After yesterday’s horrid feature, I feel that today calls for a Christmas special that’s actually good. And in order to satisfy that desire, I’m heading for Arlen, Texas for our first look at a special from the animated sitcom, King of the Hill. Back when King of the Hill premiered on the Fox Network in 1997, creator Mike Judge was basically known for one thing: Beavis and Butt-Head. The dimwitted pair of Gen-Xers were often misunderstood by the general public. Most saw it as a stupid show and not as the parody it was. That was also partly due to kids like me watching the show and actually viewing the titular duo in a positive light. If they liked a band or music video, then it must be cool, even though the whole premise of the show was that these were a pair of losers worthy of mocking.
The lazy way to describe the premise of King of the Hill is to say Judge took his character Tom Anderson from Beavis and Butt-Head and gave him his own show, only now he had a new name: Hank Hill. And while the two characters certainly share a similar voice, King of the Hill is very much a conventional sitcom about how one family continues to adapt to an ever-changing world. It’s surprisingly open-minded as I think most turn to Hank Hill as some sort of beacon for conservative thought, but the man is far more nuanced than just some redneck Texan. He certainly possesses some prejudice and strong opinions on masculine matters, but he often reacts in a positive manner when he’s shown his point of view is wrong. And the things he remains stubborn on, like the virtues of propane or his preference for beer, are often inconsequential.
King of the Hill was pretty successful from the get-go. It premiered in May of 1997 with the usual small order of episodes for a first season, but was quickly picked up. The second season would premiere a mere four months after the series premiere and it’s in that second season the show would give us its first Christmas episode. “The Unbearable Blindness of Laying” is a pretty funny episode and it might be the show’s best Christmas episode. I know a lot of people like the Season Three episode “Pretty, Pretty, Dresses” and maybe we can look at that one next year, but I’m still pretty attached to this one. This episode is yet another episode of the show where Hank is forced to adapt to a pretty significant change in his world. His mother, long since divorced from his father, is going to show up for Christmas with a new man in tow. And to make things just a bit more complicated, he’s Jewish. Hank isn’t an anti-semite or anything, but he’s often awkward when forced to deal with something he’s unaccustomed to. I also wanted to pick this episode because it features a guest starring role from the late Carl Reiner, who was unfortunately one of 2020’s victims. It’s hard to feel bad for someone who passed away at the ripe old age of 98, but 2020 was such a shitty year that it would have been nice if Reiner could have made it to 2021.
The episode begins with a twangy, instrumental, rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which is the perfect song to choose considering what the plot has in store for us today. All of the folks in the neighborhood are out stringing lights in celebration of the coming holiday. As a denizen of the north eastern part of the US, it’s always a little funny for me to see Christmas in a warm environment. Hank (Judge) is finishing up with his lights when wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy) approaches. Hank is making sure the colored lights are in their proper order as Peggy questions why he’s not excited to see his mother. Hank corrects her that he is excited to see her, it’s been two years since they were last together, but he’s nervous about meeting her new boyfriend.
As Peggy and Hank wait for Hank’s mother, Tilly (Tammy Wynette), at the airport gate, Peggy tries to get Hank to warm up to seeing his mom with a new man. Hank is clearly traumatized from his youth when his father treated his mother like a footrest. We even get a cut-away of Cotton Hill (Toby Huss) literally using Tilly as a footrest in the kitchen while she scrubs the floor. He can’t imagine why she would sign-up for more of the same as he apparently can’t fathom his mother finding a man who treats her well. Tilly then emerges from the the connecting tunnel carrying two pieces of luggage which irritates Hank immediately. Tilly then shakes his hand, two-handed style, which unnerves Hank who is not one for public displays of affection as he tells his mother one-hand only.
Tilly’s boyfriend then comes strolling in from the restroom (“You flush it and where does it go?”) and goes right into a much bigger display of affection. Reiner voices him as the stereotypical old Jewish man, which makes sense since Reiner himself is an old Jewish man. He embraces Peggy and kisses her cheek and goes for a big hug with Hank. Hank is clearly unnerved, but Tilly’s boyfriend, Gary Kasner, isn’t going to back down or allow Hank’s obvious discomfort to sway him.
