Let's get the good news out of the way first: Though many thought this season (and last season, and the season before that) would be King Of The Hill's last one, FOX has reupped with Mike Judge and Co. for a 13th season. I, for one, am happier than a dog up a bone tree. Sure, it's been a hit-or-miss season so far, but even a mediocre King Of The Hill is a treat, and hopefully it'll regain its stride over the next season.
Tonight's episode managed to be both a hit and a miss, thanks to an odd curveball thrown in the second act. The first 10 minutes or so floundered in a contrived plot involving Peggy enlisting actors to sell a house infested by a family of weirdos in order to maintain her super-realtor reputation. While the gimmick certainly provided a fair amount of giggles (Hank: "There's actors crawling all over my house, eating imaginary bananas when real ones are sitting right there in the bowl"), it was too zany to be believable, and believability is what makes for the best KOTH humor. Why exactly is a full-on play necessary, and how will it help sell a house? It just seemed like another riff on Peggy's perpetually twisted logic and an excuse for Hank to be exasperated a lot. I was getting fed up right around the "dress rehearsal" for the open house, but things got a lot more interesting when an "audience member" made an offer on the Hills' house after seeing the practice performance there, and Peggy, caught up in the heat of the moment, made the sale, much to Hank's horror.
This leads to a classic KOTH formula that almost always works: exploring how far Hank will go to protect the people and ideals he loves. After learning that backing out of the deal could cost $10,000 dollars, Hank has only one option: To make his home appear so poorly maintained that it would fail the test of Bud Ferguson, Home Inspector Extraordinaire (using Bill's hilariously dangerous den of sadness–the fan-pull turns on the microwave!–as inspiration). The look on Hank's face as he took a hammer to his up-till-now perfectly maintained gutters was just the right blend of comedy and tragedy: Sure, his obsession with home maintenance is one of KOTH's biggest and best gags, but you still gotta feel for the poor guy–he loves those gutters almost as much as he loves his lawn. Luckily, the inspector recognizes the craftsmanship behind the destruction, failing the Hills and driving off the buyer while allowing Hank to maintain his reputation as a master homeowner.
Though the two stories dovetailed together (awkwardly–what was with that last-minute wrap-up at the open house?), the home-inspection part was so superior it could've easily stood alone as the main plot, and the episode would've been better for it. It's a very fine line that KOTH walks between absurdity and believability, and whether it stumbles or succeeds usually depends on a subtle emotional undercurrent. The Peggy storyline seemed crass because, well, Peggy can be crass, and there was very little emotional punch riding on whether or not she sold her stupid house, making her and the actors' antics ring pretty hollow. When there's something real at stake, like the family home, even the most ridiculous gags are strengthened by the heart of the story surrounding them. (Some other excellent examples on the absurdity/heart continuum: Cotton teaching post-skydiving-accident Peggy to walk again, Bobby's rabid raccoon, a very Spin-The-Choice Thanksgiving.)
Could I divide this episode in two and give both branches of the plot their own grade, I would, but instead I'll just say that a C- and an A- average out to a
–I did like how both Hank and Peggy's respective reps were on the line, and how each one's dilemma highlighted their individual obsessions: Hank, his home, and Peggy, herself.
–Dale: "I could rid you of your extremely attractive pests, Hank. I won't say when, I will say scorpions."
–Another reason I wish the second half of the story made up the entire plot: Normally I have a pretty high tolerance for Peggy's selfish behavior, seeing it as a means to a usually rewarding end, but selling the house on a whim is a pretty major fuck-up. I would've liked to have seen her squirm a bit more over the consequences of what she did, incur a little more of Hank's wrath–I love seeing Peggy getting taken down a few, um, pegs.
–Man, I just don't get ferrets. Much less ferret owners.
–There's been a big, Seth MacFarlane-shaped hole in the lineup for over a month now; fear not, though, Family Guy and American Dad both return (supposedly) on the 27th.