The final episode of the Mike Judge's much beloved, and long-in-the-tooth "King of the Hill" aired this past Sunday. Well, the final two episodes aired back-to-back without much in the way of fanfare. Of course, Fox runs promos for the upcoming Seth MacFarlane travesty, "The Cleveland Show," at an hourly interval. It's a wonder that Mike Judge and Greg Daniels received any luck, much less acclaim, with such a mild mannered show on a network so taken with vulgarity. Speaking critically, one must admit the shows many failures in the final season -- forced jokes, lethargic pacing, and meaningless subplots drag many of the last episodes into mediocrity -- but even at its worst, "King of the Hill" never disappointed on any account other than its own high standards.
Watching the finale Sunday night, I reminded myself of that. It was bad: a perfectly acceptable mid-season episode with a tacked on ending to signal the end of the series. One would think that after thirteen seasons, there would be not only more closure to the series' running gags and themes, but some sense of finality. Instead of going out with a bang, the series fizzles on a whimper.
There were good episodes in the last season, certainly. The episode about the Canadians that move into Boomhauer's house for the summer hilariously sends up the mostly fictional tiff between America and her northern neighbor with lawn mower contests and the best line of the season ("I stayed in the killing fields of Laos for two extra years just so wouldn't have to immigrate to Canada!"). But most of the episodes repeat gags while the characters suffer from the redundancy. Take the episode where Peggy tries too hard to be cool to fit in with the rich, snobby parents she meets taking Bobby to cotillion. Why do we need yet another example of Peggy trying too hard? This has been done more than once -- in the episode where Bobby wants to go to a coed sluber party, and in the episode about "Harlottown," and in the episode where the Hill family changes churches.
"King of the Hill" is one of my favorite shows, so please forgive me for writing passionately about it. You see, I know people like Hank and Peggy Hill -- my parents, my neighbors and my old scoutmasters. No television show has ever captured the sort of people that actually inhabit an environment like that of small towns in Texas and then ruthlessly caricatured them in such a sweet, endearing way. Among the criticisms lodged at the show by liberals, especially towards the latter seasons, was that Hank was always right, that the writers essentially excused bad parenting from Hank and Peggy, and that the whole show celebrated what they considered a decadent, flag-waving redneck lifestyle. These are incredibly silly by themselves, but the irony comes from conservative critics who decried the stereotyping of Texans and gentle ribbing of Hank's uptight nature, believing it underhanded contempt. Of course, none of this is true. Hank is naive (he and Peggy don't understand why Boomhauer has a camcorder in his bedroom, for example) but he isn't stupid. Bill, Dale and Boomhauer -- the object of more pointed satire -- all have moments of clarity, and even wisdom. Peggy's persona of self-confident, pseudo-intellectualism seemingly masks deeply rooted insecurities and usually make her the object of derisive humor, but she isn't just putting on a show; she really is that confident.
The point of the show was not to push a political agenda, but to be funny. There is great humor in Hank's uptight, sheltered perspective and in Peggy's mix of eccentricities and earnest fulfillment of her role as a Texan lady. There is humor in Cotton Hill's bitter, borderline insane drive to hell-raise and girl chase well into his golden years. The show is more about its characters, who are sympathetic no matter their deficiencies, and deficient no matter their capabilities. It is television that shows people as people. How many other shows even try to do that, much less with conservative, semi-rural Texans?
More than anything else, "King of the Hill" chronicled the way that its characters coped with life, with disappointments, even with death. At the same time, Greg Daniels and Mike Judge and their writers always found the humor in such things. Even the episode where Hank's father dies made me laugh, even as it made me very, very sad. To that end, it was the opposite of animated comedies and bland, by-the-numbers, yet vulgar sitcoms with which Fox attracted an audience.
The final episode -- a somewhat half-assed story about Bobby joining a meat appraisal team and Hank buying him a junior "Char King" (a grill) so that they could cook steak together -- left me underwhelmed. It doesn't show any of the brilliant truth that made the series so fascinating, opting for a fairly silly plot that involves a bus-hijacking by a rival meat appraising team. The final moments, which brings the entire neighborhood together to eat steak, recalls the end of season eleven. In that episode, Lucky and Luanne get married, after Hank convinces them not to sue him or Dale to finance an impractically lavish wedding. The wedding scene not only provides cameos for all sorts of minor characters throughout the series (including Chuck Mangione!) but the ending, where Hank and his friends comment, about how Hank just gave away a bride, and how that's really something, proceed to open up a beer. "Yup."
That should have been that: a wedding. All comedies end with a wedding. Comedy is about life; weddings not only celebrate the joining of two, but look forward to the creation and fulfillment of new lives. It fits; a broad reading of Shakespeare will illustrate how well. For Hank to have decided he has just done something, and to continue doing as he does every other day, resonates far more than the trite, almost saccharine ending of the series finale.
This, of course, was partly the fault of Fox. The network canceled, then commissioned new episodes, then canceled again. Mike Judge's most recent project, "The Goode Family," aired its final episode on ABC even before "King of the Hill" aired its finale. Judge intended to make "King of the Hill" on the opposite side, gently teasing goofy, self-important left-wingers while showing them as genuinely well meaning people. Unfortunately, left-wingers are neither as funny nor as endearing (to me, at least) as uptight conservatives, and judging from his show, Mike Judge doesn't have the affection for them necessary to make sweet fun of the Whole Foods customer, the fashionable environmentalist, the unquestioning Obama supporter.
Thus, a great series ended with a forced whimper. It is still one of the best things ever made for television -- an extraordinary, undervalued contribution to American culture. I say that unironically. Mike Judge will make more good things, God bless him.