King of the Hill (The Complete First Season)
20th Century Fox DVD


Mike Judge’s animated series King of the Hill, which just finished its seventh season, is usually overshadowed by the lasting success of The Simpsons, and even by rivals like The Family Guy and Futurama. Thankfully, it has outlived these inferior competitors, and perhaps one day it might finally be regarded as one of the best sitcoms ever, in either animated or live action formats.

I’d go so far as to say that, especially during the last few years, King of the Hill is a far better show than The Simpsons, on many different levels. Judge’s protagonist, the Texan everyman Hank Hill, voiced by his creator, has become both laughable and sympathetic, an essentially decent man whose many foibles - his excruciating squareness, his sexual awkwardness, his narrow urethra - are still eminently laughable.

Judge hit his stride quickly, building Hank up from a throwaway character on Beavis and Butthead, and his supporting cast of family and friends from a few quick sketches. Thanks to a talented voice cast - Kathy Najimy as Hank’s wife Peggy, Pamela Adlon as his nerdy son Bobby, Brittany Murphy as Hank’s pretty but dim niece Luanne, Stephen Root as the hopeless Bill Dauterive - the show took shape quickly, and the first season quickly produced classic episodes like “Shins of the Father” and “Plastic White Female”.

Judge has managed a delicate balancing act, motivated by an apparently real affection for Hank, by setting his uptight suburban moral probity against Hank’s abiding sense of fair play. One of the show’s running gags is that Khan, Hank’s Laotian neighbour, might be more of a racist than Hank’s unbearable redneck father, Cotton.

Includes deleted scenes, crew commentary, a “making of” featurette, episode commentary by show characters, and a Barenaked Ladies music video.


The Experiment
Lion’s Gate DVD


Olivier Hirschbiegel’s film about twenty men who volunteer for an experiment on prison behaviour might have been made in any country, but in the context of modern Germany, it has a chafing poignancy.

Moritz Bliebtreu (Run Lola Run) plays a disgraced journalist who joins the sinister experiment undercover, hoping to write an expose of what’s apparently an army-sponsored program. He’s one of the twelve men chosen to be “prisoners”, while another eight are picked as “guards”, and take to the role with eager brutality once they’ve been issued their uniforms, handcuffs and batons. Things, naturally, go wrong very quickly, as the guards start victimizing the prisoners, then begin making their own rules, inspired by the directive to “keep order” at any cost.

An entirely unnecessary romantic subplot as well as Hirschbiegel’s all-too sleek direction blunts the edge of what might have been a really nasty piece of film. The context - the eagerness with which people will victimize other people, given an ounce of authority - is readily apparent, so much so that when one of the prisoners calls a guard a “Nazi”, it feels gratuitous and overplayed. No extras.


Quai des Orfevres
Criterion DVD


Henri-George Clouzot’s 1947 crime drama is a fantastically evocative film, an antidote for anyone who thinks French cinema is all about chic locations and charming characters in the throes of picturesque despair.

Set in the world of burlesque artists, the film oozes seediness and discomfort, populated with hunchbacked perverts, lesbian pornographers and brutal, cynical cops, a place where postwar fuel shortages translate into secretaries and piano players at their desks and keyboards shivering in coats and scarves.

The great Bernard Blier plays a sad-sack piano player married to Jenny (Suzy Delair), a glamorous and ambitious singer. When she apparently kills a lecherous would-be patron, Blier and his photographer friend Simone Renant, both of them in love with Jenny, try to cover up for her while the killer is pursued by a dour, harsh-tongued detective played by Louis Jouvet.

There’s a twist ending, but Quai des Orfevres is less a thriller than a study of guilt and desperation, shot through with Clouzot’s uniquely sickly glamour. Includes filmed reminiscences about the film by the director and his stars.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.