We need a new religion. The grinding of the cosmic wheel is sustained by a continuous oiling of faith, the assumption by each individual that somewhere, deep in the bowels of the universe, something is keeping the thing spinning. But how, when the walls between us and eternity have worn so thin, can we keep going?
I think that we can find this new faith in “King of the Hill” (1997–2010). Hank Hill is a man out of time, perpetually drowning in the indignities of the 21st century. He wakes up every episode to see his beloved institutions erode just a little bit more, continually placed under new pressures to provide for his loved ones in ways with which he is not comfortable and does not understand. But despite all this, he rounds each three-act structure one scene at a time, never failing to fear the change facing him. It is entirely within Hank’s ability to surrender to the madness of the universe, to abandon his friends and family and sit on his couch drinking beer until cirrhosis of the liver ushers him off to a place where he has no choice but to be comfortable. And yet, he never does.
What keeps Hank going? It seems to me that he has two forces sustaining him — one within the episodic confines of his reality and one without. Each episode ends on a moral note, a return to equilibrium as Hank’s ideals are reconciled with the chaotic world into which he has been pulled. He sees, in the end, that the things he really wants are not so incompatible with the things demanded of him, and this inspires belief in him that things will work out for the best. What is reverence, after all, but an aesthetic disposition, faith in one’s deliverance in matters that are too complicated to understand?
This is enough to sustain Hank from moment to moment, but surely, at some point, his hope must crack. How could the man have sustained his lifestyle, his mindset, his will, for 13 seasons in the face of perpetual defeat? This is the real secret to Hank’s religion, to his immortality — he forgets. The Hank you see at the beginning of each episode is not the same Hank, but a new one, unscarred by battles fought. This is the reason the universe has managed to exist for as long as it has: It is not one consciousness, but many. Each of us is a fragment of the whole but need not tend to it. When God was left alone an infinity ago with Its pile of toys, It could find joy only in forgetting that It was too old to play with them and divided Itself among each of us. And in times like these, when the barriers between us have worn thin, it is important to remember that we are still as much individuals as we are a species — to look to Hank Hill and sit back down at the dinner table instead of flipping the whole thing over.
With this, the semester’s column is concluded. Thank you for reading.