My hero is a cartoon.

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2005

But it’s not a guy in a cape, like Superman. It’s not a guy as clever as Bugs Bunny (though he’s just about as funny). Not a guy that would be making random surprise appearances on the space shuttle, like Homer Simpson.

He is the type of guy that could, in fact, live right down the street from me. He’s Hank Hill, of the arguably best show on television, “King of the Hill.”

How good is “King of the Hill”? Good enough that I can almost forgive its parent network–Fox–for giving Calista Flockhart (AKA Ally McBeal) Babe Ruth’s own Yankees cap to wear in promotional shots during the 2000 World Series. Good enough that, a la Hank’s wife Peggy, I had to break out the Boggle at my last family reunion. Good enough that if I ever do settle down and get a dog, its name is 99 percent sure to be “Rusty Shackleford.”

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The name “Rusty Shackleford,” the pseudonym/alter-ego occasionally adopted by Hank’s neighbor Dale Gribble to mislead the federal government, is a perfect example of why “King of the Hill” works so well. It’s simple, real-to-life (we all know at least one guy who would come up with a name like “Rusty Shackleford”), and at the same time hopelessly funny.

That same description could be applied to the entire show. Whether it’s Peggy’s good-hearted know-it-all-ism, son Bobby’s embarrassingly effeminate array of identities (magician, boy model, ventriloquist), neighbor Bill’s pleasant dim-wittedness, or the glory that is any Boomhauer quote, every character is both familiar enough to shake hands with and funny enough to quote at cocktail parties years later.

(My favorite line from the show: Bill cradles the mysteriously torn, ruined giant American flag he had hung in his front yard and sniffs, “What kind of an animal would so such a thing?…A bear?”)

But the glue that holds the show together is Hank. Where television has for years been the domain of fake trendy people living in fake trendy New York apartments, and is now full of reality contestants shrieking themselves into caricatures of the people they are off-camera, Hank’s easygoing Southern-ness has always been a breath of hilarious fresh air.

But Hank has become a refreshing change in terms of more than just what rerun to watch. Hank is above all a “decent” person, the sort that teaches Bobby not to hit below the belt even when he’s being bullied; that, when asked to go on a joyride in Boomhauer’s car in a teenage flashback, says “That sounds fun. And you know what would be even more fun? If after we drive it, we fill it with gas, so the next time Boomhauer uses it, he’s like, ‘How’d that happen?’; that remains loyal to Peggy even when she’s, oh, been accused of poisoning Brooks and Dunn or gone on trial for accidentally kidnapping a Mexican child; that always comes back to his buddies by the neighborhood fence for a beer and a “Yep.”

Hank is, to put it briefly, a good, common-sense guy. And the more people answer their cell phones in a crowded movie theater, the more times I ever read or hear the words “Paris Hilton,” the more American businesses buy up cheap foreign-made products to “keep prices low” on the left hand while jacking gas up another dime on the right, the more I think: We could use more Hank Hills. We could use more clear-headed, polite, Texas-drawled common sense. On television, sure. But even more so in the real world.

So ask me sometime if I think there’s still anything to learn from the wasteland of TV. I’ll raise my can to Hank Hill, and tell you, “Yep.”