A New Kind of 'Toon

The problem with too many of today's sitcoms is the utter shallowness of most shows. Why, if the characters are all two-dimensional and the plots are cartoonish, don't they just make the characters cartoons?At first viewing, this seems to be the creative impulse behind King of the Hill, Fox network's second animated offering after the hit, The Simpsons. The series, centered in the fictional suburb of Arlen, Texas, follows the trials of the Hill family: Hank, assistant manager of a local propane business and a dedicated family man; his wife Peggy, a substitute teacher; their 12-year-old son, Bobby; and their 18-year-old niece, Luanne. In addition, there are the Hills' offbeat assortment of neighborhood buddies: Dale, an exterminator and conspiracy nut; Boomhauer, the cool ladies' man who speaks unintelligible English; and Dale, a lonely-hearted Army barber.The show, introduced last spring, became the only mid-season comedy series on any network to become a hit this year. That it was sandwiched between the wildly popular Simpsons and the X-Files certainly helped boost the show's ratings, guaranteeing it an audience that might otherwise have changed channels. But as the season progressed, King of the Hill clearly earned its following.The brainchild of Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-head, and Greg Daniels, King of the Hill at first appears to be a spoof on Southern culture. However, beyond some obvious regional humor there is something universal in the plain-speaking and ever-practical Hank's every day struggle to cope in a world of incompetent sales clerks, meddling bureaucrats and do-good liberals. Despite his redneck heart and chauvinist tendencies, Hank honestly tries to do the right thing, and seems willing to learn from his mistakes. He does his job, is good to his friends, and treats his wife and family well. At some level, we all identify with Hank, or at least know someone like him.Clever writing and true-to-life characters propel King of the Hill. Unlike Beavis, there's no manic attitude or off-the-wall exploits. The drawings are detailed and ultra-realistic. The story lines almost mundane. Other than the fact that it's animated, King of the Hill seems a good deal less cartoonish than live-actor series on TV such as the Drew Carey Show or Third Rock from the Sun. In fact, it's not a stretch to envision actors playing the parts of the cartoon's characters.Yet it's this attention to detail that guides the show. "The drawings set a whole tone for the show," says creator Daniels. "And the drawings are very well-observed and realistic, especially for cartoons. And so when we're writing to the drawings, like just the whole style of the show is real -- we try to be realistic and observational."For some fans, such realism can be a little annoying. After all, why be animated if you're not going to be cartoonish?From a production standpoint, being animated allows the show a freedom it wouldn't otherwise have. "There's no practical considerations, practically, in an animated show," explains Daniels. "So there's nobody telling you that the set's too expensive or anything like that. So it's much more of a pure writing experience, as, if you can think of the scene or the line, or whatever it is, you're not going to be told by a director that it's un-filmable or by an actor that they wouldn't do that."In a live-actor series, characters such as the mumbling Boomhauer or the incessantly rude Laotian neighbor, Khan, would likely be written off as bad stereotypes or merely stupid, but they work as cartoons. At the same time, the show can get away with more than its live-actor counterparts. For example, what actor would be willing to portray a constipation-stricken Hank, either stuck on a toilet or left stranded in a doctor's office with his pants down and the door open while a million people walk by?"If you saw John Goodman on the toilet for two-thirds of that episode, you probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much," jokes Daniels. Or, for that matter, what censor would have let that slip past?In the mocking way it treats everything from liberal political correctness to rabid evangelicals King of the Hill enjoys a subversiveness it probably couldn't get away with as a live-actor series. It is, after all, only a cartoon, viewers can tell themselves.And, as it evolves, King of the Hill is getting bolder, both in its animation and it's story lines. More frequent dream sequences and flashbacks feature wild animation scenes. Among the plots this season is one in which Bobby falls victim to the hypnotic demands of a Queen ant out to destroy Hank's lawn and another where Hank nearly goes to jail after inadvertently buying crack cocaine, thinking it is fish bait.King of the Hill takes time to appreciate. There's a rhythm and tempo to the show that takes getting used to, and viewers need to acquaint themselves and become familiar with the characters. The show straddles the line between situation comedy and traditional cartoon, but the hybrid succeeds, and viewer's patience is rewarded.

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