So often pilots don’t have the feel for the shows that they will later become.

Doris W. pointed out, quite accurately, that an exception was Mad Men: the story, the characters, the mood, the look, and most importantly the era, were all laid out near flawlessly in the first episode and flowed freely into the second, and from there, into the rest of the series.  (So far anyway – I’m only half-way through the first season.)  There wasn’t any visible tweaking.

Matthew Weiner has had to protect his vision that was fully evident right off the bat.

Sometimes it may be the viewer who has to adapt.  I would not have made it past the first
Battlestar Galactica mini-series (leading into the regular series) without prodding from Mr. Lousy, who assured me, accurately, that the show needed time to play out and I couldn’t make a
judgment from the bit that I’d seen.  I didn’t particularly like the greyness of the sets and of the mood, with its undercurrent of anger and the stiffness and shiftiness of politicking.  Later, I’d come to see the grey as one of the show’s many strengths, but it took a couple of episodes for me to come around.  In some cases, the audience has to be won over.

Ronald D. Moore, you won.

And when I finally arrived at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in 2010, I am not confident that I would have hung tough after the first season, which I found somewhat entertaining, but too silly and cheap to hold me for a seven-year run.  And I hadn’t even seen the original unaired pilot!

Doris W. and Mr. Lousy had to join forces to push me over that hump, until the show arrived at a
place in season two where Spike and Drusilla could thrive, and where Buffy’s friends could develop into evolving characters that I would become attached to, maddened by, and frequently surprised at.  It’s hard to surprise me.

Joss Whedon needed more than twelve episodes to roll out his complex, multiple storylines with rounded characters, and I needed more than twelve episodes to connect and ultimately bind myself to his universe.

Where would I be without the sage guidance of Doris W. and Mr. Lousy?  Probably socializing more and getting better exercise.  But those who offer me such wise counsel and firm encouragement – to stay on the sofa and stare at a screen – make me work harder at what I already do best: watch television.

Now it is Mr. Lousy prompting a second look at King of the Hill.  I didn’t really need much of a push since I watched the show in its original  run for at least four or five seasons.  I actually needed more encouragement back in 1997, when I connected the show to Beavis and Butt-Head because the look and sound were so similar and because both series originated from the mind of Mike Judge, though King of the Hill had the benefit of Greg Daniels as co-creator.  I had failed to find humor in Beavis and Butt-Head in its original run, despite the enthusiasm of some college roommates, who might need to force me to rethink even that series, though the arm-twisting will be tougher.

I ended up liking  King of the Hill on the first go-round as soon as I worked past my Beavis and Butt-Head issues, so re-starting was rather an easy sell for Mr. Lousy to make.  If I understand my assignment correctly, it was to examine the pilot.

Aside from the animation appearing somewhat cruder than I remembered, the pilot felt exactly like the show that I came to adore fifteen years ago.  Matthew Weiner, meet Mike Judge and Greg Daniels.  The Mad Men phenomenon is actually a King of the Hill phenomenon:  The pilot feels more or less indistinguishable in its sense of purpose from the years of broadcast that would follow.

Most importantly, the pilot places the story’s core, the relationship between Hank Hill and his son Bobby,  unmistakably front and center: Bobby is not the son that Hank could ever have imagined or prepared for, but Hank does truly love him, though expressing such a complex, deep emotion rarely comes easily.

The pilot addresses their relationship quite explicitly by forcing Hank to tell Bobby, with strained difficulty, including heretofore unheard noises coming from his throat, that he does love Bobby and that Bobby is not a disappointment to him, despite everything represented in his disastrous performance on the baseball diamond toward the beginning of the episode.

Bobby is so busy fixated on Hank telling him to keep an eye on the ball that he misses the pitch and the ball makes a quick trajectory into Bobby’s face, where he was standing on first base, to which I think he ran almost the entire distance still holding his bat.  Bobby is a rather hopeless athlete, and his desire to please his father only makes him worse: he can’t keep his eye on the ball because he can’t keep his eye off his father telling him to keep his eye on the ball.  The ball does end up on Bobby’s eye, though.

The resulting black eye, combined with Hank publicly losing his temper at a box store trying to find the hardware section, leads to town gossip and then to an investigation into child abuse – as well as the viewers’ unwitting investigation into the characters of and the relationship between Hank and Bobby Hill.

By bringing the social worker, nicknamed “from a point of anger” by Hank as Twig-Boy  into the Hill household and the wider community of Arlen, Texas, the creators slyly place most of the audience, myself included, in the seat of the antagonist, the social worker, who is as much a stranger as we are in the beginning.

The script references the social worker’s origin of Los Angeles several times, letting us know straight up that this show is not going to be about how L.A. and the entertainment industry making jokes at the expense of Texas and Texans.  (Though the converse might occur from time to time.)  The incompetent social worker whines that the Hills’ “whole neighborhood was redneck city,” widening the target from just the Hills to to the surrounding community, including Dale, who in the interview appears a backwoods nut job, as well as to Boomhauer, whose almost unintelligible comments are limited to complaints about an old complaint about a dog barking.  There was complaining, I know that.

