WRITING MASTER CLASS: KING OF THE HILL

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Submitted Date 02/21/2019
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Television experienced something of a renaissance period during the nineties. The sitcom format had been honed to a fine point, and so artists began taking the genre into new areas previously unexplored. One of the most impactful results of this experimentation has lived on with us to this day: the animated sitcom. Shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and Futurama were a radical concept at the time. In fact, many of these early examples were canceled well before their time—only to re-emerge years later. But the most successful of these animated sitcoms had tremendous staying power, largely because of their exquisite writing. Perhaps the best example among these is King of the Hill.

 

For those who don’t know, King of the Hill is an animated series produced by the Fox network near the turn of the century. It ran from ‘97 to 2010—longer than Seinfeld, Friends or The Office (by at least three seasons in each case). As stated, I believe the reason for the show’s longevity lies in its rock-solid use of writing principles. As a slice-of-life American sitcom, King of the Hill’s premise was built with nearly limitless potential. It’s also patently obvious from the very first episode that creator Mike Judge had a clear and distinct artistic vision he was working towards. But the element that truly defined King of the Hill was one of the fundamentals that all fiction writers should know inside and out: character development.

 

King of the Hill is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to writing strong, solid but still malleable characters. As is usually the case, the cast started off small. There was the titular character, Hank Hill; along with his wife Peggy and son Bobby, the Hills were the focus of the series. The supporting characters were all tied to the protagonist, Hank. Like Hank’s childhood friends: Bill, Dale and Boomhauer. Or Hank’s annoying neighbor, Khan. Or Hank’s domineering father, Cotton. All of these characters are classic archetypes that many people can identify with.

 

But even at the very beginning of the series these characters were largely three-dimensional. Cotton Hill, for example, played out the traditional impossible-to-please father. However, he was also a veteran of World War II who had (get this) lost his shins in the war. Now that’s an interesting backstory. From his first moments in the show Cotton is palpably entertaining. And as the show progresses he continues to evolve into something even more interesting. Around the second season he marries a woman forty years his junior and the two have a baby. Soon Cotton’s war buddies show up and begin joining his adventures. In this way, an already rich character grows into a whole thematic microcosm of his own.

 

There are many examples of this pattern throughout the show’s history. Like Luanne, Hank’s niece (by marriage). Luanne’s character is fairly threadbare in the early series, mostly being played for gags. She starts out in beautician school—again mostly played for gags—but then has a religious experience and decides to change her life. In the second half of the series she finds love with a roguish new character, Lucky, who becomes a major supporting character in his own right.

 

Another example would be Buck Strickland, owner of Strickland Propane and Hank’s boss. Buck starts simply as an irresponsible sheister boss. But over the seasons we see more and more of what goes on at Strickland Propane. Crooked business deals, skirting the law, and wild benders are common tactics for Strickland; his sub-plot reads almost like a criminal enterprise by the end of the series.

 

In all these cases what we have is a strong formula for writing an exceptional character. It runs something like this. Start with a strong personality. Ideally, it’s something relatable or understandable—something you’ve probably seen before in your own life. In the early stages these characters are tied to the story by their relationship with the protagonist. As the story (or plot) progresses we gradually see more and more of the character in their own element. We see the shenanigans they get into when left to their own devices. We begin to see them not as they relate to Hank, but as they relate to themselves.

 

Once the character begins to feel really real, entire episodes will start focusing on their lives. The characters in their lives, some of which have no relation to the protagonist, will start getting more spotlight. Soon each supporting character feels like they live in their own little world with their own sphere of influence. By even the middle seasons of King of the Hill, many episodes barely featured Hank if at all. An episode could focus almost entirely on John Redcorn, or Peggy, or Bill.

 

By the final season each character felt like a real person, like someone you know. I think that’s a good test of what makes a great character. Not only do you see the distinct world they have around them, but you see how these characters archetypically relate to real-world dynamics. You see the emotional consequences of fathering an illegitimate child. Or the harsh realities of going from one physical relationship to the next. You see corruption modeled in a controlled environment, how the rich swindle their way to the top. You see a loving, if asymmetrical, family just trying to exist in a rapidly changing world. And it all feels real.

 

If you’ve never seen King of the Hill I highly recommend finding a few episodes. While the focus of this article has been in relation to character development, King of the Hill excels in every aspect of writing. The dialogue, plot structure, story design, all this and more is structured with mechanical precision. Very few television shows have the depth of quality that it exemplifies. It’s worthy of intense scrutiny. Over twenty years later, I’d argue we still have a lot to learn from this American television classic.

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