At the Hill residence, Hank informs his mother and Gary of the expected sleeping arrangements. Gary is to sleep on a cot in son Bobby’s room, which prompts Tilly to ask if Hank is uncomfortable with she and Gary sleeping together. Hank assures her it never entered his mind until she said something, and now he can’t possibly think of anything else as he heads down the hall to presumably setup the cot.
Outside, Hank drinks beer with the rest of the nieghborhood: Dale (Johnny Hardwick), Bill (Stephen Root), and Boomhauer (Judge). Hank is venting about Gary, and when he says the man’s full name Dale questions if he’s German. Hank corrects him that he’s Jewish, and there’s an awkward silence before Dale demonstrates that he’s surprisingly receptive. Hank is mostly suspicious of the guy because of the luggage thing and the fact that he won’t eat steak after having a bypass, noting his boss gets an annual bypass and eats steak every day! This gets Bill and Dale discussing sacred animals to certain faiths, prompted by Bill first mistakenly thinking cows were sacred to Jews, ending with Bill rationalizing that he can’t follow a religion that restricts his diet. There are ways to get into Heaven, but if that’s one of them then Bill wants no part of it!
Inside the house, Gary and Bobby (Pamela Adlon) are getting ready for bed as Gary will be sleeping on a cot in Bobby’s room. Bobby notes that he and Gary have the same build, which feels like the start of a subplot where Bobby and Gary become kindred spirits. Gary agrees with Bobby’s assessment and Bobby asks him if he’s a war hero like his biological grandfather. Gary replies he’s not, though he spent a lot of time on a submarine in Korea which prompts Bobby to ask about toilets on a submarine. Gary laughs and remarks, “You, I like.” Bobby has apparently never heard anyone phrase “I like you,” in such a manner and concludes it’s funnier to say it that way, but in a very nonchalant, deadpan, manner. It also causes Bobby to think everyone from Arizona, where Gary and Tilly traveled from, speaks like Gary.
Hank is then shown tossing and turning in bed. Apparently, he is so bothered by the presence of Gary it’s affecting his sleep, even though he successfully managed to get Gary and his mom into separate rooms. We see time pass from 11:00 to 1:20 and at that point Hank gets up. In the living room (or den, or whatever) he finds Gary sitting on the couch eating something he found. Gary is happy to see Hank as he wants to know what this “delicious cutlet” he’s eating is. Hank tells him it’s chicken-fried steak and Gary suggests he’ll count it under chicken, since he’s allowed to eat that. He then tells Hank to sit down and suggests they have a talk.
Hank, obviously a bit uneasy about this situation, does as suggested and takes a seat beside Gary. Gary starts by saying Hank’s mother means a lot to him and begins to weave a tale about lonliness in the senior years that Hank cuts off quite quickly by turning on the TV. He tells Gary his favorite “program” is on and what comes on is some TV preacher curing hiccups. Now it’s Gary’s turn to be uncomfortable as he asks Hank, rather carefully, if he believes in this stuff and Hank is fully committed to the lie to get Gary to shut up as he insists he’s not to be disturbed while watching his favorite program.
The next morning, the Hills are getting ready to go watch middle school basketball. Bobby is annoying Hank with his “Arizona speak” while Luanne (Brittany Murphy) is insistent they get there before tip-off so she knows which basket belongs to which team. Hank asks his mother if she wants to come along, but she declines. The Hills leave and Gary pops into the kitchen. The sight of Tilly in her robe has Gary feeling a bit frisky after spending the night apart and Tilly seems receptive to his advances.
In the car, Hank asks Peggy if she remembered to bring the novelty foam finger for the game. She replies in the affirmative, but Hanks keeps escalating the questions: “Does it say number one on it?” “Yes, Hank.” “The basketball one?” “Ugh.” Hank turns the car around because this finger is obviously very important to the middle school basketball game experience. When Hank gets back in the house, he finds the finger on the couch, but hears an odd noise coming from the kitchen. He remarks to himself (in his head) that it sounds like the dryer is on, but his mother’s robe and Gary’s pajamas have been strewn about in the living room. Hank then peers into the kitchen and a look of horror spreads across his face. We’re then “treated” to numerous close-ups and cuts of two, old, wrinkly, bodies going to Pound Town. We see Gary’s USS Trout II tattoo, his pacemaker scar, lots of veins, a few smiles, with the camera lingering on a medical alert bracelet which glistens in the morning sunlight.
