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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'King of Hill' Drawn With a Drawl

January 10, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Despite its royal lineage, don't expect Bart, Beavis or Butt-head from Fox's new animated comedy, "King of the Hill."

Although one of its creators, Greg Daniels, was a co-executive producer of "The Simpsons," and the other, Mike Judge, dreamed up absurdist teen lowlifes Beavis and Butt-head, their partnership here yields less bite than gnaw.

As a treatise on Texans, "King of the Hill" is neither George Bush nor Ross Perot territory, instead drifting in limbo somewhere among "The Last Picture Show," "Lone Star" and "Dallas." As a Sunday comedy following "The Simpsons," it totes a few smiles, but little to bowl you over, and it takes a spell getting used to.

Judge's endearing imbeciles, Beavis and Butt-head, have huh-huh-huhed their way to MTV fame as wisecracking connoisseurs of bad music videos and virtuosos of coarse mischief and flatulence, becoming controversial national icons of ignorance and stars of a current hit theatrical movie. And "The Simpsons" surfaced as a series on Fox in 1990, becoming--faster than you could say "Ay caramba!"--one of television's devilishly supreme comedies, using world-class writing, distinctive voices and Matt Groening's crude, weirdly gnarled cartoon figures to imaginatively mock sitcoms about families and the mores that shape them.

"King of the Hill," on the other hand, is a sitcom about a family, albeit an animated one steeped in white trashdom somewhere in small-townish Texas where values run conservative, twangs run thick, barbecue runs hot, shoppers run to Wal-Mart and blue collars get bluer while burying their heads under the hoods of pickups. Va-va-room!

Just as he provides the voices of Beavis and Butt-head, Texas native Judge is the nasal drawl for protagonist Hank Hill and for one of his hayseed buddies, someone named Boomhauer, who speaks like this:

"I tell ya what ya do, ya jus' take them dang ol' spark plugs outta dat-dat little hole, ya jus' pu a little oil on there . . . jus' like dat."

Jus' like dat, we also meet Hank's minimalist wife, Peggy (Kathy Najimy), his chubby lump of a 12-year-old son, Bobby (Pamela Segall), and his blossoming 18-year-old niece, Luanne (Brittany Murphy), who lives with the Hills because her mother is in prison for stabbing her father with a fork in a fight over beer. And there's dang ol' Dale (Johnny Hardwick), Hank's sidekick, who sports mirrored sunglasses and a view of the United Nations as a Commie-like plot to impose a world order.

"King of the Hill" projects a much narrower planet, softening the dark, rusted edges of Beavis and Butt-head and lacking the panoramic vision and often slashing irreverence and social observances of "The Simpsons," which, although not the hilarious achiever it once was, remains a cleverly written farce and commentary on pop culture.

*

On Sunday, for example, hapless Homer's eyewitness reports of an eerily glowing, ghostly figure in the night bring Dana Scully and Fox Mulder (the voices of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny) of Fox's own "The X-Files" to Springfield in a deeply mystifying Close Encounters of the Simpson Kind introduced by Leonard Nimoy (playing himself).

Inevitably, though, Homer himself is the biggest UFO here (naturally coming on to Scully) in a series whose points of reference, from sci-fi to goofy TV newscasters, are as topical and eclectic as ever.

Despite being more conventionally humanoid and recognizable than the exotic universe of "The Simpsons," the premiere of "King of the Hill" is light on media signposts, limiting itself pretty much to benign mentions of NBC's "Seinfeld" ("jus' a show 'bout nuth'n'," gripes Boomhauer), talk radio and a pathetic daytime talk-show guest who appears under the shocking title: "His Doctor Gave Him an Unnecessary Nose Job." Now that is funny.

The voices, especially Segall as the raspy Bobby, are good as well as authentic, and there's something inviting about the show's lazy rhythms. However, whereas "The Simpsons" sees animation as an opportunity to expand physical reality and tour plot realms far beyond the resources of regular sitcoms, "King of the Hill" is visually myopic in its storytelling.

Its premiere orbits around charges by a misguided social worker (an out-of-touch emigre from Los Angeles, naturally) that a black eye Bobby received from a baseball (while playing for his team, the Strickland Propane Wolves) was administered in anger by an abusive Hank. Actually, Hank is a caring and gentle, if unexpressive and exasperated father, and there's much about the Hill family's values and interaction that's worth emulating.

Which makes them better role models, but much less fun than the squabbling, vastly more dysfunctional Simpsons, to say nothing of quasi-delinquent Beavis and Butt-head. Andy, Barney, Aunt Bee and Opie could reside on this hill. That's the problem. They already have, in Mayberry.

* "King of the Hill" premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).

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