Plagiarism in Pop Culture: King of the Hill (Part 1)

Dang plagiarism man...

Though many TV shows and movies use plagiarism as a plot point, it’s pretty rare for it to produce one of the most memorable moments in the history of the series.

However, that’s very true for King of the Hill. The show, which ran for 258 episodes across 13 seasons, produced many highlights but it was an episode about plagiarism where Hank turned to his son and said the now-famous line, “An F in English? Bobby, you speak English!”

The line has lived on well after the show’s cancellation in 2010 and is frequently used in memes, fan art and elsewhere on the internet.

As for the show itself, it focuses on the Hill family including the father Hank, mother Peggy, son Bobby and niece Luanne, the show tells the story how this middle-class family from Texas, as well as their neighbors, gets through its daily challenges.

Though each of the characters had their own trials and tribulations to overcome through the series, for Bobby, this often took the form of issues with school. Less than academically gifted, Bobby often struggles to get good grades.

However, it was in episode 11 of season 4, entitled Old Glory, where that struggle for good grades leads both him and his mother down the path of plagiarism. This turns to one of the more interesting and more bizarre instances of plagiarism in pop culture.

Content Warning: Spoilers for King of the Hill Season 4, Episode 11 below…

The Plot

Bobby you speak English…

The episode, like most King of the Hill episodes, has two separate plots that diverge and interweave as they go along.

The first plot centers around Peggy and Bobby as they battle with Bobby’s substitute teacher and the second centers around their neighbor Bill, who rescues a giant American flag from the local army base before it can be retired and incinerated.

The episode begins with Peggy struggling to write one of her “musings” column for the local paper. Bobby comes in and informs her that he has a new substitute teacher in English, Peggy Donovan (Donovan for this column). According to Peggy, Donovan is an old rival that has been “away from the game” for three years to get her master’s degree and Peggy is angry that they chose Donovan over her for the job.

Meanwhile, at the army base, Bill discovers that the base is about to retire and incinerate the flag that had been flying there for 20 years. Waxing both patriotic and nostalgic, Bill offers to take the flag and give it a loving home. This leads to him, with the help of the other neighbors, to install a 90 foot flag pole at his home to fly the flag, which is comically oversized for the residential area.

The next day, Donovan returns graded essays to the class and gives Bobby an “F” on the assignment.

Donovan also insults Bobby, saying she wants to make sure he can read…

Bobby breaks the bad news to his parents. Though Hank is clearly upset, using the now-famous line, Peggy defends Bobby saying that she thinks Donovan is taking their rivalry out on Bobby.

Frustrated, Bobby has to come up with a new topic and a new essay for the class. However, he struggles with inspiration until Bill’s flag strikes his window, prompting him to want to write about why he loves America and specifically the flag.

But despite the inspiration, Bobby struggles to put pen to paper when Peggy comes in to offer guidance. At first, she tries to help Bobby come up with an opening line but ends up writing the paper for him directly.

Peggy takes full control of the paper.

Peggy goes to the school to check on Bobby and the essay and arrives just as Donovan is handing it back. Donovan gave the essay an “A” but is clearly suspicious. She asks Bobby where he came up with the idea for the work and Bobby lies, taking full credit for the work.

This angers Peggy who is struggling to write a column about giving credit where it is due. However, at school, Bobby is being lauded as a great writer and is even asked to read the essay in front of the school. Meanwhile, Peggy has just had her column cut from the paper.

When Hank tries to comfort Peggy by saying she can bounce by like Bobby, Peggy snaps and tells Hank it was her essay. This, however, upsets Hank who says, “Well, I agree he shouldn’t take credit but you shouldn’t have written it for him in the first place! From where I’m sitting, you both screwed up.”

Hank scolds Peggy.

Meanwhile, Bobby’s fame as a writer is causing other problems as other students approach him asking him to write their essays for him. This leads Bobby to turn to Peggy for help but she turns him down flat, expressing anger that he never credited her for her work.

This prompts Bobby to raid Peggy’s stash of musings and give the essays to the other kids. Meanwhile, Peggy has taken to buying ad space in the papers to publish her musings herself under the theory that, when she stops, a public outcry will force them to take her back.

However, this combination of events backfires as Donovan quickly discovers that the musings column is identical to one of the essays turned in. When Donovan confronts Peggy about the similarity, Peggy says, “I feel so plagiarized.” to which Donovan responds “Plagiarism, that’s a serious accusation.”