Hank backs away from the scene, shaking. His pupils have retreated from each other and we then see Hank’s perspective as the den starts to fade away into nothing. Hank stumbles outside groping for the car. He gets in and tries to start it up, but fumbles the keys. Peggy then realizes her husband is blind! Bobby, ever the comedian, uses this as an opportunity to try out some Gary-speak with a “Blind, he’s gone now!”
Hank and Peggy visit an optometrist who concludes that there’s nothing wrong with Hank’s eyes and it doesn’t appear as if he’s had a stroke. He then accusingly asks Hank if he poked himself in the eye, and Hank is adamant he did not. At this point, one of Hank’s pupils is looking down and the other is looking up which is a distracting, but funny, visual that will persist for the remainder of the episode. Peggy is a bit delirious and starts demanding the doctor use some of the fancy machinery she sees all around them to fix Hank’s eyes, even insisting he use some laser in the corner. The doctor says “All right,” but Hank shouts over him. It’s a line delivered with such subtlety that I missed it the first time I watched the scene. Hank then asks if it’s possible to lose your sight after seeing something terrible. The doctor then talks about hysterical blindness and gives a couple of books on the subject to Peggy. He then tells Hank the only way to cure it is to confront what he saw, then adding in a line about when Hank is ready to admit he poked himself that he should come back and get fixed right up.
On the car ride home, Peggy confronts Hank about what he saw. Hank says he can’t tell her lest he lose his voice. Peggy keeps prodding and Hank finally relents. He can barely get it out, but he tells her he saw his mother and Gary in a compromising position. Peggy initially laughs at him, then tells him to get over it referring to him as a big baby. Hank tells her it’s not that easy then asks her how she’d feel if she saw her mother in the arms of a 65 year old man wearing nothing but a submarine tattoo on the kitchen table? Peggy then turns dark and angrily says “I eat breakfast on that table.”
When the two get home, Gary, Tilly, and Bobby are waiting out on the lawn. Hank says he poked his eye and it should get better. When his mom asks “What about the other eye?” he makes up a story about the other eye compensating for the damaged one by shutting down. Gary is confused and remarks he never read about a sympathetic eye condition in any of his psychology magazines which prompts Hank to suggest he read the Ten Commandments. Only Hank is gesturing to a wall and confusing Gary. When he asks “You want I should come over there?” Bobby lets out a chuckle as he picks up more “Arizona speak.”
In the house, the boys are over watching TV and plenty eager to give Hank a hard time about poking his eye. Hank is wearing the foam finger still as that’s now his guide when he walks around. Bill is really laying into Hank, only his zingers are terrible. He makes a “ring ring” sound and tells Hank the phone is for him and hands him his boot. Hank tries to score one on Bill by throwing the boot back at him, but misses. And worse for Hank, he was holding onto the dog’s, Lady Bird, leash and she bolts after the shoe.
In the kitchen, Bobby and his grandma are rolling dough for cookies when Peggy walks in on them. She freaks out seeing the two prepare cookies on the now defiled table and sweeps everything off of it. Tilly lets out a “Peggy!” while Peggy just starts washing the table and matter-of-factly asks if anyone wants to make cookies.
Poor Hank is then shown shaving, and being a real Texas man he uses a blade, and he’s impossibly bad at blind shaving. He manages to shave off a sideburn and nick his face before giving up. He puts some toilet paper on his cut face, only he doesn’t tare it off of the roll so when he stumbles out he has a rather long trail following him. He notices it and lets out a sigh, then tells Jesus that what he really wants for Christmas is his sight back. He then adds he’d like a wrench set too, but that’s more for Santa. Gary witnesses the whole ordeal and has a rather sad expression on his face.