Okay, so these characters’ brief discussions with the social worker actually do sum up a lot of who they are.  The point is that the social worker writes them off as idiots; the writers do not.  And they are challenging us to enjoy them as broad comedy – but not to judge them.

Case in point:

LuAnn, whose first major scene involves a hysterical crying jag (Hank’s worst nightmare) as she blubbers a barely coherent story about her  beauty school wig being ruined and a fork-stabbing that ended in her mother’s trailer tipped over.  We get it: she is trailer trash in a midriff whose life is such an unending crisis that a ruined wig and a domestic violence incident jumble into the same story and somehow even fit together.  Later, however, as Hank passes LuAnn in the driveway, she casually mentions that she had made some adjustment on his truck so that it would run more smoothly, something about a pipe.  Here my lapse in auto knowledge fails me, because I don’t remember what LuAnn did, nor could I even locate the parts she mentions on a vehicle.

I don’t always know as much as LuAnn.  And I need to remember that.

In a gentle way, Mike Judge (I think more than Greg Daniels) is putting me on notice: laugh at the characters, but don’t forget that I’m no better than they are, and be ready to experience Texas, particularly a lower-end suburban-esque slice of it, without making the mistakes of the fired social worker.

The social worker’s final misreading: He cannot see playful jabs as the closest Hank can get to a hug.

The closing shot is of him being shipped out of town on a bus, peering out the window to misinterpret yet another scene.  He’s learned nothing even after being tossed out of town.  The audience needs to open its mind or face the same fate.

Wow, is this a threat against the very viewers that the creators are courting in the pilot?

I love being wooed and warned simultaneously.

I think the first episode’s most golden moments came from Bobby taking advantage of the social worker’s investigation to see how far his father’s limits could be stretched, later revealed to be a litmus test for how much Bobby could push Hank before breaking him; Bobby is convinced that his father doesn’t love him, and violating the social worker’s suggested parameters would prove it once and for all.  On the surface it seems like Bobby is simply entertaining himself like the funny phone jerks, taking his behavior to extremes just to watch his father squirm under the microscope of child protection, waiting for the explosion of anger that becomes increasingly justified.

But Hank is hilariously unbreakable, especially as Bobby turns the screws, crashing the garage door repeatedly into Hank’s power drill, wrecking the back yard fence, and worse yet, misusing Hank’s precious riding mower as the set for a photo shoot with Hank’s beloved hound, Ladybird (Texas to the core!), dressed degradingly in a man’s button-down shirt and tie, looking almost as miserable as Hank, who watches the scene powerlessly from a window.

Hank’s powerlessness is magnified by Bobby’s constant therapy-speak, to which Hank must respond in kind, assumedly under the directive of the social worker.  I find therapy-speak so artificial that it’s creepy, and apparently so do the writers, because when it comes out of Bobby’s mouth, it is sheer psychological manipulation, and from Hank it is just a forced, rote response that runs counter to everything that he really wants to say.

It’s false and funny, highfalutin speech that is far more ridiculous than the genuine language coming from oversharing Peggy, disorienting Dale, and dang-dropping Boomhauer in their social worker interviews.  Note to self: using the prescribed words and phrases often means nothing more than artifice and ulterior motives.

Bobby: “Your hostility invalidates our parent-child contract.” “Loud is not allowed.” And the direct accusation: “Dad, that’s not respectful adult-child growth dialogue.”

Hank: “I’ll give you dialogue…” as he is about to snap before catching himself, muttering, “that’s not coming from a center of anger.”

Bobby furthers his upper hand by deceiving his parents after learning that the child abuse investigation has been closed and the social worker has been given walking papers.  He hides the news and continues his manipulation until his mother, Peggy, discovers the ruse and then uncovers its cause: Bobby is waging a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Bobby believes that Hank, in his heart, does not love him, because Bobby can never be the good ol’ boy who understands how engines work and doesn’t run almost the entire leg to first base clasping a baseball bat.

Bobby is certain that he can break his father, and settle any remaining doubt, though even bashing down the fence and humiliating Ladybird haven’t attained the goal.  Peggy sits him down and sets him straight:  Hank does love him; he just can’t express it.

Bobby appears as a patient grandfather rocking on the patio while Hank builds up from “fondness” to “love” to guarantee his son that he has never been a disappointment.

Peggy becomes the mediator between the two, as she will repeatedly in future episodes, forcing Bobby to tell the truth about the investigation, and then forcing Hank to tell Bobby – not in therapy babble, but plain and pure language – that he loves him no matter what.  It’s a theme we’ll see again and again, sentimental but earned.

