In Season Two, King of the Hill both found its creative groove and hit its peak of popularity. Acclaimed by critics and heavily promoted by Fox, KOTH enjoyed a brief cultural moment as one of America’s most watched and talked-about shows. Sadly it didn’t last, even though the quality remained consistent for several seasons. Who can ever account for a network’s fickleness?
How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying (Season 2, Episode 1)
Original air date: September 21st, 1997
Writer: Paul Lieberstein
Director: Adam Kuhlman
KOTH always rested on Hank and Bobby’s relationship. From the Pilot onward, their differences drove the show, masculine but emotionally guarded Hank searching for common ground with his eccentric, creatively-oriented son. “How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying,” KOTH’s first truly great episode, brilliantly subverts their dynamic for both humor and pathos.
Hank discovers that Bobby has a knack for target shooting. He buys Bobby a hunting rifle and thrills that his son’s finally latched onto a masculine interest: he enters them in a father-son shooting contest. To his embarrassment, Hank isn’t able to shoot. He enlists sports psychologist Philip (Wallace Shawn) to overcome his inhibitions. Still doubting his aptitude, Hank drops out of the contest, until realizing how much it means to Bobby.
Season Two improves immensely upon its predecessor. While maintaining Judge’s faux-realistic style, the character designs are much smoother and the animation less crude. Judge starts to mellow Hank’s vocal delivery and his costars follow suit. More importantly, showrunner Gary Daniels hones the character development and cultural satire that made KOTH so appealing.
“How to Fire a Rifle Without Really Trying” dives headlong into Texas culture. Writer Paul Lieberstein both lampoons and celebrates gun ownership. Bobby takes an absurdly easy safety course, run by a maimed instructor. He finds his rifle in the “children’s gun section” and asks for a gun rack on his bike. We get our first glimpse of Dale’s gun club, with rebellion notices and mice heads mounted on the wall. The contest is a hootenay with beer, bikini-clad women and convoluted obstacles, like Bobby and Hank blasting a simulated burglar.
Other animated shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy, even Gargoyles) use firearms as a crutch for anti-gun advocacy. But “Rifle” avoids scoring political points. Dale’s proclamation that “Guns don’t kill people, the government does!” cuts both ways. Conservatives love the line as an affirmation of the 2nd Amendment; liberals, as mocking that mindset. This episode provides double-edged humor that everyone can appreciate.While KOTH gently ridicules gun-owners, it doesn’t dismiss them as bloodthirsty rednecks. For many Americans, guns are a cornerstone of life, cementing friendships and family bonds, embodying masculinity as much as cars, lawns or jobs. How problematic this is, especially in our current age of mass shootings, isn’t “Rifle’s” concern. Instead, it provides a springboard to KOTH’s paternal drama.
This episode subverts the usual dynamic: here, Hank’s afraid of embarrassing Bobby. Traumatized by Cotton’s shooting lessons as a kid (“Close the other eye or I’ll poke it out!”), Hank can’t fire his gun and tries to leave the contest. Naturally Bobby blames himself, forcing Peggy to intervene. Hank’s insecurities threaten their family fabric, not for the last time.
Episodes like this show Hank overcoming his emotional handicaps. Whatever his shortcomings, he’s exponentially better than the vulgar, emotionally abusive Cotton (who shows up to jeer Hank at the climax). After brooding over his potential humiliation, he realizes the impact on Bobby: losing self-confidence, interest in “normal” pursuits or affection for his father. Unlike Cotton, Hank loves his son and will risk humiliation to preserve their relationship.
Naturally Hank comes around, competing with Bobby (with a little nudge from Philip). Director Adam Kuhlman portrays their shooting performance in a brisk, funny montage set to The Magnificent Seven‘s theme song. Ultimately Hank does fail, but Bobby’s thrilled just to have done something with him. This is KOTH at its very best: emotional, heartfelt and funny.Grade: A
Quotes and Notes:
- Episode writer Paul Lieberstein became a regular writer for The Office and produced HBO’s The Newsroom. Lieberstein also played mild-mannered HR rep Toby Flenderson on The Office.