Donovan and Peggy confront Bobby

She goes on to reveal that much of the class turned in suspicious essays and that nine admitted they had Bobby write their essay for them. They confront Bobby but Bobby says it’s Peggy’s fault for writing his flag essay for him. Donovan is unmoved and orders the two of them to give an apology at the assembly or face a formal complaint to the principal.

Peggy and Bobby hatch a scheme to avoid giving an apology and, instead, give a patriotic salute that Donovan can’t say no to. They steal Bill’s flag to use as a prop and end up destroying it in a series of accidents. They return it but the flag is retired the next morning after Bill finds it on his lawn.

With no big patriotic blow out, Bobby instead takes the stage and admits that his mom wrote his essay and many of the other students’. However he then slides into a new speech, inspired by seeing Bill emotion at the flag’s burning, that gets huge cheers from the crowd.

Bobby gives his speech…

Once Bobby’s speech is done, the episode abruptly ends with the principal bringing on the marching band.

Understanding the Plagiarism

Bobby stealing Peggy’s musings…

This is one of the more difficult and frustrating episodes to analyze from a plagiarism perspective.

On one hand, the show did a great deal right. First, it showcased the difficult struggle parents face when trying to figure out how much they can or should help their struggling kids when it comes to academics. Much like the Leave it to Beaver episode, the whole plot is caused by a well-meaning parent that oversteps their boundaries.

Second, the episode did a great job putting the blame on both Peggy and Bobby. Hank, as he often is in the series, was the voice of reason and called both of them out for their actions, which is completely appropriate.

Finally, it did treat the topic of plagiarism fairly seriously. In addition to using the “P” word, it was clear that both Peggy and Bobby were rightfully worried about the trouble that they would get into.

The problem, however, is with the ending. Peggy and Bobby, though mostly Bobby at the end, were essentially running an essay mill operation in a middle school classroom.

However, when the credits drop, nothing happens to them or the students that used Peggy’s work. Bobby gives a compelling speech at the assembly and the incident seems to be forgotten. This is despite the fact that he admitted on stage that Peggy wrote his essay and the essays of many other sin the class.

At the time of the episode, Bobby is either 12 or 13 years old. While I wouldn’t expect him to face the same punishment as a college or even a high school student, it seems as if something should have happened. Though Bobby does mention sitting in detention, it’s unclear if he thinks that will be because of the plagiarism.

But the especially egregious omission is Peggy. Not only did she write Bobby’s essay, but she is a substitute teacher at that school. If anyone should have known better and had greater responsibility and accountability it would be her.

However, by all accounts, nothing happens to her. She faces no consequence for her actions.

While the two certainly act as if the plagiarism is serious and could land them in a world of trouble, after it comes out, there’s no trouble and instead a rush to the credits.

Finally, Donovan’s threat doesn’t make any sense. She tells Peggy and Bobby to either apologize on stage at the assembly or she’ll file a formal complaint with the principal.

However, the principal is in attendance at the assembly. He’s going to learn about the plagiarism either way. Also, why doesn’t Donovan file the complaint when she learns about the plagiarism? It’s what teachers are supposed to do. Likewise, what’s stopping her from doing it after the assembly? Bobby’s speech doesn’t preclude her from doing it the next day.

The show sets up a really great discussion about plagiarism including a student struggling academically and a parent overeager to help but then simply ends it without a conclusion.

In the end, the ultimate lesson of the episode is that plagiarism is serious and parents have to find their boundaries, but if you mess up you can simply give a compelling speech and it will all go away. Roll credits.

Bottom Line

When it’s all said and done, this episode has a great deal of promise as a conversation started about plagiarism but ultimately doesn’t fulfill on that promise. The rushed conclusion to the plagiarism story leaves a lot of unanswered questions and the whole story feels incomplete.

Compare this, for example, to The Facts of Life. That show had a somewhat similar plot of a student struggling with an assignment, plagiarizing and becoming a well-loved writer. However, there, after the student gives the impassioned speech (and reads an original work), she still receives a stiff punishment and the plot is brought to a full close.

It’s also worth noting that King of the Hill had another episode in the same season that dealt with plagiarism. That one, as we will discuss later, handled the topic much better and discussed not just the emotions, but the nuance of the plagiarism and creativity.

As for this one, it was ultimately a story filled with a great deal of promise but no payoff. Whether it was due to time constraints or simply a matter of not wanting to have lasting consequences from the episode, the plot was basically written off in the last few minutes.

As a discussion about plagiarism, the episode is much worse off for that. I wouldn’t say it’s pro-plagiarism (or pro-plagiarism accessories) but there was more it could have done.

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