King of the Hill.
Bochco, one may not recall, once took an alternate route to reality with a cartoon called Capitol Critters, about rodents living in the White House. That series came and went despite the advantages of the form. With animation, there are no messy location no chance of an unfortunate run-in with Law & Order. Lead actors are never seized with delusions of movie stardom. Discount Korean labor chums out foot after foot of whatever they're asked for--a helicopter shot, a fourteen-car pileup, an alien visitation. And as Hank Hill has already discovered to his dismay, cartoon nudity rides right under the ratings-system radar.
The Fox network's approval of King of the Hill for PG viewing wasn't enough to mollify the subject of this animated series, a propane dealer who lives in Texas with his wife, Peggy, a substitute teacher, and their fretful son, Bobby. Hill's all-meat diet recently inspired a queasy half-hour devoted entirely to his battle with a blocked colon. A shot of him sitting helplessly on his toilet was just too much for him to take: He ventures out to his backyard after the end credits to apologize for the sight of his bare bottom. On another occasion, Peggy is called to take over a sex education class after their right-wing nut of a neighbor phones in a death threat to the originally scheduled teacher. "We don't want the government to interfere with our personal lives," Hank drawls uncertainly, and refuses to allow their son to enroll in his wife's class. Standing in his usual spot on the front lawn, where be can often be found joylessly drinking beer with his friends, Hank suffers their taunts, while inside the house Peggy forces herself through her lesson plans by emphasizing the last two syllables of the word "happiness" and other homonyms for unspeakable body parts. Hank finally relents when he realizes that the only alternative to sex ed is to teach Bobby himself. The Hills Ire an American family under siege, their brows perpetually furrowed in the face of intrusions into the way things ought to be. It's not an attractive sight. There's no thespian vanity to wound here; these are people off-shirt sunburns, piled-up coifs, beer guts of many shapes and sizes.
Viewed through the countercultural lens of The Simpsons, which precedes it in every way, King of the Hill (Sundays, 8:30 P.M.) can play like a nineties version of "Okie From Muskogee," or a weekly apologia for the raunchier tendencies of Fox and of creator Mike Judge's previous effort, Beavis and Butt-Head. Yet beneath the know-nothing trappings lies an unexpectedly winning satire that is hilarious when it's not unwatchable, sweetly moving when it's not meaningless. Contrary to common wisdom, Beavis and Butt-Head had a clever concept going on, owing not a little to Homer Simpson: Their skits pondered the accumulated stupidities that constitute modern existence, from the point of view of two individuals too profoundly dumb to participate in them. (The one thing they could do was watch MTV, which continues to run the show on Friday nights.)
King of the Hill takes on the challenge of growing this up into a fully realized, Marge Simpson kind of vision in which plausibly real people are forced to ask themselves why they follow social customs that only bring them misery. On the brink of consciousness, the Hill clan will always retreat into comfortable oblivion--Peggy has her exercise video, Hank his car, Bobby his Nintendo Game Boy, and Peggy's niece Luann her boyfriends--while those around them are simply beyond redemption. For all his rants about black helicopters, government cover-ups and disappearing laundry, the ultra-right conspiracy theorist never notices that his 12-year-old son looks an awful lot like his wife's longtime Native American "healer."
As on Beavis and Butt-Head and, oh, just about everything else on prime time that doesn't star a pratfalling ex-model, the guys are who matter here. In pointed contrast to The Simpsons, Hank and his perpetually confused son bond in a sitcom dialectic straight out of The Cosby Show, arriving at lessons that wouldn't displease William Bennett: A father is a son's best role model (Bobby learns that I.R.S.-indebted guest star Willie Nelson is not a suitable alternative); a father who lies to his son or whups him risks intervention by the hated authorities; it is a father's duty to teach his son to respect women, something Hank is forced to do when his own hell-raiser of a father, who insists on calling Peggy "Mrs. Hank" or "Hillary," influences impressionable Bobby to start a gender riot in the school cafeteria. Peggy has her say, too--when Hank pushes her too far, she'll launch into a fiery monologue declaiming the strength of the Texas woman, that goddess who holds up the world with one hand while reapplying her lipstick with the other.
After all the personal-growth business is Out of the way, something remarkable often happens. Peggy and Hank dance in their living room, or a dead condor suddenly revives, or the community comes together for an impromptu Willie Nelson concert. Word comes from Austin, the laid-back college town Mike Judge calls home, that locals can point out landmarks of their lives that turn up week after week: a guitar store, right down to the dude behind the counter; the lovely Driskill Hotel downtown; the shoe store where Peggy buys her extra-wide moccasins. King of the Hill proves that The Simpsons is more than a fluke. When America's Funniest Home Videos is about as close as the networks get to documentary, is it all that surprising that it takes cartoons to show us who we really are?
If Lisa Simpson ever had to endure high school with Beavis and Butt-Head, as Daria Morgendorffer did, she might turn out a lot like the protagonist of MTV's unflinchingly funny new animated series, Daria (Mondays, 10:30 P.M.). A tenth-grade Dorothy Parker in combat boots and owlish glasses, Dada has managed to survive the hell that is being a teenage girl by turning the carnival of suburban life into her own personal theme park. In her dreams, she insists, "people walking down the street burst into flames." Cheerleaders and football players, mall rats and party boys, unbalanced teachers, the school psychologist, her professional-class parents and, most preciously of all, Daria's ridiculously popular sister, Quinn--all exist to be observed askance, mocked to their faces, and, in Daria's most inspired moments. manipulated through their weaknesses, all for the amusement of Daria and her super. cool artist friend Jane Lane. As she tells her parents after the first day at her new school, "My history teacher hates me because I know all the answers, but there's lots of interesting idiots in my class."
When forced under threat of music camp to get some extracurricular activities on her record, Daria gets involved in opening a student coffeehouse. She convinces Jane to come with her as she knocks on neighbors' doors to raise money for it; they take Polaroids of the insides of people's houses. And just to make sure that everyone's really sorry they ever asked her to get involved, Daria turns the opening-night reading into a Carrie-like experience with a short story she's titled "Where the Future Takes Us," a blood-drenched cold war tract about a special agent who "harbored no illusions about unilaterally stemming the resurging red tide" but couldn't "resist the opportunity to fill a few Bolshevik cemeteries." Her classmates go wild with appreciation. Then all too soon, the credits roll, and MTV's hit dating show Singled Out seizes the screen loudly denying that Daria ever existed.