- Voice actor alert: Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) voices Philip as a spacey goofball. Fortunately, he’s the rare “twig boy” who actually helps Hank, even if his advice comes coated with asininity.
- The opening takes place at the Texas State Fair, with Bobby and Hank encountering Big Tex. Luanne commandeered the statue in a later episode, “Girl You’ll Be a Giant Soon.”
- Peggy thinks Bobby’s too young to own a gun: “It would be like giving Boggle to an eight year old, even though the box says that’s okay!”
- “I can’t remember the last time I shot a .22, but I bet there was a Texan in the White House. And I’m not talking about Herbert Walker Bush, either!”
- The gun instructor (voiced by Stephen Root) is one of KOTH’s best one-shot characters. “If it weren’t for the NRA safety guidelines which I eventually accepted, I’d be a stub standing here before you.” Johnny Hardwick’s overenthusiastic announcer also makes his debut.
- Bobby proposes taking his gun to school and “shooting off a few rounds between classes.” Yeah, this episode wouldn’t fly in 2016.
- Bill share’s Dales incredulity about the danger of firearms: “If guns are dangerous, I just think somebody would have said something.”
- Philip debates how to aid Hank: “I can help you without using witchcraft, pills or molestation, but it won’t be easy!”
- Cotton is late for the shooting contest: “I had to stop by the wax museum and give the finger to FDR!”
Texas City Twister (Season 2, Episode 2)
Original Air Date: September 28th, 1997
Writer: Cheryl Holliday
Director: Jeff Myers
“Texas City Twister” won an Annie Award back in the day, but it’s never been a personal favorite. There’s a lot going on here and most of it feels contrived, even if writer Cheryl Holliday centers it around a natural disaster.
Hank finds that Luanne for owing back rent at Shady Pines Trailer Park, which she left after her mother’s imprisonment. Hank kicks Luanne out of the house, sparking a feud with Peggy. Their conflict takes a deadly turn as a tornado touches down near Arlen, aiming for the trailer park. Hank decides to save wife and niece from the twister, endangering his own life.
“Twister” has a decent starting point: Hank’s emotional constipation driving away his family. Reluctant to acknowledge his feelings for Luanne, here Hank’s distance puts them in actual danger. Unfortunately, there isn’t much depth to draw upon. Luanne’s backstory is still treated as a joke, while Peggy and Hank’s feud is more plot device than character growth. It culminates in Hank professing his affection, desperately clinging to a telephone pole as the tornado approaches.
A few subplots pad out the run time, none amounting to much. Bill’s called up to help with disaster relief, changing him into a bullying jerk. (This became a consistent character trait.) Dale becomes a cowardly storm chaser, generating a few laughs but mostly sitting there. Nancy’s a little too enthusiastic about the storm, highlighting why she’s my least favorite regular character.
Episodes like “Texas City Twister” are inevitable: even a great show in its heyday occasionally drops a dud. Fortunately, subpar KOTH is more often mediocre than terrible.
Quotes and Notes:
- A debt collector cautions Hank: “If you’re callin’ me a liar, you better be holding something stronger than an umbrella.” “Nine iron,” Hank retorts, making him skedaddle.
- Luanne articulates her beauty school dreams: “I believe I could be the first person to fix those bags under Michael Douglas’s eyes.”
- “We want to get on the road before that Dr. Demento starts stinking up the airwaves. “
- Hank does feel emotion towards Luanne. “I was afraid she was going to hug me, I was worried that she wouldn’t leave, and I was relieved when it was over.” What a softie.
- Bobby plotting to throw an egg through a brick wall offers another, minor subplot. The payoff’s painfully obvious, but still manages a big laugh.
- An old lady’s unfazed by Hank’s nudity: “I’ve seen a barrel of pickles in my day.”
Next time we’ll uncover “The Arrowhead” and celebrate “Hilloween.” For readers, the chance of another 18 month hiatus is even spookier!