I must admit again I thought watching King of the Hill would be a breeze – a fun way to watch a show I was watching in reruns a few times a week anyway. Well shows what I know. I thought I would blow through early episodes that surely would not have the pacing or characters as developed as later seasons. I was caught off-guard by the pilot which had only a few minor wobbles in the characters and only a slightly slower pace.
Then I hit episode 2, Square Peg and I was stymied. Clearly, I have never underestimated a show more than this. Square Peg has all the subtleties of later seasons fully in place. The storytelling is already there as well and I think what may be the real point of the show – a picture of the complexity of Americans.
I was keeping a list of quotable lines but, as I think Raul mentioned in his viewing of the pilot, it would basically be a transcript of the show. And I had about five lines and details to mention in the first minute. I’m not exaggerating. I wanted to talk about –
1 – Peggy clearly office proud even though her office is the boiler room/utility closet with a desk wedged in, with her substitute teacher of the year 1996 trophy displayed
2 – Hank’s insanely unappealing farmer’s tan where his untanned skin actually looks green
3 – Hank’s ridiculous modesty, horrified at being shirtless in front of his 12 year old son
4 – Bobby’s complete obliviousness to the shock to be suffered by his parents at the thought of him learning sexual education in school
5 – Peggy and Hank’s relationship that is clearly a respectful partnership only a married/long term couple achieves demonstrated when Peggy rubs in the Icy Hot for Hank though he refuses to wear the weight belt she got him for Christmas
That all happens in the first minute. I timed it. That’s bananas. Anyone, and I mean anyone in television or film should be so lucky to have that much exposition naturally unfold in the first ten minutes let alone the first 60 seconds. Mike Judge, how long were thinking about this show?
The plot summary goes like this – Bobby brings home a permission slip so he can be taught sex education at school. Appalled, Hank and Peggy tear it up only to find the idea of teaching Bobby about sex themselves to be even more appalling. When Dale threatens the sex ed teacher, none other than Peggy, the substitute teacher of the year (1996) is brought in. In a competition for being uncomfortable, Peggy bones up – pardon the pun – on sex while Hank pulls Bobby out of school rather than learn about sex from his mother. When Bobby misinterprets Hank’s discomfort as disapproval, Hank brings Bobby back to school to learn about sex from Peggy.
I was going to go into how well the writers and performers capture the prudishness of Hank and Peggy, the misguided activism/terrorism of Dale and balancing their collective indignation with their ineptitude but again, I’d just be transcribing this excellent episode.
Instead I am struck by what I have admired in King of the Hill time and again. A loving portrayal of the dichotomy of the common American. Not so much conservative as easily embarrassed, principled, kindhearted but sometimes reactionary and bad-tempered.The Hills are the best kind of Americans.
Peggy is almost crippled by her modesty but she’s not frigid. When a fellow mom talks about how she thinks of the flowers in the book, The Loveliness of Women, while her husband, “would crawl all over me at night and do his business,” Peggy laments, “Oh Bonnie, you poor poor woman.” Peggy doesn’t have a problem with sex, she just doesn’t want or know how to talk about it with others.
Peggy declares, “Sometimes, a little intellectual hooey is a good thang” and bravely decides to overcome her agonizing discomfort with discussing sex including even uttering the words penis, vagina, and others. One thing I noticed is that Peggy was fine with dropping details about Hank’s narrow urethra in the pilot so it’s really just anything exclusively for reproduction I guess.
Hank and Peggy are indeed squares, but not unthinking ones. Hank accuses Peggy of cussing after yelling out vagina, not unlike the Michigan legislature of late. Unlike Michigan, Hank acknowledges the double standard in play here and later tells Bobby, “Don’t knock it” as they are the clear beneficiaries. And in the end, Hank proudly supports Peggy and Bobby.
I love America. I do. My parents are immigrants and have enjoyed a lot of success from a world of hard work. My sister is a doctor. I am a successful small business owner. I believe wholeheartedly this would only have happened here. But I am not without criticism. I am a liberal so you can figure out the rest. And I am not alone. Left or right, don’t we all struggle with what it means to be American? Don’t we argue about it every day?
I am currently reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. One character says about America,
“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness,”that worries about what it is.”
“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”
Indeed. What was the 2008 election if not the fight to define America? Who are we anyway and what are we about? What do we believe and what do we stand for? Can one nation truly support the belief that all are created equal? Can any one house accommodate the broad spectrum between far left and far right? Maybe it’s not important because most of us fall in the middle. Even my lifelong Republican mother who voted for Bush in 2004, voted for Obama in 2008 because she could not bring herself to vote for someone like Bush now that she knew what he was like. Most of us aren’t unreasonable, we don’t have a problem with the country itself so much as we don’t know how to talk about it.
Which is why a show like King of the Hill was and is important because it reflects ourselves back to us and pokes fun at both sides. It shows us how ridiculous both sides are and that we’re more similar than we are different.
Remember the liberal weenie social worker from the pilot who was only too ready to think Hank a hillbilly? Don’t assume. KotH shows us in Ep 2 that in the heart of Texas, a state ripe for liberal derision, a man who can’t be shirtless in front of his son can bring him to public school to learn about sex and a woman who has to practice saying penis by breaking down the word happiness can rise above her near stifling shame to teach children about sex because that’s what the substitute teacher of the year (1996) is supposed to do. When you think about it, you’ll know what’s right.
King of the Hill is a love letter to America. Even handed, funny and smart, I look forward to King of the Hill showing me the silliest and the best of what Americans can be.