Smarter Than Thou: Can TV Ever Depict Smarts Smartly?
Speaking out on the subject of Austin, comedian Johnny Steele responded to someone who praised the Texas capital by comparing it to Berkeley: "Yeah, but it's like Berkeley surrounded by a hundred Stocktons and Modestos."Steele didn't mean the comment as a compliment, but living on a liberal island surrounded by a gun-lovin', God-fearin' ocean has certainly produced some interesting art. In their music, the Butthole Surfers document the strange hippie/cowboy/suburban interface that is Austin; Richard Linklater does the same on film in Slacker and Dazed and Confused. And now Beavis & Butt-head creator and fellow Austinite Mike Judge is exploring similar terrain in the new Fox animated series King of the Hill (Sundays at 8:30pm).Although not entirely successful, King of the Hill does represent one of the few examples of genuine regionalism on television, with its detailed look at the prosperous blue-collar Hill family (patriarch Hank earns his living selling "propane and propane products") living in the fictional 'burb of Central, Texas.As such, King of the Hill marks a refreshing change from television's other attempts at setting shows outside of New York or L.A., which always end up feeling like three minutes of stock location footage adding color to what's actually a dreary sound stage in Burbank.King of the Hill's delights are small but many. The voices of the characters, largely by comic performer par excellence Kathy Najimy (Sister Act, The Kathy and Mo Show) and Judge himself, are uniformly excellent. And the deliberately unfinished renderings of the Hill family, with their round faces and soft, mushy physiques, capture perfectly the dominant body type of Middle Americans, their metabolic thermostats gummed up by fried foods and irregular exercise.Satisfying details aside, however, a sense of underachievement surrounds King of the Hill. In thoroughly sitcom-esque way, for instance, the premiere episode didn't live up to its potentially explosive subject matter: a zealous social worker tries to take Hank's son away, mistaking a baseball bruise for a sign of abuse. The moral -- that those darned liberals go too far, but we really should be nicer to our kids -- could have come straight out of Home Improvement or Full House.The critics who are falling all over themselves to hail King of the Hill as a triumph of originality must be the same ones who only watched five minutes of Beavis & Butt-head before turning it off in disgust, not realizing how derivative the former show is of the latter.Family patriarch Hank Hill is simply a younger, slightly thinner version of B&B's Mr. Anderson, the overly credulous redneck neighbor forever victimized by the pair's conscious pranks and free-floating cruelty. Likewise, the wimpy social worker from King of the Hill's pilot episode is a retread of Mr. Van Driessen, the boys' u bersensitive hippie teacher.It's interesting, too, to see how these stock characters have been transferred from one series to the next. In Beavis & Butt-head, Mr. Anderson is consistently ridiculed as a bigoted, clueless fool, while liberal Van Driessen comes in for his share of abuse but is ultimately shown to be loyal and protective toward his students Beavis and Butt-head (no matter how unworthy the boys may be).In contrast, King of the Hill endorses a view of jackbooted welfare-state liberalism right out of The American Spectator while tweaking but ultimately celebrating the Hill family's kulak forthrightness and virtue.This rather tepid endorsement of staunch middle-class values feels forced and insincere. Coming from a talent as subversive as Judge's, it carries more than a faint whiff of condescension.I'm far more hopeful about the potential surrounding the Mike Judge's other animated project, Daria. Centering on the adventures of a minor character from Beavis & Butt-head, the sarcastic, hyperintelligent Daria, the show's previews look promising, despite a rather heavy-lined animation style. (It premieres on MTV March 3 at 10:30pm.)It will be interesting to see how the writers handle what, in essence, is a complete inversion of the Beavis & Butt-head premise. Can they wring humor out of the life of an intelligent girl trying to cope in an irredeemably stupid world, as opposed to laughing at two boys so stupid they seem to require spoon-feeding. (I've always thought the real inspiration for the show wasn't Bill and Ted, or Wayne and Garth, but the two Nevada teenagers who blasted their faces off with a 12-gauge shotgun after getting drunk and listening to Judas Priest.) And if they do, will anyone want to watch?If the creators succeed, and Daria achieves even a modest fraction of the cultural influence wielded by Beavis & Butt-head, the effect could be enormous. We might even see an abatement of the "celebrate stupidity" trend in fiction and pop culture, as exemplified by product like Forrest Gump, Dumb and Dumber, Meet the Stupids, et al.Who knows, we might even see television intellectuals characterized as something other than effete blowhards like Dr. Frazier Crane or outre freaks like Family Matters' Urkel or Screech from Saved by the Bell.The animation writers themselves would probably welcome the change. In an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air program a few years back, Terry Gross asked a writer for The Simpsons if he was much like Bart Simpson in grade school (Bart-mania was still in full flush at this point in popular culture). "Of course not," the writer replied. "We were all like Lisa Simpson in school."And it's true. While Bart as a character always went for the easy laughs to please the groundlings, Lisa -- the bright, sensitive mutant born from a bloodline of genial dolts -- always has been the tragic center of the show, and the one with whom the writers clearly identify the most.Similarly, Beavis & Butt-head's generally sympathetic treatment of Daria pointedly reveals the true affinities of the program's creators. If Beavis & Butt-head were really the celebration of moronism that its critics allege it to be, Daria would be the one constantly humiliated by the eponymous pair, rather than getting the better of them the way she regularly does. (Her use of Beavis and Butt-head in a science experiment titled "Stupidity: Genetic or Environmental?" was particularly priceless.)Whether American television viewers choose to empathize with characters more rather than less intelligent than they remains an open question, though. I had high hopes for that big autumn hit of 1996, Phenomenon.Surely America's pot-bellied sweetheart, John Travolta, could make audiences root for and embrace an ordinary man turned into a supergenius by a mysterious force (L. Ron Hubbard?). But Phenomenon seems to view the acquisition of knowledge as a process akin to filling a plastic grocery bag with bricks, and in the end the disco-dancing autodidact dies.Television's Butt-head, in contrast, takes a much kinder view of intelligence. Observing Daria giving an eloquent dressing-down to President Clinton at a school assembly, he remarks, "Heh-heh, Daria's cool." And when comrade Beavis suffers from one of his periodic brain seizures and begins inexplicably spouting hyperintellectual rock-criticism jargon worthy of Greil Marcus, his friend is content to merely smack him upside the face several times and admonish, "Settle down, Beavis."