Ken Tucker explains why ''King of the Hill'' is having its best season yet

March 28, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Here’s the most overlooked comedy on TV

Lost in the animation shuffle that includes the recent premiere of the regrettable ”God, the Devil and Bob” (regrettable not because of the supposed irreligiosity that’s gotten it kicked off a few NBC affiliates but because it’s NOT FUNNY), the return of Fox’s moronic ”Family Guy,” and the well-deserved kudos ”The Simpsons” is receiving for its spunky 10th season, one animated series is definitely getting the short end of the stick: ”King of the Hill” is having a great season, possibly its best yet, but too few people are talking about it or tuning in.

In a sense, the low-key reaction to ”King” simply matches the pleasantly low-key atmosphere of the show itself. The ongoing saga of the middle-class Texas family of the Hills — husband and wife Hank and Peggy; their son, Bobby, and niece, Luanne — is an accretion of small details; if novelist Larry McMurtry were to collaborate with Texas artist-musician Terry Allen, they might have come up with a cartoon like this, full of exaggerated realism, a pride in regional customs, and the sound of beer cans being popped open at all times of the day.

This season’s best episodes have centered around the series’ most interesting, complex character: 12 year-old Bobby. For proof, all I need point to is the March 20 episode, in which a group of Buddhist monks begin to wonder whether the tubby preteen may be the latest reincarnation of a holy lama. Every prospect of this unlikeliness infuriates the Hills’ next-door neighbor Kahn, a xenophobic Laotian. He despises Americans like Hank for being hopeless ignoramuses and pushes his daughter Connie, Bobby’s pal and on-again-off-again love interest, to excel in school in order to prove his point.

This plot had all the makings of an offensive-on-so-many-levels bore; instead, it was magical. Bobby is the sweetest, most innocent child, enraptured by old-fashioned showbiz like ventriloquism and soft-shoe routines. (Baffled by Kahn’s dislike of him, he mutters, ”Who can hate a kid who can Charleston?”) When he begins literally meditating on whether he might be a young version of a holy man, contemplating a conversion, his shocked father hauls him off to the family’s Methodist minister, who asks, ”Bobby, do ya’ love Jesus?” ”With all my heart,” breathes Bobby. ”Buddhist liar,” mutters Hank.

In the end, it is decided that Bobby is not a lama (”Tough call,” sighs one monk), but for 30 minutes ”King of the Hill” has once again proven it is one of the most artfully adroit, funniest shows on television. Tune in to Fox on Sunday nights a little early, before ”The Simpsons” and ”Malcolm in the Middle,” and reconnect with the Hills.

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