Sunday, December 26, 2004

DVD Review: KING OF THE HILL, Season 3

I have previously noted that I'm a big fan of King of the Hill, so I thought I might as well post a review of the third season, which is coming out on DVD on December 28, and which can be found at amazon if you want to buy it.

One of the things I find odd about King of the Hill is that it was a bigger hit at the beginning than it's been since then. In the first season, it was a genuine phenomenon, getting ratings that sometimes topped those of The Simpsons (which preceded it on Fox), plus magazine covers and tie-in books. The reason I find that odd is that I usually think of KotH as a show that it takes time to get into. I certainly didn't think much of it when I first saw it in 1997, and it took a few episodes before I figured out what they were doing. Most animated sitcoms had tried and failed to copy the fast pace of The Simpsons, so King of the Hill went in the opposite direction, slowing down the pace, and leaning as heavily on real life for its stories as The Simpsons leaned on old movie and TV plots. (A general rule of thumb with KotH is that if you see a story idea that seems outlandish -- like dog dancing, or Texans panicking at half an inch of snow -- it's probably based on something real.) And whereas most shows get wackier as they go on, KotH has gotten more and more mellow, to the point where a lot of its jokes hardly seem like jokes at all (they are funny, but only if you know who the characters are, which is, again, why it works better once you've seen a few episodes). Mike Judge usually compares it to The Andy Griffith Show, and that's a good comparison; they even had an episode last year where Hank outwits a con man who thinks he can pull a fast one on the local rubes, much as Andy Taylor used to do every other week.

King of the Hill didn't sell well on DVD, which explains why the third season is coming out without special features (though it's still a good deal, as I'll explain in my review). It's never had much of an internet following either, partly because the shows that are most popular on the net tend to be the fast-paced, pop-culture-laden ones, and partly because Fox ordered the show's fan websites shut down back in 1997, an infamous move that essentially killed off the show's online fanbase as it was starting to develop. But I do notice that the show is becoming a bit more popular online, probably because it's now on cable -- on FX, to be exact -- and a cable run seems to be a major catalyst for a show's online popularity. I'm not really sure why. Incidentally, King of the Hill will be returning with new episodes on January 16; it's only had two new episodes so far this season, because Fox somehow decided that they should run My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss instead (good move, guys).

Okay, the review:


The third season of King of the Hill, created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, is perhaps its best, with the writing at its peak and with as varied and well-defined a group of characters as you'll find on any sitcom. Even if you aren't a regular viewer of the show, you will probably like this season; King of the Hill sometimes gets a reputation for dryness, but the episodes in this set include some uproariously funny farce episodes, and some dark episodes that take off on bizarre premises that no other show would do. King of the Hill is sometimes the forgotten hit of Fox -- a long-running show that is often pre-empted but gets good ratings whenever Fox deigns to air it -- and for a while, with music-rights issues and lackluster sales for the season 2 set, it seemed in danger of becoming the forgotten show on DVD. Hopefully its current successful cable run on the FX Network, combined with the very reasonable price of this 3 disc set (3 double-sided discs with 25 episodes), will induce more people to buy this set, and lead to further season set releases.

Here's a rundown of the 25 episodes in this set:

1. "Death of a Propane Salesman" -- A darkly funny opening to a great season, finding humor in the question of how we deal with death and fear of dying. It also includes a Sinead O'Connor spoof, a weirdly beautiful Buddhist fantasy sequence, and of course, Chuck Mangione.

2. "And They Call It Bobby Love" -- Bobby (Pamela Segall) falls in love with a girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who's two years older than him. And in a subplot that's hilarious for reasons that can't quite be described, Hank and his friend become obsessed with an abandoned couch. This episode won KotH the Emmy for outstanding animated series.

3. "Peggy's Headache" -- Peggy (Kathy Najimy) finally realizes that Dale's wife Nancy (Ashley Gardner) is having an affair with her Native American "healer," John Redcorn (Jonathan Joss). Another episode that takes a tough subject, adultery, and makes it funny.

