Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 19, 2003)
It’s official: my memory sucks. I could have sworn that King of the Hill first hit the air in early 1998. I was certain of that because I was positive that it debuted after I already liked Beavis and Butt-Head. I know that I got into the latter show in the fall of 1997, and I knew that Hill bowed in the winter, so logically, Hill came on in January of 1998.
Or maybe not! The liner notes for King of the Hill: The Complete First Season state that the show first aired in early 1997. No way, said I! Way! said the research: every other source indicated that the series indeed debuted in January 1997. So much for my memory.
One reason I felt so sure that Hill initially appeared after I developed my affection for Beavis was because I recall the former disappointed me. I thought I had high expectations for the program and it didn’t initially live up to them. Without my prior fondness for Beavis, it didn’t make sense that I’d expect so much from Hill.
Whatever the case may have been, I didn’t initially care a lot for Hill, though the series grew on me over time. I’ve not seen most of these early episodes in quite some time, so I felt interested to see how I’d react to the programs so many years after their initial appearances. I’ll examine each of these programs in the way presented on the DVDs, which shows them in the order produced. This often differs radically from the broadcast chronology, so I include airdate information as well. The synopses come from the DVD’s liner notes; they seem quite terse, but they do the job.
Pilot (first aired January 12, 1997): “When a baseball hits Bobby (Pamela Segall) in the eye during a Little League game, the resulting ‘shiner’ causes a social worker to suspect Hank (Mike Judge) of child abuse.”
While early episodes of The Simpsons showed character behavior that seemed very different from what we’d seen in later years, not as many variations appeared during the “Pilot”. However, it was clear that the characters needed a little while to evolve. Hank gets too angry and Bobby seems too provocative. Some of the voices sound a little off as well.
The show also comes across as vaguely out of line with the later episodes as well. The characters and situations appear slightly cartoonier than we’d find them in the future. Ironically, at times it seems like the episode tries too hard to establish the characters in a certain way; it feels like the producers want to fully flesh out the universe in one fell swoop. This leaves the “Pilot” as an intriguing but mediocre show.
Square Peg (first aired January 19, 1997): “Peggy (Kathy Najimi) is mortified and tongue-tied when she finds out she’s been chosen to teach the high school’s Sex Ed class.”
Like “Pilot”, “Peg” tries too hard to be a “message” show as it criticizes the close-minded aspects of small-town life. After the broad humor of Butt-Head, it seems like Judge backed off too far and attempted to become overly subtle with the comedy, which makes the show a bit flat at times. However, “Peg” shows a little progress from the fairly dull “Pilot” in that it includes a few fairly funny moments, such as the depiction of Hank’s childhood sex education.
The Order of the Straight Arrow (first aired February 2, 1997): “Disaster ensues when Hank, Boomhauer (Judge), Bill (Stephen Root) and Dale (Johnny Hardwick) take Bobby’s scout troop on a wilderness outing in order to ‘make men out of them’.”
After the slight progress of “Peg”, “Arrow” feels like a bit of a regression. The show lacks the dullness of the “Pilot” but it takes the easy way with some of its gags and never becomes engaging. I can’t call it a bad episode, but it’s not very entertaining.
Luanne’s Saga (first aired February 16, 1997): “Hank’s promise to find Luanne (Brittany Murphy) a new boyfriend in 48 hours backfires when she hooks up with Boomhauer at Ugly’s Saloon.”
After three straight bland shows, “Saga” gives us a generally fine episode. It never really soars, but it starts to demonstrate the series’ potential. From Luanne’s hysterical crying jags to Hank’s vision of what Luanne likes in guys to Hank’s simple solution of how to make a woman happy, there’s a fair amount of fun material on display.
Footnote: “Saga” presents the series’ initial celebrity cameo, as Chuck Mangione makes his first of many appearances here.
Hank’s Got the Willies (first aired February 9, 1997): “Hank’s decision to teach Bobby how to play golf comes to a crashing halt when Bobby hits Hank’s idol, Willie Nelson, on the head with his golf club.”
And here’s our second celebrity cameo! Some shows tack on guests with no real purpose, but Nelson feels like a natural fit, as one can easily imagine that Hank would think highly of him. The show gets a little gimmicky at times, but Nelson does a nice job and adds to it. The episode’s not as solid as “Saga” but it offers some good moments, such as a silly but funny chat between Boomhauer and Bob Dylan. (Not the real Dylan, of course, though the actual Dennis Hopper shows up a little later.)
Westie Side Story (first aired March 2, 1997): “Hank’s attempt to be neighborly with the new Laotian family next door is sorely tested after he’s convinced they served him barbecued hamburgers made of dog meat.”
Homer has Flanders, and Hank has Khan (Toby Huss). Like many King episodes, this one tries to impart a moral about tolerance and acceptance for other cultures, and that makes it a little heavy-handed at times. Nonetheless, Khan and family quickly emerge as amusing and interesting characters, and they give “Westie” enough spice to help it become a generally positive program.
Hank’s Unmentionable Problem (first aired February 23, 1997): “Hank’s on-going irregularity problem causes great concern for Peggy and, much to Hank’s embarrassment, everyone else in town.”
With “Problem”, it looks like Hill is starting to get into a groove. Like those before it, the show doesn’t seem terrific, but it also avoids the general flatness of some of DVD One’s programs. Happily, it keeps away from the figurative bathroom humor that could have marred it, and it favors the amusing humiliation suffered by Hank. It’s almost touching to see how he copes with his issue, but it’s also funny to watch the ever-private Hank deal with such public embarrassment.
Trivia: “Problem” subtly introduces Peggy’s interest in Boggle, a seed that will soon bear fruit.
Shins of the Father (first aired March 23, 1997): “Hank and Peggy disagree over whether Hank’s sexist father Cotton (Huss) can stay with them – especially after Bobby slaps his mother on her rear-end and tells her to get his dinner.”
We saw Cotton only in flashbacks during a few prior shows; “Shins” formally introduces him to the show. Arguably the least politically correct character ever to grace a good series, Cotton has always been one of my favorite personalities on Hill, and he starts off well here. How can you not love a character who declares Angie Dickinson’s birthday to be a holiday?
Peggy the Boggle Champ (first aired April 13, 1997): “Hank’s promise to coach Peggy and the Texas State Boggle Championship is jeopardized when his buddies try to lure him away to the Ninth Annual Dallas Mower Expo.”
Here’s where those Boggle seeds from “Problem” take root! A very good episode, “Boggle” works well from start to finish. All the elements related to the game and the expo are funny, and the subplot with Bobby and Luanne at home also offers quite a few laughs.
Keeping Up With Our Joneses (first aired April 27, 1997): “Hank’s outrageous plan to make Bobby never want to smoke again results in the whole family becoming addicted to cigarettes.”
At times, “Joneses” becomes a little too much of an anti-smoking diatribe. However, it tosses in plenty of amusing moments to balance these, especially when the Hills are at each other’s throats when they try to quit. It’s also nice to see Luanne play a stronger role as she attempts to force them to kick the habit.
Plastic White Female (first aired May 11, 1997): “Peggy is horrified when she discovers Bobby playing Spin the Bottle with one of Luanne’s plastic beautician school heads.”
The first episode to really focus on Bobby, “Plastic” starts to let us know just how odd the boy is. However, it does this in a clever and fulfilling way; yeah, the situations broaden past those we’d likely see in real life, but it never becomes overly cartoony. “Plastic” is a pretty solid program.
The Company Man (first aired December 7, 1997): “Against his better judgment, Hank dresses as a ‘real Texan’ in order to persuade a ‘Yankee’ client to open a business account with Strickland Propane.”
Though Hank’s client Holloway sometimes seems too moronic to make sense as a powerful businessman, “Man” still provides a very entertaining show. We get some nice exposition about Hank’s career at Strickland and learn of his scheming foe Thatherton (Burt Reynolds). It also comes to its conclusion in a surprising way that gives us a happy ending, but not necessarily the predictable one.
Trivia notes: with both Reynolds and Stockard Channing on board, I think that “Man” offers the series’ first guest voices who don’t simply play themselves. In addition, “Company” was the only episode from the production of Season One that actually didn’t hit the air until well into Season Two. It was first broadcast seven months after the final other Season One show ran and didn’t appear until almost three months into Season Two!
King of the Ant Hill (first aired May 4, 1997): “After telling Dale to never spray insecticide on his lawn again, Hank’s expensive new lawn becomes mysteriously infested with fire ants.”
A solid end to the first season, “Ant” introduces a number of concepts. Most importantly, we see Dale’s business and its lack of success. (We also get very substantial indications of Peggy’s pretentiousness and her distinct aversion to Bill.) The parts where Bobby becomes a slave to a queen ant seem too absurd for Hill, but they’re minor misfires in a generally witty program.
Most Simpsons fans generally feel that it took the series a few years to “get good”, and I’d agree to a certain degree; while the first two years certainly include some great stuff, the show didn’t really hit its stride until later.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with King of the Hill. While most of the first handful of programs seemed somewhat dull and lackluster, the series developed surprisingly quickly. The end of Season One finds it still working through some growing pains, as the characters continue to broaden. Nonetheless, the series works really well for most of its first year, and this set includes a lot of solid material.