The Complicated Father-Son Relationship of Hank and Bobby Hill

With every episode of King of the Hill dropping on Hulu, returning to streaming since being dropped from Netflix many years ago, I wanted to start doing some more regular explorations of what made this show so great.  Based on a topic suggested by Bird MILF, and some great content in my last write-up through the comments, I wanted to delve into Hank and Bobby’s relationship.

Daddy issues are nothing new to TV. Fractured relationships between fathers and sons were an established trope long before the advent of television, existing in literature since the beginning of the written word. One of the best on-screen father-son relationships is between Hank and Bobby Hill on Fox’s 1997 animated sitcom King of the Hill, a relationship that was, at times, awkward to say the least. At others, it was sweet and sincerely sentimental, an exploration of two extremes coming together and, more often than not, finding common ground instead of contention.

Hank, the paterfamilias of the Hill family, is an idealized exaggeration of conservative America. Like everyone else, he’s an emotional person, filled to the brim with pride—for his family, for his country—but he often has a hard time saying so. This is a guy whose marriage proposal to his wife Peggy was, “I surely am not unfond of you.”

Bobby, Hank’s young son (beginning in the series at 11 years old, then capping out at the age of 13), according to Hank, “Ain’t right.” Bobby is a direct inverse of the masculinity that Hank exudes. Bobby is effeminate, has little to no interest in “manly” things like sports, and even eschews his father’s legacy of selling propane and propane accessories, in favor of things like comedy and making people laugh.

The thing is, in a lesser show, comparing and mirroring each other’s role in the father-son dynamic would have a focus on Hank’s masculinity as being toxic. In this case, it’s not. Hank is a nuanced character, who’s certainly guilty of toxicity in his obsession with manhood, but he himself is not someone who would be categorized as “toxic.” He’s the product of a dysfunctional household and his own dad, Cotton, did embody a sort of terrifying, aggrandized machismo, and now wants to do right by his own son. When Hank says something about acting like a man, he isn’t talking about acting in a sexist or untoward way, he means to be self-reliant and useful. He wants Bobby to be able to take care of himself.

Bobby, meanwhile, is at times obsessed with winning his father’s approval. He already has his approval, no matter what, as Hank has told his son many times, but if Bobby has a fault, it’s his ceaseless quest for his dad’s validation. In early seasons, Bobby acts out in a lot of the ways your typical “delinquent” type kid might, but with a different M.O. behind his actions: He wants to see how far he can take this kind of behavior and still meet with Hank’s approval, because he’s deathly afraid of being seen as a screw-up. If he can push those boundaries as far as he can, maybe his dad will be a little less disappointed when he’s terrible at sports or even in school.

King of the Hill played a lot with the idea of Bobby maybe being gay. He’s not, but his sexuality, as he grows into a teenager on the show, isn’t so easily defined, or cut and dry. In one episode, Bobby is reprimanded by the Laotian neighbor, Khan, for sneaking into his daughter Connie’s room. Hank tells Khan he’ll take care of it, but when he rounds the corner, instead of angrily yelling at his son, lets out a sigh of relief, happy that his son is “normal” in that he’s seemingly attracted to girls. A moment like this is tough to get right, because you run the risk of the show siding with Hank’s relief. Instead, King of the Hill allows a character moment to happen, to even find the humor in it, but not to condone in. King of the Hill, especially early on, was never a show that shied away from showing its main character being dead wrong at times. And even if Bobby were to come out as gay, Hank isn’t the type of guy to give into gay panic, he would love his son all the same.

What makes a show like King of the Hill work is its respect for its characters. It would have been so easy to have made a lazy clone of Homer and Bart’s dynamic from The Simpsons and either had Bobby be a bratty kid to annoy the cranky Hank, or to have every other episode be one where Bobby wants to watch a cartoon starring women instead of playing football, much to his father’s predictable disappointment. Instead, week after week, for years, we were treated to episodes where Hank and Bobby often found common ground, or approached a mutual admiration of something from two unique perspectives. Much of what people remember are the “Dang it, Bobby”s or the oft-quoted (but rarely used) catchphrase, “That boy ain’t right.” What many people don’t remember are the episodes where Hank and Bobby stayed up all night together getting Thanksgiving dinner ready for the next day, on a night so clear they could pick up the news all the way from San Antonio.