The most annoying creature in the pantheon of Hollywood cliches is the “free spirit,” the heedless, hedonistic waif whose responsibility-free lifestyle shows us uptight squares just how empty and soulless our lives of meeting obligations and delaying gratification truly are. But there’s nothing free about free spirits in real life – they flit along like eternal infants while other people get to pick up the figurative and literal bill – people like you, and me and TV’s most amusing everyman Hank Hill.
Tonight Fox will run the series finale of King of the Hill, the saga of Hank and his gang of associates living in their exurb paradise of Arlen, Texas. King has a helluva a pedigree. It was created by fellow UC San Diego grad Mike Judge, who also developed the criminally under-appreciated Beavis and Butt-Head. The co-creator was Greg Daniels, who previously worked on The Simpsons and wrote the classic Lisa’s Wedding episode. Together, they made King the most subversive comedy on television.
Hank is the archetypal anti-free spirit, an assistant manager at a local company selling “propane and propane accessories” with a wife, Peggy, who thinks she speaks fluent es-pan-nole, and a son, Bobby, who looks like a bag of potatoes with two feet and a head. Hank loves his quiet life, and the mere idea that someone might consider him “cool” would terrify him – Hank likes routine, calm and the occasional Alamo beer. And he’s perhaps the fussiest heterosexual character in television history – about his lawn, about his tools, about his abnormally narrow urethra.
But the true glory of Hank is his eternal conflict with those who somehow feel morally empowered to stick their noses into his life. All Hank wants is to be left alone, but a never-ending stream of know-it-all petty fascist bureaucrats, nanny-state meddlers and smarmy government twerps with more authority than common sense are determined to get in his face. Hank, you see, doesn’t understand his immense need to be changed and modified and improved by the forces of enlightenment.
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The beauty of King is that while it pokes fun at Hank’s myriad foibles, it understands the creepy nature of those who dedicate their lives to interfering in the lives of others, always claiming the moral high ground yet inevitably maximizing their own personal power and advantage. From snooty school guidance counselors to pompous college professors to lazy municipal clerks, Hank is constantly beset by nimrods trying to force him to conform to their personal vision of how he should be. He usually responds as any good American would – with an exasperated threat to “kick your ass.” There were probably more than a few Hank Hills at Lexington and Concord.
Hank also embodies a kind of glorious naïveté, the shameless love and admiration for our country and its principles that would make a goateed hipster snigger. Hank is the type of guy who would show up at a town hall meeting about health care and ask where the Constitution says the federal government has any business at all getting involved with him and his doctor. The politician would roll his eyes – what kind of hick thinks the fact that the Constitution doesn’t empower the feds to take over health care is an argument against doing so? You know, kind of like in real life.
The beauty of King is that it made no apologies for the Hanks of the world. Liberals with a wide range of life experience living on the coast tend to think of those parts of America that stretch between Manhattan and Manhattan Beach as a sinister breeding ground of banjo-strumming inbreds aching to drag their terrified meterosexual victims off to a revival meeting. Not quite – if you really want to take a risk, hang with a liberal icon. Hank Hill wouldn’t have left a passenger in his truck at the bottom of a pond – but he wouldn’t have been heading to the beach with a gal pal for a personal pork barrel project in the first place. If your daughter’s car broke down on the side of the road at night, you’d pray for one of the Hank Hills of this country to be the one to pull up beside her.
While King of the Hill will now be reside in syndication, Judge is continuing his campaign of subversion with the new film Extract and – assuming it gets revived on a new network – the conservative-friendly series The Goode Family, while Greg Daniels continues to work on the American version of The Office. King never got the kind of street credit that the more surreal The Simpsons received. A show where the husband was usually the wisest guy in the family and where traditional values seem to lead to happiness just doesn’t cut it with the hip crowd.
King was never cool, which was kind of the point. It had to get by on doing its job, which was being funny. “Doing its job” – that kind of sums up Hank Hill, and the rest of the folks like him who make this country work.