4. "Pregnant Paws" -- Hank (Mike Judge) tries to find a breeding partner for his dog Ladybird, which makes Peggy jealous, as she's the one who really wants another baby. And in a subplot, Dale (Johnny Hardwick) becomes the world's worst bounty hunter; like many KotH subplots, this connects with the main plot rather than being a distraction from it.

5. "Next of Shin" -- To add to Hank's frustration over not being able to have another child, his father Cotton (Toby Huss) reveals that he's going to become a father again. As you can see, this season of King of the Hill is one of the few seasons of an animated series that incorporates some continuing story arcs; the story points introduced in this episode will continue in other episodes and come to a head in the season finale.

6. "Peggy's Pageant Fever" -- Peggy enters a beauty pageant and becomes insecure both about her looks and her accomplishments. Contains some of the show's best moments, especially a hilarious throwaway scene where Bill (Stephen Root) sings "Takin' Care of Business." Guest stars include Carol Alt and Kathy Ireland.

7. "Nine Pretty Darn Angry Men" -- Hank, his friends and his father sit on a focus group, and Hank is the only one who objects to the company's plans to redesign its product. Among other things, this is the episode that starts to develop Peggy Hill's egomaniac tendencies ("In my opinion, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year"). Guest-stars, Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam.

8. "Good Hill Hunting" -- Hank wants to take Bobby on his first hunting trip, but is unable to get a hunting license. Like the gun episode from the second season, this episode both satirizes Texas culture and takes it as a given; and it's not so much about guns as about a father-son relationship and the significance we attach to coming-of-age rituals.

9. "Pretty, Pretty Dresses" -- The strangest Christmas episode ever: Hank's lonely divorced friend Bill tries to kill himself, and then decides that if he can't get his wife back, he will become her by wearing her old clothes. It sounds depressing, but it's actually one of the funniest episodes of the season -- with a genuinely touching ending capped by a great closing gag. What makes King of the Hill so good is its ability to be realistic and bizarre and affecting all at once, and this is one of the best episodes.

10. "A Firefighting We Will Go" -- Hank and his friends become volunteer firefighters. An unabashed slapstick episode, full of Three Stooges references, crazy physical gags, and funny lines. One of the funniest episodes of the season demonstrates that KotH can do a "wacky" episode as well as anybody.

11. "To Spank With Love" -- Peggy gets in trouble for spanking a student, but then becomes a hero as "Paddlin' Peggy," and starts to use her reputation to scare her students. The last KotH episode written by David Zuckerman, who then left to co-create Family Guy, and who therefore might not be terribly thrilled with my opinion of Family Guy.

12. "Three Coaches and a Bobby" -- When Hank gets his tough old coach to run Bobby's football team, Bobby decides he'd rather play on the more fun, less regimented soccer team. Guest star: Will Ferrell.

13. "De-Kahnstructing Henry" -- Hank's overachieving neighbor Kahn (Toby Huss) tries to make Hank jealous of his great new job -- but in the process, he gives away government secrets and gets fired.

14. "The Wedding of Bobby Hill" -- Bobby and his cousin Luanne (Brittany Murphy) compete for the attention of a concert promoter and self-proclaimed genius, Rad (Matthew McConaughey, in one of the show's funniest guest-voice performances). When things get out of hand, Hank and Peggy teach Bobby a lesson by convincing him that he got Luanne pregnant and has to marry her.

15. "Sleight of Hank" -- After seeing a magic show, Bobby incorporates the tricks and patter into his Sunday School report on Jesus. Besides this hilarious scene ("I am The Amazing Jesus!") the episode is a character study of the differences between Hank and Peggy.

16. "Return to La Grunta" -- The story of Hank almost getting sexually assaulted by a dolphin is combined with a parallel subplot about Luanne getting sexually harassed at work. One of the show's most famous and unique episodes. Guest star: Billy West.

