Why animation, then? While “King of the Hill” aspired for realism, “realistic” animation is incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to produce. The series might have worked even better as a live-action sitcom. (A live-action spin-off special was on the cards once.) Personally, though, I think that Mike Judge has always been an animator at heart. With “King of the Hill,” Judge’s ambition wasn’t just to tell funny and entertaining stories but to create a believable world from scratch. Every detail, be it the characters’ designs, behaviors, or local hang-outs, was fussed over. The result is not necessarily as iconic as “The Simpsons,” or as bracing as “South Park.” But it has its devoted fans.
The worldview and setting of “King of the Hill” are so fully formed that there’s not much to explain to curious audiences. If you understand where the characters are coming from, you get it. Episodes like “Hilloween” have details specific to the U.S. like culture wars fought over seemingly innocuous holidays. Yet the core of the story, of Hank trying to understand his relatives, is understandable to anyone who’s struggled with conservative older parents or rebellious children. The show might seem like a time capsule today, more reflective of Judge’s vision of middle (white) America in the 1990s than what it actually was then. But I respect its dedication to grounding its humor in the characters, taking their feelings seriously, and never selling their world short for a joke.