Later that morning the family is celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. Bobby blows out the candles and everyone claps while Hank is kept in the dark over by the tree. He then takes it upon himself to do his usual task of handing out the presents. He picks up the first one and asks if anyone requested something “square” from Santa. He then tosses it in the general direction of everyone saying it’s for Bobby. Of course it’s not and Luanne sees it’s for her and tries to get it from her cousin’s grasp, but Bobby insists it’s now his. He opens it to find a nightgown and indicates he’ll enjoy wearing it when he’s older. Hank then reaches for another one and ends up pulling the tree out from under itself.
The family is then shown seated on the floor beside the repaired tree as Gary hands out the gifts he and Tilly brought. Peggy gets a book about comedians and when she shouts to Hank we see he’s seated in the corner by himself, apparently asleep, though Peggy’s yell wakes him. Gary then says they got another mink coat for Hank and he and Bobby share a laugh. Gary does apologize as he assumes the bit is getting old, suggesting this has been going on for awhile, and Hank sarcastically thanks him for turning his holiday into a Woody Allen picture. He then stands up and says he’ll wait in the truck until it’s time for Peggy to drive him to his dad’s house for Christmas dinner. As he stumbles out the door with his foam finger, Peggy assures Gary that Hank didn’t mean what he said. She then heads outside to confront him, only to find Hank with his foot stuck in a bucket. She tells him he needs to go back inside and face what he saw if he wants to get his sight back. Hank is in no mood and just replies by asking if she’s going to take him to his dad’s now.
We cut to the truck on the road and Hank is relieved to be out of that house away from his mom and Gary. Naturally, this is when we find out that Peggy isn’t driving, but Gary. Hank is rightly confused when Gary responds by asking where they’re going. Hank demands he pull over so he can ride in the bed of the truck, but Gary insists he’ll be more comfortable in the cabin. He then narrates what they’re seeing as Hank gets progressively more and more agitated until he’s literally shouting “Shut up.” To Gary’s credit, none of this phases him as he’s determined to get Hank out of this funk.
The pair eventually arrive at Cotton Hill’s (Toby Huss) home in Houston. When Cotton answers the door he says “You’re late.” Hank says it’s good to hear his dad’s voice, and this time I think he’s serious since he’s probably sick of hearing Gary’s. Cotton asks if he’s still blind, and then slugs Hank in the gut for confirmation. “Either you’re still blind or slow. I’d believe both.” He turns his attention to Gary, and Hank refers to him as his driver. Gary gives Cotton his name, and Cotton reacts angrily to the name “Kasner.” At least he sounds angry, but he always does. He then says “Happy Hanukkah,” and tells Gary he served with one of his “tribe” in the pacific. He says his name was Brooklyn and asks Gary if he knows him. A bit confused, Gary says “I know a Brooks….stein,” which is good enough for Cotton who insists that’s the guy!
Cotton tells Hank they need to go get a tree. Hank tries to place his hand on his dad’s shoulder as a guide, but Cotton rebuffs him, “I didn’t fight off a horny bunker full of privates so you could cop a feel!” They aren’t going far anyway, as Cotton just grabs his shotgun and shoots down a skinny little tree in his yard.
Inside, Hank and Cotton are eating what looks like TV dinners. Hank is trying to talk about the holidays in a nostalgic manner, but no one cares. Cotton instead tries to make small talk with Gary, which is how he finds out that Gary is seeing Tilly. Cotton is surprised to find out anyone would want Tilly in a sexual manner, remarking she was too old for him when he got rid of her. He thinks he’s being helpful by telling Gary she’s spent, but Gary stands up for his woman and insists he doesn’t talk about her like that under penalty of getting his ass kicked! Cotton may be a piece of shit, but he has an odd moral code about him. He respects Gary for standing up for his woman and announces he’s backing down from a physical confrontation, though he does slip in a “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Gary then tells Hank he’ll wait for him in the truck.
Gary is shown in the truck as Hank stumbles out the front door. He gets out of the truck to help Hank to the passenger side door and tells him he didn’t have to leave early on his account. As the two pause to hear Cotton screaming for his eggnog, Hank sighs and says, “No problem.”