17. "Escape From Party Island" -- Hank takes his mother and her friends to a miniatures museum in Port Aransas, and winds up caught in the middle of MTV's Spring Break. Guest stars: Pauly Shore, Phyllis Diller, Uta Hagen, Betty White.

18. "Love Hurts and So Does Art" -- Nervous about the idea of going to a dance with Connie (Lauren Tom), Bobby starts overeating and develops gout. Meanwhile, in a shout-out to one of the show's most famous early episodes, Hank finds that an X-ray of his constipated colon is on display in a Dallas art gallery.

19. "Hank's Cowboy Movie" -- Hank tries to get the Dallas Cowboys to move their training camp to Arlen by making a promotional video for the town. Everything goes farcically wrong, of course, but the episode has a surprisingly touching undercurrent about Hank's fear that Bobby will leave Arlen when he grows up.

20. "Dog Dale Afternoon" -- Dale driven round the bend when his friends steal his new lawn mower as a prank. The plot then develops into a dark but funny sendup of every sniper-in-a-tower movie you've seen.

21. "Revenge of the Lutefisk" -- The new female minister (Mary Tyler Moore) serves a midwestern fish dish, which somehow indirectly leads to Bobby accidentally burning down the church. Still another episode that gets humor, South Park-style, from sensitive subjects (church-burnings, hate crimes).

22. "Death and Texas" -- Peggy goes to visit a death row convict, and unwittingly winds up smuggling cocaine in to him.

23. "Wings of the Dope" -- Luanne thinks that her boyfriend Buckley (David Herman) has come back as an angel. The episode was inspired by a news report saying that a majority of Americans believe in angels, and like a lot of good King of the Hill episodes, it presents an interesting theme in a roundabout sort of way: it presents a goal for the character (in this case, passing a test) that looks like the main plot point of the episode, and then turns around in the third act and reveals that that wasn't the important thing after all. King of the Hill used to do this a lot, sort of disguising the real thrust of the episode by distracting us with less-important story points, and it's a very interesting technique that few sitcoms use these days. Contains the famous use of the song "Life in a Northern Town" by Dream Academy.

24. "Take Me Out of the Ball Game" -- Peggy becomes the star pitcher for Hank's softball team, but Hank's over-managing causes her to lose her touch.

25. "As Old as the Hills" -- In the season finale, Hank and Peggy mark their twentieth wedding anniversary by lamenting their lost dreams, and they decide to do something crazy. This episode ties up the themes that have run through the season (such as Peggy's frustration and Cotton's new baby) into another funny, touching and well-constructed story.

Video & Audio

King of the Hill was one of the last animated series to be inked and painted on cels (The Simpsons was the other; both shows went digital a couple of years ago). This season uses the same character designs and animation style that was solidified in season two, though sometimes the animation and visuals seem a bit more loose and free than you'd see on a current episode. Some of the visuals in "And They Call It Bobby Love," or the animation of Bill in the final scene of "Pretty Pretty Dresses," are quite impressive for a TV cartoon.

Fox's transfer is what we've come to expect: a good, solid transfer that faithfully reproduces the source material "as is." In the case of KotH, the third season had a cleaner and more polished look than the second and especially first seasons, and that's what we see here. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is perfectly fine and true to the original mix: dialogue center, occasional directional sound effects.

Special Features

Because of disappointing sales of the overpriced second season, Fox has released the third season with hardly no special features (but at a lower price than the second season). While I understand that it might no longer justify the cost of newly-produced special features, releasing it without any features at all seems to treat one of Fox's longest-running properties as a sort of second-class citizen among its shows, which might put off potential buyers, further endangering the show's chances of getting further seasons on DVD.

Ultimately, though, the uncut episodes are worth it alone. With Amazon selling the set for $27.99 that amounts to little more than a buck an episode. Even if you didn't get the first two seasons, I would recommend giving this season a try; it's perhaps the best season and probably the best introduction to a wonderful show. (And after all, the first season's special features already provided a good overview of the making of the entire series.) Buy it, help get the rest of the seasons out, and remember Hank Hill's words of wisdom: "Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking."

No comments: