10 episodes that made King Of The Hill one of the most human cartoons ever

10 episodes that made King Of The Hill one of the most human cartoons ever

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

The definitive moment in King Of The Hill’s 13-year history didn’t even occur on the show itself. It happened in 2006, in “Cartoon Wars Part II,” South Park’s landmark evisceration of Family Guy. Toward the end of the episode, Cartman and Kyle slap-fight their way through the Fox studios, eventually making their way through the King Of The Hill offices as the staff keeps quietly working, heads down, while a banner celebrating the show’s 11th season hangs above their heads. In an episode that sees long-running, revolutionary animated series—South Park, Family Guy, and The Simpsons—pitted against each other in high-concept, ultra-cartoony fashion, King Of The Hill is the unobtrusive outsider, disinterested in participating in or commenting on the current trends in animated comedy. 

King Of The Hill has discipline, humility, and steadiness hardwired into its foundation—they’re among the defining features of series patriarch Hank Hill—and is consequently remembered as the low-key introvert among its loud, colorful, in-your-face animated brethren. In fact, one of the most common observations/criticisms leveled at the series is that it doesn’t even need to be animated; its characters are decidedly un-cartoony, right down to their muted colors and lack of animated energy (though the show’s animation would get increasingly dynamic as the years went on), and the situations they find themselves in are no different or more fantastical than would be found on any given live-action family sitcom. 

But while King Of The Hill’s reputation as a steadfast, down-to-earth series rightly reflects the heart and humanity at the show’s center, it belies how uproariously funny the series can be, often because of that very humanity. It’s the exact intersection of the comic sensibilities of its two creators: Mike Judge’s ability to find the bizarrely hilarious in the mundane (as seen in Beavis And Butt-head, Office Space, and many others) meets Greg Daniels’ character- and relationship-based humor (as seen in The Office and such Daniels-penned Simpsons episodes as “Lisa’s Wedding,” “Bart Sells His Soul,” and “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage”). King Of The Hill’s characters aren’t funny because they tell perfectly crafted jokes or make pop-culture references or constantly get themselves into ridiculous situations; they’re funny because they have real hopes, flaws, and limitations that satirize the absurdity of everyday life while simultaneously celebrating it.

Granted, over the course of 13 seasons and 250-plus episodes, the show saw its fair share of silly conceits and contrived setups—and got fairly repetitive in the final seasons—but the best, most memorable episodes were those that explored the conflicts and bonds that defined the Hill family and their neighbors on Rainey Street in the suburban oasis of Arlen, Texas. Hank Hill (Mike Judge) is a perfectly conceived central character, a staunch traditionalist whose deep humanity and pragmatic wisdom keeps him from being a conservative caricature. He’s the anti-Homer Simpson, a clenched, steady-as-she-goes figure striving to make as few waves as possible as he makes his way through life, and failing in the face of family, friends, and liberal giblet-heads who test his stoicism over and over. Hank’s spirited, strong-willed wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy) pushes against him with her high ideals and even higher self-regard, and his dreamy, sensitive son Bobby (Pamela Adlon) constantly challenges his conceptions of manhood and father-son relationships. His war-hero father, Cotton (Toby Huss), does this as well, from a decidedly different angle. (Figuratively, that is; literally, he’s about the same height as Bobby, since the Japanese blew off his shins in WWII.) His niece-by-marriage Luanne, brilliantly voiced by the late Brittany Murphy, is a flibbertigibbet who makes Hank deeply uncomfortable while simultaneously tapping into his repressed fatherly affection. And his childhood friends-turned-neighbors—conspiracy-minded gun-nut Dale, sad-sack slob Bill, and tranquil fast-talker Boomhauer—are just the right level of incompetent to allow Hank to repeatedly play the hero/voice of reason without being a complete spoilsport all the time. 

“Hank fixes everything” would become one of King Of The Hill’s most overused story templates, but it paid great dividends, especially in the series’ early going, when it could still lead to new character revelations and growth. Similarly, King Of The Hill went back to the “Hank versus society” well over and over, eventually becoming too predictable; but at its best, it found unexpected angles on the tension between conservative and liberal ideals, and remained admirably levelheaded in its political leanings throughout its run. These are quintessential King Of The Hill episode types and must be considered in any list of the show’s most representative episodes, but the series’ many charms are more readily found in the episodes focusing on the relationships and conflicts between its core characters. These 10 episodes survey the ties that bind King Of The Hill’s characters, and make them some of the most quietly funny, human cartoons ever.

