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How 'King of the Hill' has remained relevant years later

The main cast of 'King of the Hill'
The main cast of 'King of the Hill' (Image credit: Fox TV)

King of the Hill may have wrapped up eleven years ago after thirteen groundbreaking seasons, but in the wake of the ending Trump presidency (and with Hulu bringing the entire series back into homes across America), the show is as relevant as when it first debuted. From the brilliant minds of Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead, Silicon Valley, Office Space) and Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks & Recreation), King of the Hill is a satirical animated series centered on the eponymous Hill family. Patriarch Hank Hill lives a humble life as a propane salesman with his award-winning substitute teacher wife Peggy (although she has held a multitude of other jobs throughout this series), while raising his proudly plump and effeminate son Bobby, and overseeing his blissfully ignorant niece Luanne in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas. 

The series has been easily dismissed as a low-brow “comedy about rednecks,” but the truth is that King of the Hill is a biting commentary on everything from generational differences, the constant shift of American class dynamics, post-Reagan conservatism, idealized leftism, blind patriotism, white ignorance, systemic oppression, assimilation, southern stereotypes, and was ripping apart toxic masculinity before it became a buzzword. While the show is far more heavily rooted in slice-of-life realism compared to its contemporaries like The Simpsons or Family Guy, it consistently took larger swings at pushing the envelope with its storytelling and has continued to stand the test of time.

But at the heart of King of the Hill is the constant war being fought by Hank--one between his idealized and fabled view of American values, and the reality that true happiness and fulfillment will only be achieved if he’s willing to accept that the world and its rules are not what he had been led to believe. He’s surrounded by friends and neighbors similarly struggling with their own ideas of what makes “The American Dream,” many of whom appear to be permanently stuck in their ways and beyond help. 

Even in the earliest seasons when King of the Hill is arguably at its least nuanced, the show is unafraid to show the shortcomings of the major players. When we are first introduced to the Laotian Souphanousinphone family, the Hill family lights up their ignorance with neon lights by continually asking if they’re “Chinese or Japanese.” The joke is not at the expense of the Laotian family, but instead, as Minh Souphanousinphone frequently said, “her hillbilly neighbors.”

Hank, despite his feigned confidence and perceived stubbornness is constantly challenging his own preconceived notions and allowing the space for this old bloodhound to learn new tricks--no matter how hard he insists that he’s already learned plenty. Hank is the father we can educate about racial injustice and systemic issues who may not fully understand the hip new jargon used to describe it, but sure as hell doesn’t think it’s right that people are being treated differently because of the color of their skin. The deconstruction (and truthfully sometimes perpetuation) of racial stereotypes are always rooted in ignorance rather than malice. That is, unless the character is written to be intentionally unlikable, like Hank’s own (very racist) father Cotton.

And few are more unlikable than Dale “Rusty Shackleford” Gribble. Part-time bug killer and full-time wingnut, he genuinely believes the United Nations controls the weather, Hawaii doesn’t exist, and that all computers are sentient. Any day now we’re going to read a headline about insurrectionists armed with pocket sand (shh shh sha). Everything that leaves his mouth sounds like a new QAnon conspiracy theory, but what was a funny character quirk twenty years ago is now a horrific reality causing legitimate harm to society. "Let me ask you this: Guy breaks into your house and you don't have a gun..how are you going to shoot him?" Read literally any critical reply of a tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and you’ve got Dale Gribble. Times were simpler when the most ominous conspiracies we had to deal with was Dale suggesting that the Super Bowl was pre-taped at the same studio as the moon landing. 

Perhaps most relevant is King of the Hill’s progressive examinations of gender politics, with none more prominent than through the exploration of the ultimate soy boy, Bobby Hill. The pinnacle of healthy masculinity, Bobby is the source of most of Hank’s need to change with the times and a champion of disregarding the expectations of gender roles. He sees no issue with learning how to defend himself by taking a women’s self defense class and kicking bullies in the testicles, puts housewives to shame with the skills he learned in home economics, willingly lets his girlfriend win him pink teddy bears, dreams of becoming a prop comic, has a passion for dog dancing, never passes up a chance to wear costumes (especially if they come with a cape) and experiments with gender presentation with ease. On the flip side, the high-femme, ditzy, and boy crazy Luanne desperately tries to adhere to traditional feminine roles but is a dynamite softball player, an iron jaw boxer, and a whiz of a mechanic.

While adding gender to any of the aforementioned activities is archaic, pretending that we don’t still live in a world where gender expectations are unfortunately a thing would be inaccurate. So much so that Hank’s catchphrase, “that boy ain’t right,” is usually reserved for Bobby’s refusal to participate in traditional masculinity. Regardless of how delicately or impulsive Hank responds, King of the Hill never endorses Hank’s opinions on Bobby’s interests as the correct answer, merely highlighting the not-always-easy journey of a father learning to understand his son.

King of the Hill’s contemporaries frequently made weight and fat characters nothing more than punchlines, but the series villainized those who body shame and celebrated those who react with kindness. When it’s revealed that Peggy has size 16 ½ shoes and faces both shaming and fetishiziation for their size, Bobby tries to comfort her by owning his own body and her affirming of his body by stating: “Mom, I’m fat, but big deal. I don’t feel bad about it. You never made me feel bad about it, and just because there are some people in the world who want me to feel bad about it, doesn’t mean I have to.” Bobby has better body positivity than an instagram hashtag and exists as a constant source of empathy—even when pre-teen/teenage angst and societal pressures get the better of him.

It’s a shame that King of the Hill went off the air before the world became what it has become, considering the series also existed like a Trojan horse into a specific type of social circle. Blue-jean wearing, alley beer drinking, good ol’ boys saw themselves represented in Hank Hill, and tuned in to watch a show they felt understood them. They identified with a desire to “kick ass” when people crossed them, and respected a show that could respect a properly grilled medium rare steak. Instead of something that encouraged their anti-progressive mentalities, they were instead delivered a show satirizing every angle of American life and showing that it is possible to grow beyond the archetype of what makes a “real” man. It just took a fictional character to do it.

“Yep” — Hank Hill