Sunday, September 13, 2009
So long, Hank Hill
King of the Hill ends tonight, apparently with a whimper -- since the show was cancelled after these episodes were already finished, these probably won't feel like last episodes. I haven't watched King of the Hill every week for some years, and after a 13-year run it's hard to feel that sad about the show being put to bed. But I still have a soft spot for it and will watch it in syndication sometimes and think, man, what a good show.
From the beginning, King of the Hill succeeded by being everything The Simpsons wasn't -- deliberate, conventional, understated. Where Homer Simpson was Homer Simpson, Hank Hill was the deeply moral, essentially admirable straight man who each week found himself surrounded by the frustrations of an insane, out-of-balance world.
While there's no doubt that Hank Hill's values are small-c conservative, one of the cleverest things the show did was consistently show the old-school authority figures that surround him to be just as incompetent and backwards as the California/hippie/liberal foils who sometimes made their way to Arlen, Texas. Hank sees himself as a kind of bastion of old-fashioned values -- but his Greatest Generation father, Cotton, is a crass, inconsiderate, tail-chasing old coot. Similarly Hank's boss, Mr. Strickland, rich Texas good ol' boy of an earlier generation, and also a thoroughly terrible person. Hank feels like a man out of step with his time, but we in the audience can see that his strong moral code would have made his life harder no matter when he was born.
The Simpsons, especially in its early seasons, had plenty of heart -- but what it never really offered were actual life lessons. Every character on The Simpsons tends to be equally buffoonish, whether it's evil Mr. Burns or hectoring, self-righteous Lisa. King of the Hill not only felt deeply for its characters but also offered a real vision of how to live in the world. I think that's a genuine accomplishment.
It's not really The Simpsons' fault that it spawned the empty, unfunny, basically repugnant Family Guy, but it did, unmistakably, as Family Guy picked up its gag-a-minute pacing and added a heavy layer of hackish nihilism and misanthropy. King of the Hill's TV descendants, meanwhile, are ... what? Maybe there aren't any, and Hank Hill really was a man out of time. Happily, that would seem to be the perfect recipe for a long, long run in syndication.