Bobby makes the realization: “I can make him love me even when I screw up.”  It’s true.  Photographing Ladybird wearing business clothing on the riding mower for the posterity of vehicle misuse and dog humiliation leaves no doubt:  Hank passes the test.  The harder part is saying the real words.

NOTES ON HOW THEY HAD THEIR SHIT TOGETHER RIGHT IN THE PILOT:

  • Bobby is already the son that Hank was never prepared for.  He shows no aptitude for sports or automotives, but rather leans toward listening to the likes of “funny phone jerks,” with what a red-faced Hank nearly gasps includes “toilet sounds.”  “It’s not funny.  What that person … has is a medical disorder.” No it’s not really funny, but Hank’s red-faced reaction is.  In a sense, their disparate takes on recorded flatulence (or the poor imitation thereof) tells us much of what we need to know: Bobby finds humor everywhere, even when no one else is looking; Hank finds embarrassment and discomfort everywhere, as if everyone else is always looking.

  • Dale is a conspiracy theorist, making a crazy connection between global warning and global domination.  Hank shows his irritation by the common refrain: “Dammit Dale!” following up, “It’s already 11o degrees –  if it’s 111, I’m going to kick your ass.”  That’s the real Hank, even though we know he would never actually kick his buddy’s ass.
  • Dale, firmly established as an anti-government conspiracy theorist who sees duplicity and manipulation on a grand scale, cannot recognize it on a small scale in his own home, as his wife Nancy continues a long-term affair with John Redcorn, whose Native American features make him the painfully obvious father of Joseph, the adolescent son who Dale has raised.
  • Hank’s buddies.  Rather than make them a mere pack of beer-swilling men stumbling through middle age, each one stands out.  Dale with his nuttiness (not eccentricities – he’s really fucking nuts); Boomhauer with his accent that makes only the gist of his statements comprehensible; and Bill, balding, bashful, potbellied and pathetic, making you root for him all the more as you laugh uncomfortably at his king-sized loserness.
  • Hank’s narrow urethra.  It’s referenced TWICE, once from a highly uncensored Peggy (another trait will see again and again) and later from a cackling Dale.  Who the fuck thought of including a narrow urethra that is regularly written in and without exception causes Hank the aforementioned embarrassment and discomfort!  How I look forward to Hank lowering his voice to a quavering whisper whenever he must pronounce the phrase, “on account of my narrow urethra.”

  • Hank’s dreadful father Cotton is revealed in a flashback to help explain Hank’s difficulty with expression of emotions.  The Cotton from this flashback, however, is of regular height, in contrast to the three-foot version that we will see later.

I would be lapse if I didn’t mention the connections to Seinfeld, a show that I only recently made public – to Mr. Lousy – as one of my least favorite sitcoms ever.  I am guessing that Mike Judge and Greg Daniels probably admired it.

The pilot opens with Hank and his three buddies driving together while Boomhauer recounts what happened on the most recent episode of Seinfeld – not coincidentally a program about another set of four buddies.  After a particularly difficult-to-decipher synopsis, Boomhauer concludes, “Them New York boys.  It’s a show about nothing.”

Moreover, when Dale issues his warning over the falsity of global warming, he suggests a plot hatched by Boutros-Boutros Ghali Ghali (sic on the latter repetition).  This seems to be a callout to a famous line in Seinfeld that even I remember (but don’t really appreciate).

Are the Seinfeld references setting the tone for King of the Hill? Is this a cartoon about nothing?

I say no.  While their are some Seinfeld-esque bits, like the family on the way to the baseball game figuring out how much effort Bobby will need to put forth on the diamond before the big game, as 100% is not enough, and if the other team puts out 110% as Hank suggests Bobby do, then the game will end in extra innings, meaning that Bobby may have to put out 112%, which everyone concurs is reasonable, until Bobby ups the ante to 113%, which Peggy dislikes since 13 is an unlucky number, and which Hank counters is not technically 13, but 113.  It sounds much better on the screen than on paper, but it also sounds very much like Seinfeld dialogue.

I guess I draw the distinction between Seinfeld and King of the Hill in that the characters of the former inspired in me only disdain and an immediate urge to remove myself from their presence.  It’s a show, as Jerry Seinfeld repeatedly stated, that would feature no hugs at the end and nothing learned, ever.

In contrast, King of the Hill allows for sentiment, but it’s doled out very carefully, as Hank can only survive so much floating out in the open.

The only character who learns nothing is the social worker, and he is ejected from the series in the end – for precisely that reason: he didn’t even try to get the characters.  The viewers are invited to join the social worker to leave on the bus if they want to laugh at hicks or Texas caricatures without granting the characters closer consideration.

And the pilot does feature something of a hug, though it’s actually some affectionate jabbing.  That’s part of the reason I was sold the first time around, and largely the reason I’m able to appreciate it the second time around.  Hugs all around.

Just make them brief and uncomfortable.