nancy’s basement (!?!) smacks of really weak contrivance.
  • “You sacrificed your life to save my son. I guess that makes us even for you ruining my lawn.”

Plastic White Female (Season One, Episode Twelve)

Original air date: May 11th, 1997
Writer: David Zuckerman
Director: Jeff Myers

Bobby Head

It’s not a crutch, Dad. It’s something I’ve come to rely on to help me through life!

Before “Plastic White Female,” what do we know about Bobby Hill? He loves comedy, is highly impressionable, fears Hank doesn’t love him. Those scattered traits don’t quite make a character. One of Season One’s standout episodes, “Female” finally puts Bobby in the limelight, making him just as likeable and complex as the adult characters.

Joseph’s holding a coed sleepover, freaking Bobby out. Bobby debates whether to go, terrified of interacting with girls. Meanwhile, Luanne stresses over her beauty school exam, bringing home a plastic head to practice. Bobby grows enraptured by the head and starts “dating,” even practice kissing it. What seems like a strange fetish helps Bobby grow more confident – until Peggy discovers Bobby and freaks out.

KOTH is uncommonly good handling adolescent behavior. Rather than treating tweens as undersized sixteen year olds, its children aren’t sure about girls, proper behavior or the mores of adulthood. Writer David Zuckerman (who later wrote “Hilloween,” among others) handles this with remarkable sensitivity, taking Bobby from the weirdo rubbing cheese on Hank’s guitar to one of TV’s most likeable kids.

“Female” gives Bobby a common dilemma: How does a pubescent boy who’s nerdy, fat and shy deal with girls? As evidenced in “Square Peg,” Hank and Peggy won’t be much help: Hank encourages Bobby to prove his manhood;  Peggy fears losing her little boy. His equally awkward friends prove no help. Being an adolescent is like blind man’s bluff: you want to impress your (equally clueless) friends with your maturity, without knowing what the hell you’re doing.

So Bobby’s left to his own devices and grows. He channels his anxieties into a “practice”, growing more self-confident and assured: he dresses nicer, gains self-assurance, even hits on girls (“Hey Sharice, you stone cold fox. What up?”) By episode’s end, he’s lost his inhibitions enough to kiss Connie and attend Joseph’s party. In the future Bobby used charm, humor and personality to connect with the ladies (as opposed to Joseph, who became weirder and more dorkish as the series developed). Bobby stayed something of a nerd, but never a loser.

Except that development’s facilitated by a plastic head. Zuckerman and the animators milk the scenario, culminating in a Beach Boys montage of Bobby frolicking with his head. This mortifies Hank and Peggy, who label him a freak and destroy the head (much to Luanne’s dismay). But really, it makes sense that a creative kid like Bobby would find their own way of addressing this problem. Certainly KOTH passes no judgment. Adolescents are weird: deal with it.

Luanne also gets significant screen time. After episodes of talk it’s great to see Luanne actually attending beauty school. Too bad Ms. Kremzer (Jennifer Coolidge) is a monstrous caricature with no redeeming features: her scenes drag down the episode. Even the normally-prudish Hank comments “What a bitch!” Still, it ties nicely with the main story and Hank’s participation in the final exam offers a sweet conclusion.

Late in the episode, Bobby and Connie “practice kiss,” setting up their long-running relationship. Their episodes generally rank among my favorites: the characters fit perfectly together. Bobby’s final moved on from mannequins to real people. The final spin-the-bottle gag ends “Plastic White Female” on a weird note. But then, it’s a pretty weird episode.

Grade: A-

Quotes and Notes:

  • No matter how much I watch KOTH or hear/see Pamela Segal (Bobby) in other things, she’s still Spinelli from Recess to me. Childhood nostalgia dies hard.
  • Bill helps Luanne study for her hairstyle exam. They’ll team up again much later in “My Hair Lady.”
  • On a pondering note, maybe Bobby got his charm from that unlikely ladies’ man, Cotton. He sure didn’t get it from Hank.
  • Luanne stresses the importance of hairstyling: “Beauty is an art. It’s not something you can learn in school, like gym or study hall.”
  • Hank encourages Bobby to attend a party with girls. Bobby responds “I don’t like girls!” Poor Hank.
  • It’s a simple gag, but Luanne’s “DON’T TOUCH IT!” is utterly hysterical.
  • Hank blames Peggy for Bobby’s head fetish: “You’re the one who parks him in front of the TV and makes him watch all them Muppets! They got frogs kissing pigs, what the hell did they think was going to happen?”
  • Bobby explains “I just needed to practice my first kiss so I don’t look like an idiot.” Hank’s priceless response: “You’re kissing a plastic head and you’re afraid of looking like an idiot?”
  • Eventually, Peggy comes around: “I realize I am just as much to blame for your condition as the media and the Devil.”

Season One Rankings:

Average Grade: B

Best episode: Order of the Straight Arrow

Runner-up: Plastic White Female

Worst episode: Hank Gets the Willies

Runner-up: King of the Ant Hill

Thanks for reading this far! Stay tuned for Season Two.

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