Society is going to hell in a handbasket,'' says Dale Gribble, King of the Hill's resident conspiracy theorist and genius of self-delusion. He and his buddies Hank, Bill, and Boomhauer have just discovered that a vandal has tagged the fence in the street where they drink beer and try to make sense of the world. At a loss to explain a crime this senseless (after all, Hank and his wife, Peggy, took their wedding photos in front of that fence), Dale ventures, ''I blame the media blamers.''
The real culprit turns out to be a neighbor's delinquent teenage niece, visiting the fictional town of Arlen, Tex., from (where else?) Los Angeles. But the details hardly matter. As long as society keeps churning out fresh horrors for the nightly newscast, ''King of the Hill'' -- which wraps its seventh season and airs its 150th episode on May 18 -- won't run out of material any time soon.
''King,'' which was created by former ''Simpsons'' writer Greg Daniels and ''Beavis and Butthead'' creator Mike Judge, is a warmhearted comedy of manners that swaps urban sophisticates for worried suburbanites who prefer to let their greeting cards do their quipping for them. The animated series skips the tired sarcasm and fun-house pop-culture references that somehow still pass for comedy on TV. It views middle America as neither a quaint, homespun paradise nor a wasteland populated by mean-spirited cliches. The Hills may eat Frito pie and wear culottes from the Megalomart, but ''King'' never uses these habits as an excuse to trivialize or dismiss them. The show is a bellwether for the anxious mood of the small town, and its best jokes come from the darkest places. When Hank's boss promotes him to manager and Hank blurts out, ''I love you, Buck,'' in front of his wife, his son, Bobby, and worst of all, his horrible dad, Cotton, Bobby asks: ''Why did Dad have to go and act like a woman in front of Grandpa? Grandpa hates women!''
What makes ''King'' so deceptively subversive is that it subtly takes apart TV's nuclear-family archetypes that we have come to accept as real, slyly exposing the liberal pieties underneath them. From the smartest sitcoms (''The Simpsons'') to the ones with the scabbiest knuckles (''According to Jim''), television writers have been ''subverting the patriarchy'' for so long it's hard to remember a time when dads weren't ineffectual fools, moms weren't smarmy know-it-alls, and their kids weren't automatically light-years ahead of both simply by virtue of their youth, their fashion sense, and their media savvy. In this context, Hank Hill, dedicated propane salesman and paterfamilias, is radical.
Meanwhile, Peggy -- the product of an era when messages of female empowerment are even embedded in commercials for antiperspirant -- is the family buffoon. An overconfident, undereducated substitute teacher absolutely popping with self-esteem, Peggy has been Oprah-ized to the point of megalomania. When she fails (which she does often), all she needs is a leg up from the self-esteem industry to restore her faith in herself. As she tells Bobby, explaining why it's possible for her to have a ''career'' and be a devoted housewife at the same time, ''I am what the magazines call a superwoman!''
A couch-softened media sponge, Bobby is the kind of kid who is transported to ecstatic heights by fabric-softener commercials. He may be like no other kid on TV, but he is a lot like a real kid who watches too much TV. Vague, passive, filled with inchoate longings, Bobby dreams of becoming a magician; on TV, things happen as if by magic and everybody has a ''trademark.'' When Hank objects to Bobby's friendship with the town ''sorcerer'' -- a 30-year-old warlock who works in a video store -- Bobby accuses him of standing in the way of letting him find his ''thing.'' Hank shoots back with a weary ''I'm afraid of you getting your ass kicked every day for the rest of your life because you found a new way of being a nerd!''
No wonder Hank is anxious. It's hard to compete with sexy boy bands, permissive hipster parents, and cool gangster girls from L.A. when you are trying to raise your kid. At least ''King of the Hill'' lets him have the dignity of being right once in a while. Even when his efforts are doomed to fail, they are never ridiculous -- which makes Hank the only conservative, uptight white guy on the Fox network to earn this distinction.