The two pull off the highway and Hank remarks they can’t be home yet. Gary says he’s taking him somewhere to get his eyes fixed. Hank tells him he’s already seen a doctor, but Gary corrects him by saying they aren’t talking medicine, they’re talking faith. Hank gets uncomfortable as Gary leads him into a building, worried his god will be angry with him if he sees him in another god’s temple. Gary tells him he’s not taking him to a temple, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, they’re seeing the televangelist Hank insisted hosted his favorite show. Gary confesses he knows how Hank lost his sight, and while he’s not flattered that he made Hank go blind, he’s understanding. Hank then finally realizes where they are when he hears the preacher’s voice.
The preacher (uncredited, but it sounds like Toby Huss) is giving a sermon about Jesus working on his birthday as he surveys the crowd. Hank, even though he doesn’t actually like this church, is touched that Gary would do something nice for him, even though he’s been a jerk to Gary. Gary tells Hank he did it for his mother, because he’s fond of her. Hank then allows himself to suggest maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world for his mom to be involved with Gary. Gary gets a big, dopey, grin at the sound of that and poor Hank can’t see the incoming hug until it’s too late. He reacts with his usual gasp. He then returns the hug, though only one-handed.
The preacher continues his sermon and states that Jesus can heal the blind. Gary calls out to him to heal Hank and the guy saunters on over. When he asks Gary if Hank is his son, we get the sappy, predictable, “I’d like to think, maybe one day,” and Hank returns the gesture with a slightly less enthusiastic, but still mostly warm “I guess that’s an all right way of thinking.” Then, just like magic, Hank’s vision returns and he even smiles when Gary comes into focus as the priest winds up to smack the blindness away. Hank catches him by the wrist and proclaims he can see! The preacher of course takes all of the credit.
As Hank and Gary pull up to Hank’s house, the boys are waiting outside. Dale calls out, “Hey Hank, how’s the weather? Oh wait, you’re blind!” continuing their poor performance in shit-slinging. Bill adds a “Hey Hank, you’re not wearing any pants.” As the two chuckle, Boomhauer is the only one to take notice of Hank emerging from the pickup with a rather large stick in his hand. “He’s got his sight, man, run!” The three scatter as Hank chases after them, easily shoving Bill to the ground, as the credits roll to an instrumental, twangy, rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” We’re then treated to an additional scene during the credits in which Hank declares this the best Christmas ever. It’s mostly a vehicle though for Carl Reiner to make food munching noises as Gary gives Bobby advice on how to mix foods and reasons it’s okay for him to eat so much since it’s Christmas. The last line is the cliché “Are you gonna eat that?” from Gary.
This is an entertaining Christmas special, and it even throws in some genuine sentimentality to please the Christmas traditionalists out there. I like how the episode tries to setup its southern cast for a bigoted, anti-Semitic, reaction on a few occasions, but instead uses dramatic pauses to make a different joke each time. Bobby mistaking Gary’s Jewish-isms as “Arizona Speech” is also pretty funny, and as a B-plot it only exists for a couple of quick jokes and isn’t meant to steal the spotlight from the main plot.
And the main plot of Hank losing his sight due to seeing his mother getting nailed on his kitchen table is a pretty damn funny way to go about telling a Christmas story. A lot of Hank’s reactions to the actual business are rather predictable, but Mike Judge’s performance as Hank is still so humorous and straight that it works. I was surprised by how far the animators took that particular scene as it’s almost gratuitous, but it also adds to both the humor and the horror for Hank. Gary is a character that’s easy to write since he’s basically a stereotype, but Carl Reiner brings a genuine warmth to him which helps sell it. Admittedly though, I’m a little tired of Gary by the time this thing ends. And to top it off, we get a little dose of Cotton in this one too. He is repulsively funny, and his brief appearance might be the funniest sequence of the episode, outside of the sex scene.
Ultimately, this is a funny Christmas episode of a well-made sitcom. It wisely doesn’t try to force the other characters into the plot in any meaningful way preferring to keep the story focused on Hank and his predicament. It’s a good enough episode that I’m a bit remorseful that Cartoon Network no longer airs King of the Hill. The show does air on some cable networks, but the easiest way to see this episode is to stream it on Hulu. It’s also available on DVD, and unlike yesterday’s Christmas feature, it is worth a watch this holiday season.