Nearly lost among the sudden proliferation of prime-time cartoon series has been a succession of superior fresh episodes from King of the Hill, the saga of a Texas family guy, not to be confused with Fox's new show Family Guy, the saga of a Rhode Island clan, which is a cruder-in-every-sense cartoon show with more buzz.
When King debuted in 1997, it was a pleasant surprise: Who knew Mike Judge, progenitor of Uberlouts Beavis and Butt-head, had it in him to create such a subtle, detailed portrait of contemporary middle-class life? This season, the show's only gotten better deeper, richer, more true to its guiding intention of presenting people with Texas twangs as something other than the media cliche of rubes with bad taste.
Instead, propane-gas salesman Hank Hill, his substitute-teacher wife, Peggy, their 12-year-old son, Bobby, and their live-in niece, Luanne, have become vivid, sympathetic people with bad taste (notwithstanding the recent episode in which Bobby evinced a precocious predilection for capers). King of the Hill has faltered in the ratings since moving to Tuesdays, which is a shame because artistically it has surged. Cocreators Judge and Greg Daniels have spent the new season providing vivid showcase episodes for every member of the Hill family.
Recently, Hank took a car trip with his elderly mother and some of her friends (the varied voices included those of Phyllis Diller, Betty White, and Uta Hagen). They ended up in the middle of a town inundated with college kids letting loose with an MTV Spring Break crew. The mixture of rage, panic, and protectiveness on Hank's part was a marvel of filial complexity.
And the Feb. 23 episode was as remarkable a study in comic behavior as any live-action sitcom this year. If I tell you the primary plot concerned Hank being sexually assaulted by a dolphin, with a parallel subplot about Luanne being sexually harrassed at her golf-course job, you'll just have to trust me that this was handled with a combination of tact, drama, and a cogent critique of a certain New Age strain of anthropomorphism that still has me in awe.
The King writers seem particularly attuned to Bobby, a sensitive little lump whose fondness for show-business fantasies and solitary play, as well as a whining reluctance to take part in his dad's lifeblood, football, render the kid a lovable outcast. The March 23 episode summarized all this brilliantly: Bobby was thrilled when a ''New York-style'' deli opened in the Arlen mall and proceeded to stuff himself on such exotic fare as chopped chicken liver, which in turn brought on a case of gout. (The doctor gives him a cane for his inflamed foot, which Bobby immediately deploys for a little vaudeville song-and-dance act.) If only live-action sitcoms were as in touch with their characters' psyches as King is with Bobby's.
The real-life details that make King of the Hill so compelling are precisely what Family Guy seeks to avoid. Much attention has been paid to Guy's 25-year-old creator, Seth MacFarlane, who's traveled quickly from the Rhode Island School of Design to a job at Hanna-Barbera writing scripts for series like the Cartoon Network's pseudo-hip, mediocre Johnny Bravo, to overseeing his own ballyhooed creation Fox gave Family Guy a prime debut after this year's Super Bowl, and has slotted it cozily between The Simpsons and The X-Files.
My fondest hope is that the smart people who watch those last two shows will use the Family Guy half hour to turn off the set and jump-start a quick debate over the air strikes in Kosovo. Family Guy about dumbbell dad Peter Griffin, his wife, three children, and dog is The Simpsons as conceived by a singularly sophomoric mind that lacks any reference point beyond other TV shows. Whenever MacFarlane and his writers aren't spoofing tired targets like Fox disaster specials (Fast Animals, Slow Children har-har), they're trading on South Park's breakthrough bad taste to make ''jokes'' about, for example, African Americans (the pilot went out of its way to make a stupid Aunt Jemima jibe; the second episode featured a white newscaster who thinks she's not on the air when she says, ''I just plain don't like black people'' I dare you to har-har).
What is laughable is the clunky animation, which makes the static, retrograde stuff pumped out by MacFarlane's old employer, Hanna-Barbera, seem state-of-the-art. Combine all of the above, and the acclaim for writer-artist-actor MacFarlane (who does three regular voices on the show) is shaping up to be the hollowest hype of the year.
King of the Hill: A
Family Guy: D