`Beavis and Butt-head' was written as satire, but widely seen as celebration. With Mike Judge's new cartoon, `King of the Hill', the reverse is true. Who'd have thought Americans would be that subtle? Ben Thompson on why two-dimensional is so profound
Friday marks a red letter day for terrestrial TV loyalists. Perhaps the cruellest of all the privations visited on those who have sought to resist the lure of Sky's magic dinner-plate has been the cartoon comedy time-lag. While the smugly dished- and cabled-up have been able to savour the latest developments in the most highly evolved form of US televisual endeavour as and when they have happened, those without have had to wander for years in the cultural wilderness, their lives horribly impoverished by the gaping void where The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy or Beavis and Butt- head ought to be.

By the time someone at the BBC finally gets it together to do the decent thing, the Murdoch empire has invariably unleashed some demonic new cartoon sensation - Paramount's irresistible Jungian kickaround Dr Katz being the big-hitter of the past year or so. From this Friday, though, all that will change. When Channel 4 begins screening the first series of King of the Hill - Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge's poignant new exploration of family values and mid-American angst - it will be the first time the show has been seen on UK screens. And it made its American debut in only January 1997.

Set in the imaginary small town of Arlen, Texas - the name a phonetic hybrid of Garland and Arlington (much the same way as EastEnders' Walford suggests some demonic offspring of Walthamstow and Ilford) - King of the Hill focuses on the family life of a lovable propane salesman called Hank Hill, his wife Peggy and their 12-year-old son Bobby. The look of the show is pitched midway between Beavis and Butt-head's blasted suburb-scape and The Simpsons' slightly more comforting round edges, but the feel of it recalls a show primitive enough to feature actual flesh and blood actors.

Remember the golden age of Roseanne, way back in the mists of time, before its star disappeared up her own pretensions, when the show seemed custom built to demonstrate that a blue collar does not cut off the flow of blood to the brain... when it was still funny? Well, King of the Hill has the same exhilarating freedom from stereotype and narrative constraint that made the Connor Family so compelling in their prime. It also has a beautifully- written script and a gallery (see caption, right) of precisely observed characters. And with only 12 different episodes having so far been screened in the US, it is already sitting very near the top of the ratings.

On the end of a conference phone line in Los Angeles, King of the Hill co-creators Mike Judge and the former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels show no inclination to be smug about this, though the former - the man who gave the world Engelbert Humperdinck singing "Lesbian Seagull" - does introduce himself in endearingly Butt-head like fashion: "It is I, Mike Judge."

It has often been suspected that the reason animators have been able to do so much intelligent work on TV in the States in recent years is that the cartoon genre acts as camouflage; the networks think, "It'll be dumb kids' stuff anyway, let's let them get on with it." If so, Daniels is not going to give the game away. But he can say why he thinks animation is so popular and why so many creatives like himself prefer to work in two dimensions. "The main thing these shows have in common is that they're so different to your run-of-the-mill sitcom. We get a lot of people telling us that King of the Hill is more realistic than most live-action comedies. Animation sets you free from a lot of the restrictions that tend - in America at least - to hobble your creative development. First off, you don't have to please a star, which is a huge deal, because actors never want to do stuff that makes their characters look bad. Second, you don't have to have an annoying laugh track to tell everyone where to laugh, and third, you're not restricted to just a few stage sets in front of a live audience. Also, the person whose idea it is can control every single aspect of the production."

Before the opening credits have even rolled on Friday night's pilot episode, Hank and his friends are drinking beer in their yard discussing the previous night's episode of Seinfeld. "Them dang old New York boys," observes Boomhauer - a character whose impenetrable accent Judge took from an answering-machine message left by a crazed Beavis and Butt-head fan - "it's the show about nothing." This might seem like an elitist comedy writer's in-joke, but it actually turns out to be quite the opposite.

"I think what we really wanted to do," Daniels explains, "was to announce to people that we weren't doing stereotypes but realistic modern Southerners who don't just go to the hay ride in their carts." Judge agrees. "When you do something about the South, especially in Hollywood, the obvious way to go is with that whole yee-haw type of thing. But you can be in a trailer park in the middle of the most rural part of Alabama and everyone has satellite dishes and watches Seinfeld and everything that people in New York watch."

