Come fly away with me to TV land in a hot air balloon. Actually, don’t bother with the hot air balloon rental; we’ll just take one when we get to TV land. Turns out there will be quite a choice lot to pick from. Amazing, really, the number of TV shows that called upon the heated air that sends a gigantic balloon flying into the air with only a small gondola beneath as a prop upon which to build narrative. But anyone who has never looked up to see a hot air balloon floating across the horizon can tell you why.
King of the Hill
A very strange and atypical episode of “King of the Hill” illustrates perfectly why hot air balloons are introduced into the narrative of an episode of a TV show. The hot air balloon has the power to distract. Because it is such an unusual conveyance of entertainment. Hank Hill is standing alone in the gondola of a hot air balloon owned by a pork product mogul who wants to engage in some seriously bent romance with Hank’s wife’s niece. The pork mogul is down on the ground with the wife, Peggy, and gives Hank a little scare with the tether. Peggy realizes that Hank’s life is at the mercy of the mogul, but Hank is so taken by the unusual entertainment of being in a hot air balloon that he is willing to change his mind about the mogul and see him in a brand new light. And that is the power of the hot air balloon.
Apropos of nothing else in this article, just a week before I wrote this I had my eldest son procure for me the autograph of the guy who voices James on “Pokemon.” Love Jesse. Love James. And Meowth, that’s right! The hot air balloon that the two villains of the “Pokemon” cartoon ride around in is shaped like their talking cat accomplice, Meowth. Probably the coolest hot air balloon in TV show history. Of course, if you ever find yourself out there in New Mexico during that great big hot air balloon show, you will find balloons of wildly varying and commercially recognizable shapes. But none of those are nearly as cool as the hot air balloon shaped like Meowth.
Again, the hot air balloon is rare enough these days to cause major distraction. Imagine what it must have been like to see a hot air balloon drifting through space in the time of the Old West? Well, don’t just sit there imagining it, find a copy of the “Bonanza” episode titled “The Dream Riders.” It’s a brilliant plan, actually, and one that has been replicated many times in many places using many different substitutions for the hot air balloon. But in this case, the hot air balloon is going to be used to distract the attentions of the citizenry of Virginia City, Nevada in order for an old family friend of the Cartwrights to rob the bank.
Yes, indeed, the hot air balloon in the world of the Old West must’ve been a true sight to behold. And when the balloonatic inside the gondola happens to be a beautiful blue-eyed blonde of the female gender who crashed her hot air conveyance into a building next to a circus, well, sir, you’ve go the making of a fantastical plot. “Frontier Circus” shows the other side of hot air balloons. Not the side that makes of them of distraction so you aren’t paying attention to what you should be, but the Oz Effect: how the arrival of a hot air balloon can have a disrupting transformative impact on an entire community.
Surely the oddest utilization of a hot air balloon into the plot of a live action show occurs on “Community.” The students in the Greendale Community College study group that is the focus of this hilariously offbeat show decide to get out of the rut they are in by taking a chance on a hot air balloon. Surely that would be enough to produce some classic comedy, right? Well, then, you must not be a “Community” fan. That might be enough for something like “It’s Never Funny in Philadelphia” but this is a creative show, for crying out out. The episode is titled “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” and the hot air balloon in question is soon peopled by Muppet figures of the show’s cast. Not for a quick dream dream sequence, but for most of the entirety of the episode. Muppet-style puppets of Britta, Annie, Abed, Jeff and the whole gang and a hot air balloon. This is what TV is supposed to be, people!