“Keeping Up With Our Joneses” (season one, episode 10)
When Hank catches Bobby trying a cigarette, the ol’ “Make him smoke an entire carton to teach him a lesson” trick backfires wildly. Not only does Bobby get addicted, the episode causes reformed smokers Hank and Peggy to backslide, providing a nice glimpse at the early, smoke-saturated years of their relationship in the process. Soon the nicotine-addled family members are at each other’s throats as they try to kick the habit together. Their collective withdrawal and the petty sniping it induces provides a great spotlight for Luanne, who finds herself in the unusual position of being the voice of reason as her adopted family threatens to tear itself apart. (“I am sick of dysfunctional families. I came from one and I’m not gonna let it happen to you. Function! Function, damn you!”) Her ultimate solution is straight out of the sitcom playbook, but it works beautifully, leading to a sweet, almost cinematic conclusion. 

“Hilloween” (season two, episode four)
The Hills are a churchgoing, God-fearing family, and while King Of The Hill occasionally played this for laughs, it tended to be better when pitting Hank’s no-nonsense belief structure against religious hypocrisy and zealotry. (See the great season-eight episode “Reborn To Be Wild” for another classic example of this.) “Hilloween” puts Hank in the unusual position of being anti-religion—the hysterical, evangelical version of it, anyway—when it threatens his beloved Halloween, in the form of Bible-thumping Junie Harper (Sally Field), who accuses Hank of being a Satanist for supporting the Devil’s Holiday. This is a prototypical “Hank-versus-the-idiots” plotline, but it gets extra mileage out of the template by putting the impressionable Bobby and Luanne on the side of Junie Harper. Hank’s eventual reconciliation with his son is much more satisfying than his saving Halloween, and the fact that he does both while wearing a child-sized devil costume makes it even better.

“And They Call It Bobby Love” (season three, episode two)
Bobby has a solid claim on the title of King Of The Hill’s flat-out funniest character (much of which can be attributed to Pamela Adlon’s Emmy-winning performance, a highlight in a series full of top-shelf voice acting), but he may never be funnier than when he’s heartbroken. Bobby’s fanciful, sensitive nature makes his first foray into puppy love endearingly awkward—as when he woos his lady love by imitating a crotchety Jewish man—and makes his heartbreak, well, heartbreaking. But his eventual triumph over that sorrow is where Bobby really shines, consuming a 72-ounce steak in front of the vegetarian older girl who dumped him. It’s a perfectly King Of The Hill-style victory, and remains one of the best scenes in the show’s history. Rightly so, “And They Call It Bobby Love” netted King Of The Hill its sole Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. 

“Peggy Hill: The Decline And Fall” (season four, episode one)
Peggy is one of King Of The Hill’s hardest characters to love; her ignorance of her own inadequacies—such as her ability to “habla Espa-nol”—is a recurring joke, but it can make her seem grating when it’s not accompanied a healthy serving of humble pie. The season-four première, which picks up from a cliffhanger where Peggy falls to earth from a plane when her skydiving parachute fails to open, forces Peggy to confront her limitations in very literal fashion. She insists that being in a full-body cast won’t affect her ability to run a household, but quickly realizes she’s as helpless as Hank’s new baby brother G.H. (short for Good Hank), Cotton’s newborn son who’s staying with the Hills while his postpartum mother and disinterested father get their act together. It’s a chaotic episode that gets as close to wacky as KOTH comes—mostly due to the presence of the ever-obnoxious Cotton—but it ends on a quiet note of triumph that strengthens everything that comes before it.

“Movin’ On Up” (season four, episode 16)
The relationship between Hank and Luanne is one of King Of The Hill’s most reliably affecting, with Hank’s reluctance to be the father figure Luanne so desperately needs forcing them both to grow a little as they struggle to understand each other. In this episode, Luanne chafes against Hank’s overbearing house rules, moving out of his den into her own place across the street, where her insufferable roommates soon force her into the role of reluctant house dictator. Luanne is probably the character who changed most over King Of The Hill’s long run, and this is a watershed moment in both her personal growth and in her relationship with Hank. It’s also a great showcase for Brittany Murphy, who was nominated for an Annie for her voice work in this episode. 

“I Don’t Want To Wait For Our Lives To Be Over” (season five, episode three)
As the show went on, King Of The Hill gave spotlight episodes to Bobby’s two closest friends: Joseph Gribble, the half-American Indian offspring of Dale’s wife and her “masseuse,” whom Dale assumes is his biological son, and Connie Souphanousinphone, the overachieving Laotian girl-next-door who was Bobby’s girlfriend for a time. But this episode centers on them as a trio, as they lurch uncomfortably together into teenager-dom. Sparked by Joseph returning from summer camp six inches taller and with a new, manly voice, Bobby finds himself suddenly feeling immature and out-of-touch with his best friend. The two of them engage in some teen-soap dramatics involving Connie—who’s in the throes of puberty herself—culminating in a would-be grand gesture that brings them back together. It’s one of the best examples of King Of The Hill finding uniquely funny, character-driven moments within universal, commonplace situations.