Hank is a decent man with basically liberal instincts, but he has to do battle not only with the reactionary inclinations of his neighbours, especially Dale, the arch conspiracy-theorist, who rings up their house to make death threats when Peggy is lined up to take a school sex education class, but also with the interference of "politically correct twig-boy bureaucrats". In the pilot episode, for example, Hank has to defend his relationship with his son Bobby from the suspicious eye of a hilariously misguided social-worker, and is forced - in one memorable exchange - to promise his son "dialogue that's not coming from a centre of anger".

The show's intriguingly complex politics have a real-life backdrop. "The presidential election was on when we were rewriting the pilot," Daniels remembers, "and everyone was talking a lot about third party candidates and Ross Perot or whoever, and there was a real sense of a person in the middle of the country not being represented by anybody." "Hank's no Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh," Judge insists. "What he's reacting against is more a cultural than a political feeling. Like just yesterday this woman down the street from where I was staying in LA was saying to me, `So you live in Texas? That's such a funny place to live,' and I said, `Well, I like it.' To be unable to believe that anyone could live outside of some hip town is just so ridiculous: to me Hank Hill is the embodiment of people that live everywhere in the country except New York and LA."

The tone of King of the Hill is much fonder than that of Judge's previous work. Where the original drawings for Beavis and Butt-head grew, by their author's own admission, from "hatred and contempt", the depiction of Hank and his family is a great deal gentler. "I like these guys," Judge protests. It's a neat irony that just as Beavis and Butt-head was widely misinterpreted as celebration when it was actually satire, his new show is already being misinterpreted as satire when it is actually a celebration. (Judge's attitude to the cultural wasteland inhabited by his two most famous creations is reflected in the fact that his young daughters are not allowed to watch TV commercials.)

Hank Hill - the embodiment of open-minded neighbourliness - was recently described in The Guardian as "a bigot". "He's not a bigot," says Judge, "and the fact that people kind of expect him to be says a lot about their prejudices." "There was a show that was very big over here called All in the Family," Daniels explains, "and the main character Archie Bunker [based on Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part] fits the same kind of demographic as Hank, but he was like the straw man whose opinions were always there to be knocked down: the attitude of the show was to make fun of him for not being liberal enough. What we wanted to do with King of the Hill was to have the show's attitude be the same as the hero's."

Perhaps the best of the early episodes features a new set of neighbours of oriental extraction. Hank and his wife struggle - albeit in a heinously condescending manner - to make them welcome, but their best efforts founder on the refreshing reality that their new neighbours aren't in fact very nice people. "The majority of letter-writers were very happy to see a negative portrayal of themselves," Judge says contentedly. "It's a big stereotype in America that you can never have an Asian man play a jerk."

How did the network feel about the great dog miscegenation subplot involving Hank's pedigree Georgia bloodhound and the neighbour's feisty little West Highland terrier? "We had to be very delicate about that," Daniels observes with a smile in his voice as wide as the San Andreas fault. "We got an awful lot of censor notes saying, `Please have the lovemaking between the two dogs be tasteful'."

`King of the Hill' starts on Channel 4 at 10.30pm on Friday

Meet the Hills...

Hank Hill (right) is a good man in a less than perfect world; a loyal husband and employee of Strickland Propane. Next to the oxygen he breathes, propane is the gas he cares most about. A scout leader, little league coach and expert on anything you can throw or mow, he is a working class superman who fights for truth, justice and the Texan way, despite the handicap of a narrow urethra.

Peggy Hill (second from left) is a wife, mother and substitute Spanish teacher who has the rare distinction of being reigning Texas state Boggle champion. She stays in shape by working out to a Chuck Mangione jazzercise tape and stays in fashion by making furtive trips to Lubbock's Very Large Shoes.

Bobby Hill (second from right) is Hank and Peggy's 12-year-old pride and joy. Like most boys his age, Bobby loves TV, video games and snacks. Unlike most boys his age, his face has the spiritual intensity of a Greek Orthodox icon brought to life. Sensitive to other worlds beyond the perception of most of us, Bobby can communicate with ant queens.

Hank and Peggy's niece Luanne (left) is staying with them while her own parents strive unsuccessfully to resolve their differences. Her tactile manner and carefree sexuality causes Hank a certain amount of anxiety. "What is it like to live entirely without shame?" Peggy asks her. "Is it a good thing?" Luanne reflects for a moment. "Yes," she replies, "it is."