In the premiere episode of this fifth season of King of the Hill, broadcast during the final days of the Presidential Elections of 2000, propane-salesman extraordinaire Hank Hill finds himself eagerly anticipating the election of fellow Texan George Dubya to the White House. While wife Peggy obsesses over the security of the polling station erected in the Hill’s garage, Hank sets about inspiring his rather flighty niece Luanne about the joys of casting a ballot. “The thrill of voting,” he tells her solemnly, “lasts a lifetime.” As is usual in his life, however, he finds his basic assumptions challenged when he attends a rally for Bush Jr and discovers, on coming face-to-face with the great man himself, that Dubya has – brace yourselves – a weak handshake. This throws Hank into a turmoil: on the one hand he can never see himself voting for a man with a limp wrist, but on the other how can he not vote for a fellow Texan, especially when his opponent is – whisper it – from the East Coast. Unable to reconcile these two positions, he flees to Mexico with neighbour Dale Gribble for voting day, before realising he is being a coward and must return to do his civic duty.
That's is rather how I feel about this fifth season. Since the series has begun being released on DVD, it’s become a pleasant habit to anticipate the next set of episodes dropping through the letterbox, and indeed is perhaps my favourite thing to review, especially as the first four seasons have maintained a consistently high standard. Not having considered this fifth year since its original broadcast, I wasn’t expecting anything different for this latest batch, happily looking forward to giving it a good review and singling out the best episodes as per usual. But, just as Hank did when he attended that rally, instead I found myself vaguely disappointed. It’s not a terrible season by any stretch of the imagination but, compared to past years, I find it my sad civic duty to report it’s all a bit of a limp wrist.
Most episodes do manage to pass the time in an entertaining and fitfully amusing manner, it’s just that for long-term fans there is a distinct lack of inspiration about much of the season. Several episodes feel like new variations on old favourites: Bill has a temporary romance that goes nowhere, Hank develops an embarrassing medical condition, Bobby starts imitating an adult with opinions less than ideal, and so on. One of the on-going themes used throughout the year, so much so that it forms the basis for the finale, is Bobby’s continuing struggle between the onset of puberty and his desire to remain childlike, but that’s something we’ve seen many times before and, crucially, nothing new comes of it this year – indeed, an early episode, in which his best friend Joseph’s voice breaks, feels more like an excuse to explain why there’s a different person voicing him this season than the desire to tell a new story per se. The first half of the season in particular is lethargic, and even the dialogue isn't quite as sharp as usual, relying more on standard character traits rather than the sharp self-reflective wit that is one of the hallmarks of the show.
Having said that, at least the characters themselves don't suffer, and most get at least one moment of glory: there’s far too much Bobby, and far too little of Khan, Hank's annoying neighbour who hardly appears, but in general there’s a good spread. There aren’t any of the key developments there were in Season Four, however, meaning the characters end the year pretty much as they began it: the one truly big event is that we meet Bill’s ex Lenore for the first time and, disappointingly, it’s a wasted opportunity. Up until this point the character has been a bit like Niles’s Maris from Frasier, a character oft-talked about but never seen, so it comes as a bit of a shock when she suddenly turns up with no fanfare in the middle of an unremarkable episode. The squandering of this moment is symptomatic of the problems of the season, a lazy writing decision that, while providing a perfectly adequate episode, is unmemorable (indeed, after last season which is full of Bill triumphs, this year is a bit flat for the guy). Indeed, everything feels inconsequential that happens this season, and so episodes that initially seem to contain life-changing moments for someone – Bobby developing an allergy to Ladybird for example, or Hank becoming unable to sit down – begin to feel pointless.
