Dumb and dumber

`Simpsons' and `Beavis' fans rejoice, the new `adult animation' hit is yet another excursion into the simple mindset of middle America. By David Usborne

One more day in the Hill household; one more moral dilemma to overcome. Peggy, wife of Hank, is a substitute teacher at the local school and has been asked to take a sex education class. She knows she must do it but the prospect appals her. Worst of all, she cannot bring herself to say the word "penis". The crisis is all the more poignant since Peggy and husband Hank, God-fearing both, have only just declined to sign a school slip authorising Bobby, their boy, to attend the self-same class.

Peggy sits herself down and grapples with the offending utterance as if she were breaking in a horse. Her trick is to divide it into two syllables, "pee" and "nis", and say them first slowly then quickly: "Pee - nis. Pee- nis. Penis."

Welcome to the anxious and hilarious world of King of the Hill, the latest adult-animation series to conquer television audiences in the United States in the tradition of Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons. Hank Hill, of the fictional town of Arlen, Texas, has not yet brought his Everyman American family and his beer-drinking bubba friends into British front-rooms. But be assured, he won't be long.

Created for Rupert Murdoch's Fox network and launched at the start of the year, King of the Hill has emerged as one of the few obvious successes of the spring season here. In ratings terms it was the second most popular new series - after NBC's Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields - in a field strewn with expensive disasters. And its following, among young and older viewers, is still building.

True, the half-hour show was helped by its Sunday night primetime slot on Fox before the wildly popular X-Files and immediately after The Simpsons. It was not long, however, before solid-citizen Hank - he sells propane gas and relaxes by drinking beer and riding his sit-on lawnmower - was beating even The Simpsons in the ratings. This, clearly, is an eminently exportable programme.

And it has the right artistic pedigree. Its principal creator is Mike Judge, himself a Texas resident, who in 1992 first introduced MTV viewers - and subsequently a good portion of the planet - to Beavis and Butthead. That show is still drawing an audience and last Christmas was transmuted into a feature-length film - Beavis and Butthead Do America - that became the biggest box-office draw of the holiday season.

For this new project, Judge, 34, did the original drawings (though he now has 80 animators drafting each episode) and also provides the voices of Hank and of the most dimwitted of his men friends, Boomhauer. He co- writes the programme with Glen Daniels, who was formerly a writer of The Simpsons.

The Hill is not a mark II of either of the two earlier shows. "The only shot this show has is if it doesn't feel like the The Simpsons and look like Beavis and Butthead," remarked Daniels recently. While, for example, Beavis is spectacular in its nihilism, the Hill has a more languid feel. And far from being empty and debased souls, Hank and Peggy are instantly recognisable as the quintessence of steadfast, middle-American folk, who hate the interferences of government but revere the flag.

Hank, notes Daniels, is a man who would have voted for sure for Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate from Dallas. Judge adds: "Hank's not a raging right-winger. He's just somebody who's had it with the everyday irritations of life. Basically, he's good people."

They may be Texans, but they are neither rednecks nor are they the super- rich that televisions viewers might more normally associate with the Lone Star state. The suburban Hill home is a long way from the ranch at South Fork.

"It doesn't have to be set in Texas, it could be in Queens [New York] or Indiana," remarked Daniels. "It's more of a class of people, a kind of personality. It's kind of observational and realistic, yet with kind of an underground feel." Best of all, for those of us already weary of the sophistications of Seinfeld and Friends, the Hill environs are most assuredly not Upper West Side.

With the serial crises that bombard the Hill home, the programme can veer occasionally to the Sunday-school preachy. There are the little offerings of philosophy from Hank, for instance Like this: "Whatever you do in life, you should do it right, even if it's something wrong." It escapes, however, thanks to the humour. Much of that is provided by Boomhauer and Hank's other two friends, Dale and Bill. Their grasp on humanity goes only slightly further than the feel in their fists of a cold bottle of beer.

Peggy is invariably dressed in prim culottes and pale-blue, sleeveless tops. She is earnest to a degree, but occasionally shocks by revealing her pragmatic side in coping with whatever hits her. She was candid with the social worker, for instance, when explaining that it was Hank's "narrow urethra" that prevented them producing any siblings for young Bobby (who, by the way, is not the brightest).

Other issues that have taxed them in Texas: smoking, lawn care, parental discipline, the challenges of playing Boggle and, of course, sex education. Then there was the episode that was entirely given over to Hank's wrenching battle with constipation. You knew when he was in trouble when he shouted "show off" at the family dog after watching it deposit its business with barely a whimper.

Do not imagine the Hill will be the only new animation series to lap soon on European shores. The success of Beavis and Butthead and of The Simpsons has spawned a mini-industry of programmes with cartoon characters aimed at more than just a school-age audience. MTV is currently experimenting with Daria, a spin-off from Beavis, while Comedy Central is drawing good ratings for its Dr Katz: Professional Therapist. Meanwhile, HBO has just given us a satanic adult series named Spawn, about a warrior from hell, with lines like: "Back off before I permanently introduce your face to your colon."

If you are among those turned off by both Beavis and The Simpsons, join the club. But this correspondent recommends you keep your eyes out for the Hill. It is edgy and irreverent but is also invariably funny. And you wouldn't mind your 10-year-old watching it.

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