Picture this: November, 2004. The Iraq War had been raging for a year and a half. Operation Enduring Freedom was entering it’s fourth year, despite “Mission Accomplished” being infamously declared the previous year. 2004 is when the war crimes at Abu Ghraib were exposed, the year that Reagan died. The year the Red Sox FINALLY regained a World Series pennant. Through these monumental events, a little show about a family from Texas took a major shift in tone to reflect the changing times.
“King of the Hill” was a half-hour animated comedy television show by Mike Judge — the animator and writer who created the inane antics of “Beavis and Butthead.” Launched in 1997, the show chronicles the life of the Hill family, their neighbors, and life in the fictional suburban town of Arlen, Texas. The every-man protagonist is Hank Hill. He is portrayed as patriarchal, stubborn, hard working, surprisingly understanding and especially loyal. He is an old-school Republican who proudly voted for Reagan, but as a Texan has an unending appreciation for former Democratic governor Ann Richards. His wife, Peggy, is a transplant from Montana, a substitute teacher and Boggle champion, egotistical and kind all at the same time. Their son, Bobby, is an aspiring comedian with a heart of gold. His father, Cotton, is a disabled vet who often boasts of killing fifty men. He is a misogynist and a bad father, but Hank respects his service to America. Hank has the same friends since childhood, and they all live on the same block: Bill Dauterive, barber in the Army Reserves; Dale Gribble, exterminator and conspiracy theorist; and (Jeff) Boomhauer, ladies’ man and Texas Ranger (although the details are sketchy… some suspect he is an undercover agent, although there is an early episode where he mentions that he got a disability settlement.) The men drink beers in the alley every day and have many adventures and life lessons together.
I have to admit, I watched a lot of this show during the early years. I joined the Army in 1996 and the show was often on in barracks breakrooms. My husband, who I met in the Army, was a later convert. My enlistment ended in 2000, but I was one of the few troops who were activated from the Inactive Ready Reserves to serve for a second time in the early days of OEF. Since my husband and I were both on active duty and frequently worked different shifts, I remember watching many seasons of “King of the Hill” (KITH) by myself during the 2002 to 2005 seasons.
Fast-forward to 2020. Our family, like everyone else, is in quarantine. Our tween and teenaged kids decided to watch KITH as a family, so our evenings are usually topped off by 2 or 3 episodes. It has been interesting re-watching the show, and as an historian, I gravitate to the historical and societal context of the episodes. In Season 9, the show tackles some of the more militant issues that were happening in 2004. Here are some prime examples of how the TV show reflected the pro-government, pro-war sentiment of the early 2000.
In Episode 1, Peggy returns home to Montana at her mother’s request. The two women have never had a good relationship so Peggy has reservations. Hank is enamored with the almost mythological idea of Montana as a pristine wilderness. Bobby is a suburban kid and is understandably bored. Peggy’s parent’s ranch has new neighbors — Hollywood transplant Henry Winkler. Property values are rising, and Peggy’s parents may lose the ranch because they lost grazing rights and can’t pay rising taxes. Of course, all things settle at the end of the half-hour episode and the family keeps their ranch.
The American West has always taken issue with outsiders and taxes. Most incidents end with rural folk ponying up and paying (or not, in the case of the Weavers and Bundys.) Episode 1 chose to talk both about taxes and outsiders, but in a way that would find a commonality and solution rather than more antagonism. This was certainly in response to the fracturing of American ideals that was happening at the time: massive antiwar protests occurred in 2003, and sentiment to the “American ideal” was at a record low. The Patriot Act exacerbated mistrust among Americans and many people felt the economic strain of the 2001 Recession. Truly, the theme of Episode 1 was reconciliation and working together. Although this was a recurring theme of KITH, the inter-economic partnership was a new direction.
When Cotton’s war buddy dies and leaves him $10,000, he decides to honor his friend in the best way possible — by “investing” in a time share purchase in Mexico. Since American citizens cannot own property in Mexico, Hank enlists the help of the US Embassy to renege the deal while devising a plan that shows honor to his war hero father.
The Hills’ proximity to Mexico has been a recurring theme in many episodes: Peggy took a school bus of kids on a fieldtrip to Mexico (obviously, before we had closed borders.) Dale (who considers himself a sovereign citizen) famously spends every Election Day across the border, in case regime change goes ugly. However, Episode 3 has a marked different tone: the borders are less fluid and US citizens weren’t as welcome as they once were. President Vicente Fox was pulling his populist government to align with the pseudo-populism of George W. Bush’s policies, but that didn’t necessarily mean either country’s citizens had the same access to the other country as they formerly enjoyed. Clearly, post-911 relations were different than in previous administrations. Hank calling on the US Embassy for assistance is something that would never have happened in previous episodes. The Texan would have been able to take care of his own business. Episode 3 is almost a default trust of the government. Hank clearly loves America through the entire KITH run, but the government wasn’t always part of that love. Season 9, Episode 3 was a marked change in his stance. That stance was about to get more complicated in Episodes 5 and 6.
