Tuned In

Return of the King

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Having already whacked the best sitcom currently on TV, Fox seemed to be well on the way to killing one of the next-best. So it was a welcome surprise to hear yesterday that Mike Judge’s King of the Hill was picked up for an 11th season, contrary to industry and cast scuttlebutt that the show was on its way out. In a way, this is an even bigger save than Arrested Development would have been, because King of the Hill — an animated sitcom about Hank Hill, a straight-arrow propane salesman trying to raise an old-school family in a new-school world — does something that sitcoms usually claim to but rarely do: it gives a perceptive, funny picture about how American families actually live today.

Whereas sitcoms tend to be set in insular, unreal sitcomlands, King is set in Arlen, Tx., a fictional, but very real, red-state exurb. Nor is Arlen a stereotyped Texas of cowboys, oil tycoons and rednecks; it’s a recognizable suburban America of megastores and megachurches, with good old boys living next door to Laotian-immigrant yuppies.  The show manages to pick up on social trends, changes in the way America lives, in a way that other comedies don’t. Where Law & Order rips its stories from the headlines, King of the Hill rips its plots from the feature section, or maybe the Wall Street Journal Marketplace section. With its focus on Arlen’s shopping monolith, the Mega-Lo-Mart, for instance, the show picked up on the dominance of big-box stores in American culture long before any other sitcom seemed to notice.

And King shows no signs of letting up. In its latest episode, the school Hank’s son Bobby attends holds a job "shadow" week, and Bobby spurns the chance to work at his dad’s propane store to instead work at "Earth Cleaners," a company that services Arlen’s rich by picking up their dogs’ feces with high-powered vacuums. Hank, of course, is chagrinned — he wants Bobby to follow in his footsteps, not in Fido’s trail of droppings — but not half as mortified as he becomes when he discovers that dog doo has made Earth Cleaners’ entrepreneur (Johnny Knoxville) wildly rich, as the Hills visit him in his McMansion, stocked with videogame machines and an oversized aquarium.

It’s a plain old funny plot, made funnier because, well, there’s poop involved. But it’s also a familiar, well-observed and plaintive King storyline.  Hank–who’s gotten through life following simple rules about working hard and sticking with a reliable business–discovers that those rules don’t pay off as well as they used to. Hearing how rich disposing dog’s "products" has made Bobby’s new idol, Hank lies awake in bed, disillusioned. "Product used to be one of my favorite words," he says.

The episode is really about a larger change in America that would be worthy of a BusinessWeek cover: the change in the economy from providing durable goods to Main Street and toward delivering niche services to the rich. "The whole stuff-people-want market, it’s all pretty much locked up," Bobby’s boss tells him. "So my key to business success is this: You find the thing that no one else wants to do and you do it. Working pretty sweet for me. Think about it. Any idiot could pick up a piece of poop. But 9 times out of 10, he doesn’t." 

"Well, I’m no idiot!" Bobby replies enthusiastically.

Neither are King of the Hill’s writers. Good to see they’ll have another season to do the things that no other sitcoms seem to want to do.