As we’ve seen throughout this series, it is not uncommon for film and television writers to turn to plagiarism for a plot device. Plagiarsim is a natural topic for writers to think about, it’s one that they can connect with and come up with stories around.
That said, it’s less common for writers to do multiple times during the same TV show, let alone multiple times in the same season. However, that’s exactly what King of the Hill did, introducing two separate plagiarism stories over the course of season 4. Even more bizarre, the two stories focus on the same character, Peggy, but feature very different plots and perspectives on the topic.
The first plagiarism-oriented episode, episode 11 (entitled Old Glory), saw Peggy take over writing an essay for her son and, eventually become an only somewhat unwilling participant in an essay mill run by her son. However, nothing comes of the operation as no one involved receives any kind of consequence, including Peggy who is a substitute teacher at the school.
Thirteen episodes later, with episode 24 (entitled Peggy’s Fan Fair) Peggy once again finds herself at the center of plagiarism controversy and, once again it starts with someone “taking credit” for her work. However, this time it isn’t Bobby submitting an essay she wrote without mentioning her, it’s country musician Randy Travis that she thinks stole her lyrics.
Content Warning: Spoilers for Season 4, Episode 24 of King of the Hill (Peggy’s Fan Fair).
The episode opens with Peggy being excited to have gotten a response to one of her letters. She said that she had been sending lyrics to every country music artist she could name and received a written reply from Randy Travis.
The letter, however, turns out to be from Travis’ lawyer and is a rejection letter saying that, due to legal reasons, they couldn’t pass the lyrics on. Nontheless, Peggy is unfazed, saying that the letter called her a “songwriter” and that it wished her luck with her career.
In the next scene, the church the Hills attend announced their bus trip for the year would be to a Nashville music festival. The trip was Peggy’s suggestion and in an unwarranted and unwanted “acceptance speech” Peggy says that everyone will get to meet her “friend” Randy Travis.
When the bus arrives and Peggy goes to meet Travis at his booth, she hears a song playing that she feels is too similar to her lyrics. She then cuts in line to get to Travis, punches him in the face and tells him the he stole her song.
Security goes to throw Peggy out but they are stopped at the last second by Travis’ manager, who says that he’d like to speak with Peggy. In his trailer, Travis explains that the letter was just a form letter from his “guard dog” lawyer and that he gets countless songs sent to him he never sees.
Peggy doesn’t believe it but Travis points out that songwriters regularly come up with similar lyrics, even pointing out Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette and Understand Your Man by Johnny Cash.
Hank seems satisfied but Peggy is not saying that the song at issue, This is Just the Way God Made Me, is uniquely hers. Even after the confrontation she even prays for God to punish Randy Travis for stealing her song and boos him at a concert.
At that concert, Travis plays the song and prefaces with a story similar to Peggy’s. However, as Peggy makes a scene in the stands, Hank takes her outside where he explains that he believes she believes she wrote the song but doesn’t think it’s true. Peggy, however, takes that as Hank calling her a liar. Hank doesn’t handle it well and points out other areas he feels Peggy takes more credit than she deserves.
Peggy decides to spend time away from Hank and meets up with other friends that agree to help her toilet paper Randy Travis’ trailer. However, an accident during the TPing results in the trailer rolling into the lake with him inside. Hank makes a daring rescue and Travis is none the wiser about what happened.
Hank confides about what happened to his pastor but Peggy has decided to apologize to Randy Travis. However, when she tries to deliver a pie to him, the police, due to a twist from the B plot of the episode and Peggy’s behavior, believe it to be poisoned. However, Hank proves it isn’t poisoned by taking a bite.
At the very end of the show, Travis calls Hank on stage but claims to have saved Hank rather than the other way around. Hank says that he’ll punch him this time but Peggy asks “What’s the use?”
Understanding the Plagiarism
The first episode we looked at seemed to take the actual plagiarism very nonchalantly. Hank was the lone voice of reason in the episode, pointing out how that both Peggy and Bobby were in the wrong.
