Thanksgiving with the Hills

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I know I have much to be thankful for on this, the most American (and therefore bipartisan) of holidays. I won’t bemoan my meager existence in the cosmos by going line by line over everything that I have to be extremely grateful for, but suffice it to say that this past year, from my maternal grandfather’s death last Thanksgiving to my sudden unemployment to my personal struggles on the campaign trail to finally my recent (and continuing) recovery over some of my personal demons has left me a changed person and very grateful to be able to rediscover at a young age just what I posess as individual that I must thank god every day for.

Today I wanted to take a moment to thank Adult Swim for their week-long retrospective of the King of the Hill’s past Thanksgiving shows. Many of you who know me personally know that I am a big fan of the show and of Adult Swim. I was quite happy when Adult Swim picked up the show, despite the fact that its straight ahead satire isn’t a perfect match for the more absurdist comedies the network features. For the uninitated, King of the Hill focuses on the daily life and travails of the Hill family in the fictitious town of Arlen, Texas. Though it is an animated sitcom, it has often been overlooked for its incisive satire (and loving embrace) of small town American life. The program is unique amongst other animated sitcoms (note how I avoid the use of the word cartoon) in that it generally follows the rules of physics and for not being overly reliant on slapstick comedy. However, it still takes great liberty in using its medium to its fullest potential to skewer both the troubling and joyous aspects of our society.

King of the Hill is brilliant in the way that it both embraces and pokes fun at the occasional ignorance of small town Americans of the world writ large while simultaneously skewering both high minded social engineers and profit driven corporations. At its core the show is more populist than conservative, though Hank Hill has many qualities that conservatives should embrace as their own: community spirit, a generous will, and a can-do-it attitude with a genuine love of hard work paying off for those willing to do it.

Another thing that its great at doing is showing the fact that, though many, MANY families in America may not live up to a Rockwellian image, by gum, they’re going to try. That’s why their satire of the holidays has always been so classic. In their Halloween episode they showed Hank going up against a religious zealot determined to suck the childish joy out of that holiday through an outright ban. In their Christmas episodes they’ve touched upon overwrought sentimentality, dealing with a mixed family, overcoming mixed emotions with parents, and the holiday’s pervasive loneliness for those without a family.

The Thanksgiving episodes are no less brilliant. For a holiday that few other shows touch, they produced four episodes, each classic in its own way. After all, what holiday could be more fitting for a show focused on small town America and how we sometimes don’t live up to the image but constantly strive towards it? In their first, “Nine Pretty Darn Angry Men,” they examined Hank’s strained relationship with his WWII hero father he admires but who shows little love back and his hesitance to confront his father’s demeaning treatment towards his long suffering mother (who Cotton claims he “scrapped” for a much young woman). They do this in the context of a focus group for a new mower that’s replacing Hank’s beloved model (which is framed as a brilliant Nine Angry Men parody). The mower turns out to be long on features but short of quality. They manage in the same episode to both explore the psychology behind a split family as well as deliver some snark to our enhancement obsessed society as well as some of the pop psychology and pseudo-science upon which focus groups are based. The episode features a bit part from a minister who delivers two classic lines. They speak to me as someone who has struggled with his own faith at times:

Boyce Hubert, minister, though I’ve lost my faith. Though I did find a pretty great parking space on the way in, but the lord works in such mysterious ways that who the hell knows.

I’m not sure if there’s a God, or a heaven, but one thing I can tell you, your daddy’s going to Hell.

In the Season 4 episode “Happy Hank’s Giving,” they again examine the family dynamic, this time with Peggy’s family. Peggy is shown as constantly trying to compete with her demanding mother who seems to love her brother more. Her brother, the father of their live-in niece, is hinted to be incarcerated, a fact proven in later seasons. They also examine Hank’s idefatigable character and honor as showing him as a man tested by the insanity of holidays at the airport, particularly when their flight repeatedly runs into weather issues. In one touching scene, he plays along with Peggy’s game of getting them on the last bus to Love Field, but at the last minute gives up their place to a man and his family who Hank had previously decided not to tell about the bus. The also satirize airline security two years before the events of September 11 by having Hank subjected to watching his beloved turkey destroyed by the airport bomb squad after it sent two of their bomb sniffing dogs over the edge and Hank’s repeated admission that his bags weren’t in his sight “at all times,” despite a security guard who could care less.

Season Five’s “Spin the Choice” again focuses on family, this time in the context of Bobby Hill befriending John Redcorn, the father of Hank’s neighbor’s Dale and Nancy Gribble’s son Joseph. It is in this episode that Joseph finally discovers his true heritage. That in of itself is interesting in acknowledging that these sorts of dramas are not just for big cities. However, the episode goes further by satirizing white guilt through Bobby’s scarily hilarious presentation at Thanksgiving dinner of the heritage of the Native Americans, one that in that part of the country includes cannibalism, while also showing the way in which people react to cultural truths they don’t quite understand. A classic line, when Dale is at the trailer of John Redcorn.

Redcorn: Any cultural anthropologist will tell you that the Anasazi last practiced cannibalism over 700 years ago!

Dale: (frightened) And you are affiliated with *which* tribe?

The final episode dealing with Thanksgiving was Season 7’s “Goodbye Normal Jeans.” The focus once again goes back to the Hill family, as Bobby takes home ec and (for once) actually manages to impress Hank, who is generally taken aback by Bobby’s less-than-masculine (in a Texas sort of way) tendencies. Peggy, frustrated that Bobby has taken over a good deal of domestic work and therefore making her feel devalued. I won’t ruin the ending, as it is airing tonight, but there’s a great bit skewering stereotypes of male hairdressers, a touching scene of reconciliation, and this classic line:

Bobby, I hope I never have to say this again, but get me an apron.

I know its probably strange to read a grown man opine at such length about “cartoons” (again, hate that word), but the show really spoke to me on many levels–not just as a small town American and a conservative but also because of my only family. I see a great deal of my father in Hank Hill, a dedicated seller of “propane and propane accessories,” a dedicated company man despite many episodes of disillusionment. I see some of my grandfather in Cotton Hill–a man for who there is much to admire but whose values didn’t always match with his parenting. Throw in other family issues, and, well, it’s all there. That’s what makes the show such a classic for me.

The show never got the audience it deserved, both with the general viewing public and with television critics. As you can see by my capsules above there’s much to be discussed from a cultural perspective. The show suffered due to often being pre-empted during football season, as it occupied the 7 o’clock time slot on Fox. It was unceremoniously dumped this season, and the final two episodes were shown in September with little promotion. The show may be remembered, however, as a favorite of former Democratic Governor Mike Easley.

But the show’s in the past now, and we’re left with twelve great seasons of satire and loving laughs about small town America. So sit back, relax, enjoy some turkey and football, and remember who we are as Americans, warts and all. And a happy Hanks-giving to you.

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