Tuned In

TV Weekend: American Dad

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This Sunday, Fox’s King of the Hill airs its last two episodes. Year in and year out, for thirteen seasons, it has quietly been the best family comedy on TV, despite being overshadowed for many reasons: because people (and Emmy voters) have a hard time taking a cartoon seriously (compared with the funny but much more cliched and simplistic Everybody Loves Raymond); because people who can take cartoons seriously paid more attention to The Simpsons and South Park); because others couldn’t believe that Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butt-Head and Office Space) could also make a subtle, minutely detailed show about family issues and flyover-state America.

Their loss. KOTH plugged away for years anyway, and while I loved the show (and named it one of the All-TIME 100 TV series in 2007), thirteen years is about enough time to hang it up. And the two episodes it goes out on bring the show back to what it always was at heart: a story about fathers and sons.

When Judge came out with the P.C. satire The Goode Family, some writers—a number, I think, trying to score political points—called KOTH a show that “made fun of conservatives.” I believe those people never, or rarely, watched the show. Yes, the show made fun of traditionalist propane salesman Hank Hill and his Arlen, Texas neighbors. But it also made fun of every liberal they came across. And ultimately, Hank was the hero of the series.

His old-fashionedness might be funny, but more often than not, it gave him a moral compass and allowed him to see the right thing to do. The show teased him for being rigid, but it admired him for being rooted. And when Hank Hill threatened to kick someone’s ass—generally not literally—it was because there was something in this shallow, relativistic world that needed its ass kicked.

Hank’s conservatism, finally, wasn’t political. (Or not just political.) It was personal. He wasn’t obsessed with taxes or illegals; he was obsessed with morals and character. (In one episode, when George W. Bush was running for President, Hank agonized over whether to vote for him, because he had a weak handshake.) He was the kind of guy who would have a quiet panic attack, seeing an errant nail sticking out of a puppet theater he built, because—as he said in a tortured whisper to his wife, Peggy—”It reflects on muh craftsmanship.” Hank’s unflinching dedication to being set in his ways was a way of life, and survival: in his worldview, once people get used to letting a bad nail job slide, everything falls apart.

The project he obsessed over most was his son Bobby—an only child, product of one valiant sperm that navigated the treacherous shoals of Hank’s narrow urethra. Where Hank played football and prized dignity, pudgy but delightful Bobby loved prop comedy and wanted to be an entertainer. Hank was always on the lookout for signs that Bobby wasn’t “right.” (A typical sitcom today would take the easy route and make this about Bobby’s being latently gay. He wasn’t; instead he challenged Hank’s idea of masculinity in more clever ways.)

But hanging over Hank’s parenting was the negative example of his own dad, Cotton, a WWII-vet hardass who berated and belittled Hank all his life. So Hank constantly found himself caught between wanting to make Bobby be like himself–or if not like Hank, then at least “right”–and not wanting himself to become Cotton in the process.

The final two episodes (other unaired episodes will eventually be on DVD) show that for all Bobby’s eccentricity, the best part of Hank’s values have gotten through to him. In the first, Bobby is unwittingly “adopted” by some older girls playing a cruel prank on him; while Hank’s instinct is first to be ashamed of Bobby for losing his dignity, then wanting to protect Bobby from himself, Bobby finally shows a spine and judgment that Hank doubted he had in him.

In the last episode—”To Sirloin with Love”—Hank and Bobby finally find a common interest to bond over: a love for beef, as Bobby joins a local competitive meat-inspection team, doing Dad’s heart proud. It’s a silly premise, but in the process we learn that all these years, Hank’s words really have been sinking in with Bobby, as has his knowledge of primal cuts of steak and his sense of competitive fair play. And Hank learns that Bobby doesn’t need to become a football player to make his dad deeply proud.

The ending—which brings Hank and Bobby together with the various neighbors who’ve surrounded them in Arlen—is one of the most moving things I’ve seen on TV this year. Hank, and Mike Judge: you’ve done right.