Despite the relative slackness on behalf of the writing, though, one thing that's always reliable is the voice talent. As ever the cast maintain their high standards, and, although I have a friend who strongly disagrees with me about this, I still think King of the Hill has the most sincere cast of all the newer wave of series animation from the last ten years, even if admittedly not the most versatile. Of the regulars, it’s noticeable that Brittany Murphy appears far less often this year as her movie career began to take off: last year preparations were made for this in the episode in which Luanne moved out of the Hills’ home, and this year she hands over the voicing of Joseph (who, even when he’s not in the throes of adolescent angst, is still one of the most important secondary characters) to her mate Breckin Meyer (hence the episode alluded to above.) As ever, the series brings in lots of celebrity guests and, in general, refuses to highlight the fact, although the “Hey look, it’s Mr Famous visiting Arlen!” temptation is still succumbed to in the season finale, for the second season in a row, when No Doubt decide to visit the local high school. The guests usually play to type: there’s Brendan Fraser playing a school jock, Ryan Phillipe a stoner, and Snoop Dogg taking the mickey out of himself as a pimp, although I’m not sure Owen Wilson’s role as a committed virgin is quite in keeping with his persona, and even less so for Renee Zellweger (who, as a real Texan, really should have appeared in the show before now) who plays a hooker.
And, despite my negativity, there are some very decent episodes, especially in the second half. Two episodes featuring different beloved vehicles, Chasing Bobby and It’s Not Easy Being Green, make nice, if presumably unintentional, companion pieces, and the latter even gives a rare central role to Boomhauer, even if he isn’t actually in it that much. An episode in which Dale sues the tobacco company is nicely cynical about such practises, and the one in which he gets a proper job the best character episode he’s had for a good couple of seasons. There’s only one real out-and-out clunker in the pack which unfortunately is also the only one to feature Luanne to any great degree; Luanne 2.0 makes an extremely obvious approach to a subject with which on a better day a lot of fun could have been had. Most episodes drift along in an enjoyable way – the charm of the leads is enough to carry along the more mediocre instalments, and there are quite often individual moments of hilarity in even the weaker stories, such as the highlight of the entire season, when Hank pretends to be a pimp. It’s just that as a whole the season is less than the sum of its parts, taking longer to find its feet and not consistently maintaining the same high level as times past. Maybe in the end it’s not so much a limp handshake as just a half hearted one – it would still get my vote, but with, as with Hank and Mr Bush, I would have surprising reservations.
All twenty episodes of the fifth season are presented in a set identical in design to those of the previous four. The episodes are spread over three DVDs, the first two disks flippers that hold four episodes each side, the last a single-sided with the remaining four. The disks are housed in slim-line jewel cases which each have individual cover art following a certain pattern – in this case, rather nice illustrations of Hank and his friends driving their lawn mowers across a field just as the sun is rising or setting. Each case has details of all the episodes held on the disk within, including writer and director credits, original airdates and an illustration. The three cases are held in a larger box with appropriate artwork and a rather asinine description of the season held within – it must be hard thinking what to say on a King of the Hill boxset and after five seasons it's still not quite right.
The menus have an identical set-up to the last season’s set, with the exception of the opening, which this time features a very brief illustration of one of the main characters doing something typical before a vehicle drives across the screen, wiping to the menu itself. A selection of clips from the four episodes on that particular side is looped over the show’s theme, the options themselves (Play All, Episode Selection and Languages) running along the bottom. The Episode Selection page has synopses, production codes and brief synopses (different to those on the cases) and the slight pause between moving between episodes and the menu updating is still there. All episodes are subtitled.
Once again the extras seem to have gone AWOL.
Disappointing, with plenty of small artefacts popping up, including at least one instance of what appears to be a hair popping into shot, while the general visuals don’t feel as sharp as they have done in past seasons and are almost blurry in places. In addition, the instances of line shimmer that popped up occasionally in Season Four’s set return with a vengeance. Nearly all episodes are affected at least once with this problem, in which close-together lines of such things as grills shimmer alarmingly in otherwise static pictures, making for an irritating distraction. Although it doesn’t come close to ruining the viewing experience, the fact the instances of this problem are far more numerous does give cause for concern.
Fine. An audio track such as this is never spectacular, but both dialogue and music comes across clearly and in general there are no complaints.
It’s not as consistently strong as the earlier seasons, but some stronger episodes in the second half save this fifth year from too many blushes. The package is the same as we’ve come to expect but both the lack of extras – surely just laziness? – and concerning picture quality means this is not one of the better collections of episodes by any means.