“Hank And The Great Glass Elevator” (season five, episode 11)
King Of The Hill had a lot of fun torturing Bill Dauterive (the brilliant Stephen Root) over the years, but “Hank And The Great Glass Elevator” might be the steepest of his many falls from grace. First it pairs him romantically with one of King Of The Hill’s greatest stunt-casting guest stars—former Texas Governor Ann Richards, playing herself—then it brings in his verbally abusive ex-wife Lenore (Ellen Barkin) to throw his happy relationship into a tailspin. This is a great example of Bill being his own worst enemy, but it also provides a glimpse at the root of his issues by finally revealing the much-discussed, but to this point never-seen Lenore. The Peggy-Bobby subplot, where they indulge in some charcoal adultery while staunch propane advocate Hank is out of town, is a fun example of King Of The Hill in a sillier mode, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the emotional awkwardness of Bill’s romantic mess. 

“Returning Japanese Part 2” (season six, episode 22)
Cotton, a WWII veteran who lost his shins in Japan, is an obnoxious, petty man who spews spite in every direction, but especially toward his son. Thus, it can be a little difficult to enjoy or connect to stories involving him and Hank, who inexplicably craves his father’s approval. The second part of the two-part season-six finale doesn’t quite make Cotton likable, but it does humanize him a bit, a trend that would continue through his death in the penultimate season. The revelation that Cotton fathered Hank’s older half-brother with a Japanese war nurse is a characteristically outlandish development for the character, but it’s more interesting for the effect his new son’s rejection has on Cotton, as well as Hank. Hank’s characteristically reserved attempts to bond with his similarly uptight half-brother are charming, and Cotton’s theatrics for once feel believable, if not quite justified. Plus, there’s lots of “The Hills go to Japan!” goofiness, including Bobby’s cute flirtation with a girl over a Dance Dance Revolution-style game.

“Patch Boomhauer” (season eight, episode one)
Boomhauer is another King Of The Hill character with a tendency to hit only one, or at best, two notes: His just-this-side-of-comprehensible speaking style (courtesy of Judge himself) and his womanizing make up a good 90 percent of his punchlines. “Patch Boomhauer” shows another side of Boomhauer by bringing in his brother Patch, voiced by Brad Pitt doing his best Boomhauer impression, revealing him to be engaged to Boomhauer’s great lost love. (As Dale puts it, “It’s like if the Russians landed on the moon before we did, then married it!”) The love triangle creates a rift in Boomhauer’s friendship with Hank, resulting in one of the few occasions where Hank’s forced to admit he’s wrong, which is nice to see every now and then. It’s a good example of King Of The Hill operating almost entirely outside the Hill family circle, something the series could do very successfully when it focused on the bond between Hank and his friends. 

“Smoking And The Bandit” (season nine, episode 12)
Episodes focusing on Dale (Johnny Hardwick) tend to be a little wackier, given the character’s propensity for paranoia and overreaction. “Smoking And The Bandit” is among King Of The Hill’s more convoluted plotlines, but like many successful Dale stories, it’s grounded in the character’s relationship with Joseph. In trying to win Joseph’s respect, Dale becomes Arlen’s “Smoking Bandit,” a mysterious figure who lights up in public places in gross defiance of the city’s smoking ban. However, the Bandit inspires a little too much admiration in the growingly rebellious Joseph, forcing Dale to team up with Hank to “apprehend” himself. As with most Dale stories, Hank plays the stern voice of reason who must clean up his friend’s mess, but Dale gets to maintain some dignity in the process, while re-establishing his most redeeming quality: his affection for the boy he assumes/convinces himself is his son. 

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Westie Side Story” (season one, episode seven), “How To Fire A Rifle Without Really Trying” (season two, episode one), “Propane Boom” (season two, episode 23), “Pregnant Paws” (season three, episode four), “Wings Of The Dope” (season three, episode 23), “Bobby Goes Nuts” season six, episode one), “My Own Private Rodeo” (season six, episode 18), “Dances With Dogs” (season seven, episode five), “Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Clown” (season 10, episode five), “Death Picks Cotton” (season 12, episode five)

Availability: All 259 episodes are available on Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant, and the first six seasons are on DVD. 

Next time: David Sims picks the 10 most representative episodes of The X-Men.