With this episode, it’s almost the exact opposite. Peggy (and others) are taking the plagiarism extremely seriously (to the point of a near-drowning) and Hank is again the voice of reasons but in the other direction.
While it would be interesting to discuss what changed in the character of Peggy during those 13 episodes, the real answer could simply be that the first time she felt plagiarized by her son for a middle school assignment, the second was by an major recording industry star. The stage does change how the plagiarism is perceived.
But in terms of which story is more believable, the latter definitely rings more true. The odds of a school ignoring convincing evidence a teacher participated in an essay mill are slim to none. However, a would-be songwriter seeing their lyrics in a major performers, that happens all the time.
In fact, this nearly 20-year-old episode (released in May 2000) is surprising prescient in 2019. Cases involving Robin Thicke, Lady Gaga and Led Zeppelin have put claims of songwriter plagiarism at the forefront of our conscience. Though all of the cases above center on the music and not lyrics, it’s easy to see the parallels of lesser-known songwriters seeing their work in more popular tracks.
This doesn’t make Peggy (or the others musicians) a liar. As Hank said, she believes what she’s saying. It also doesn’t make her crazy. We’ve seen just how easy it is to create a fake plagiarism story that sounds convincing but doesn’t hold water. Still, when you’re looking through the perspective of your work, it can be difficult to see the differences.
Peggy is simply lost in her story and her narrative, that can be a difficult thing to escape and plagiarism is hardly the only subject where that’s true.
That said, the episode does deliberately leave open the question about whether or not Randy Travis did plagiarize her. Not only does Travis copy Peggy’s story at the first concert, but lies about saving Hank’s life at the second. Clearly King of the Hill universe Randy Travis is a bit of a liar and that opens the doors to serious questions.
In the real world this kind of plagiarism is functionally impossible. Travis’ representatives would have never let Peggy’s lyrics get anywhere near him and even a form letter from a lawyer, like the one Peggy got, would have been a rarity. Many copyright cases that deal with allegations of plagiarism die because there is no proof of the copycat had access to the alleged original work. That’s likely what would happen here if Peggy took it to court.
Still, the narrative of the story has a certain truth about it. The way Peggy saw her work in Travis’ song, the anger that brought out and the challenges her loved ones faced saying she’s not crazy or lying, but needs to understand that she’s mistaken. All of that is very real.
Yes, it’s exaggerated to comedic effect but, where the previous episode lacked a solid grounding in reality, especially as the episode went on, this one maintains its kernel of truth.
That, to my mind, makes it a more interesting discussion about plagiarism.
In the end, what most people remember about this episode isn’t the discussion of plagiarism (or perception thereof) but endless string of country music cameos. The episode was the season finale for the show and they certainly pulled out all the stops on the celebrity appearances.
Still, the episode told an interesting plagiarism story that managed to find a decent amount of nuance with the comedy and remain relevant nearly 20 years later (perhaps even getting more relevant).
While it may not be as memorable and meme-worthy as the first episode we looked at, it’s still one of the more solid tales of plagiarism we’ve covered.
In fact, it bears striking resemblance to what Jane the Virgin did 15 years later. There, Jane came to believe that one of her favorite authors had plagiarized her but, before she could confront her, Jane had to help a pregnant friend get to the hospital. With the extra time to reflect, Jane realized the similarities weren’t as strong as she thought and she drops it.
Though we’ve seen these kinds of tales before, including in The Waltons, they are still rare nuanced conversations about plagiarism on a popular TV show.
It’s a refreshing change of pace…
Want more plagiarism in pop culture? Check out the other installments in this series below:
- The Facts of Life
- Leave it to Beaver
- The Waltons
- Jane the Virgin
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part One)
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Part Two)
- Boy Meets World
- WKRP in Cincinnati
- Mystery Science Theater 3000
- Criminal Minds
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- Lou Grant
- The Goldbergs
- Fresh Off the Boat
- Big Fat Liar
- The Kids are Alright
- King of the Hill (Part 1)