Dale FINALLY reads the Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination and realizes that he was mistaken about the direction the car carrying the president was moving. The shooter was definitely from the infirmary and NOT the grassy knoll, just as the report stated. His conspiracy theory is dashed! He then surmises if the Warren Report is correct, the US Government must be correct about… well… everything. Meanwhile, Hank receives his updated license from the DMV and his gender is misprinted as female. He is required to jump through red tape to prove he is, indeed, male. His annoyance translates to hatred of the government, something that is treasonous to the newfound uber-patriotism of Dale. He turns in Hank to Homeland Security as a terrorism risk.
I believe this episode is one of the most important in the entire 15 season “King of the Hill” catalogue. The Patriot Act was an important and strange part of our American existence in the early 2000s. Everyone, and even our actions, could be pursued as something un-American. The fact that Homeland Security actually showed up at Hank’s house showed us all that ANYONE could be targeted. And, indeed, some people were targeted: people of Middle Eastern descent, practicing Muslims, and anonymous brown folks were suspect. This continues today, as the Patriot Act is continually extended through both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Previously, Dale considered himself a Sovereign Citizen, a movement that espouses the belief that the individual alone gets to choose which laws to follow: not courts, law enforcement, or any government. They do not believe in paying taxes (which is maybe the most unforgivable offense that extremists pose to the government… see Weaver and Bundy.) Sovereign Citizens are part of a predominantly white, internal extremist movement that exploded in post-911 America. In Episode 5, the writers chose to steer Dale away from this FBI-recognized terrorist group. It was an intentional move that pushed Dale’s character to a “safer” place, despite the fact that he still distrusted the government and its influence.
Bill discovers that citizens can foster the pets of deployed military members. He is ecstatic to bring home a well-trained golden retriever that belongs to a Navy pilot. Hank, hoping for a similar experience, adopts “Duke,” a cat that throws up hairballs. Hank is not a cat person. He takes the cat to a designer vet, and hilarious and expensive consequences ensue. For Bill, he has an amazing time with his dog and even gets to fly in a Navy warplane as a show of appreciation. It is probably one of the only KITH episodes where things go amazingly well for the hapless character, Bill Dauterive.
This episode exemplifies the complete militarization of American society by 2004. NFL games host flyovers, MLB 7th inning stretches serenade us with “God Bless America,” and American flags fly from the backs of pickup trucks. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars permeated our daily lives. For Hank and Bill, “support our troops” was a tangible mission. Today, we are in a much different situation, but little has changed besides the intensity of these displays. The overt militarism and plastic patriotism of today looks like a comically bloated facsimile of the early OEF/OIF years.
I mentioned watching KITH with our children. As veterans, my husband and I certainly have a different understanding of the Early War Years than many others. And, as an historian, I enjoy the cultural and historical analysis of the show more than anything. It is strange watching an animated comedy that documents the real-time dissolution into the current state of Americanism. That is definitely apparent in Season 9: these four episodes deal with important governmental shifts that certainly happened at that time.
Fall in line.
Pay your taxes.
Support the troops.
Our children were born into a world that we watched become a reality.
In a 2000 episode of “King of the Hill,” the garrison flag at Ft. Blanda was showing some age and was slated to be retired. Bill, in a fit of patriotic nostalgia, offers to take the flag and make a home for it in the neighborhood. Bill, Hank, Dale, and Boomhauer build a regulation-sized flagpole and take pride in raising and lowering it daily. A series of events including plagiarism, theft, arson, and being run over by a truck cause total destruction to the flag. It is subsequently incinerated at a military flag retirement at Ft. Blanda.
If Bill and Hank could see the ratted flags that flop from pickup trucks today, they would be sad for the artificial patriotism that KITH hated the most.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the characters of “King of the Hill” and their voter preferences. Based on the cultural changes that happened during the series run, we can make a lot of guesses. Season 9 was when the writers tackled patriotism, but it seemed like the writers were falling in line with the concurrent narrative — a narrative some see as jingoistic and artificially patriotic, but a narrative that has taken on a life of it’s own in the last 20 years.