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TV Tonight: Beavis and Butt-Head Return

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I always loved Beavis and Butt-Head, but it was mostly for the wrong reasons. The ’90s show was groundbreaking and culturally significant for its interstitial scenes, in which Mike Judge’s two cartoon idiots would watch music videos and throw brilliantly inane insults at them. This made their show a precursor of the way we would increasingly experience media in the years to follow: talking back to it, often accompanied by meta-critiques (like Mystery Science Theater 3000’s or The Soup’s), and later. As Steven Johnson wrote in the 1999 book Interface Culture, these shows were “metaforms, filters; you still take in the video itself, but the experience is necessarily transformed (if not enhanced) by the filter that conveys it to you.”

Those disposible critiques were hilarious for the way the characters would prick the preening and self-seriousness of video culture. (And yes, I wrote that so I could make the obligatory, “Huh-huh, I said ‘prick'” joke. Glad we’ve got that out of the way!) But what I remember most are the cartoons themselves, which had their notoriety (“Frog Baseball,” e.g., or the controversy over the boys’ playing with fire) but which often take a back seat to the video segments.

But the cartoons, less topical and of-the-moment, were where Judge was playing his longer game with American culture, making points that he would refine (with more heart) in King of the Hill and (with greater savagery) in Idiocracy. The two kids, stunted, self-centered and amoral, were a satirical exaggeration of American instant-gratification taken to its logical extreme. Whether they were annoying their old-school neighbor (Hank Hill precursor Tom Anderson), disappointing their hippie teacher or generally abusing each other, they represented–on pop culture’s most prominent outlet–a brutally funny takedown of pop culture and the dumb, lazy egocentrism it catered to. The sugar rush of empty-calorie consumer society, it told us, makes Cornholios of us all.

LIST: All-TIME 100 TV Shows: Beavis and Butt-Head

All of which is to say that there’s been a lot of talk, as Beavis and Butt-Head prepares to return to TV, about whether it can really be the same in the YouTube and Twitter era (when everyone is a couch critic) and in the latter-MTV era (when the channel has long moved from videos to reality shows that almost pre-satirize themselves). Maybe it can’t, but I don’t really care. As long as the central stories are viciously funny enough–which, at least in the one new episode I’ve seen, they are–the boys of Highland have a place on my TV.

The videos first, though. With MTV, the boys have moved on to reality shows. Are there a thousand other places, on TV and blogs and in your Facebook newsfeed and IM windows, to find people making fun of reality shows? Sure: an entire TV show, H8R, was briefly dedicated to the people who did that.

But it’s still a pleasure to find someone really funny doing it, and as the pair turn on an episode of Teen Mom to watch one of the show’s unemployed babydaddies playing a video game and philosophizing, Butt-Head has not missed a beat: “This guy looks like he might be stupider than us.” When Snooki and Jenni on Jersey Shore make a chalkboard chain of the housemates and their hookups: “If they get this chart long enough, they can find out where herpes began.”

And the animated vignettes show that, even if the world a generation later is choked with new kinds of stupidity, Beavis and Butt-Head are endlessly adaptable to them. In one, the Twilight phenomenon convinces them that chicks find monsters irresistible, so they pay a homeless man to bite them, thinking that he’s a werewolf. In the second, Butt-Head torments Beavis when he tears up while watching an episode of The Bachelor. They’re updated pop culture references, but the targets are really more timeless: the endlessly malleable stupidity of horny teenage boys, the idea that genuine feeling is uncool. (In the latter bit, the way Butt-Head chuckles, “You’re moved” like it’s the most demeaning insult possible is classic.)

Is it all as innovative as it was in the 1990s? No; it can’t be. But though I was skeptical about it at first, having seen the new Beavis I think of it less as a revival of a franchise for a new era, and more like the latter years of a long-running cartoon satire, like The Simpsons or South Park–one that just happened to be temporarily interrupted for 14 years. It’s not essential anymore, but it’s still welcome. Sure, I’d rather see Judge develop a new project, but I would hope that the Beavis restoration would not keep him from doing so.

I’ll be curious to see whether the show draws as young and audience as MTV’s other shows or if it’s destined to mainly appeal to snarky, elderly Gen Xers like myself. (Not a foregone conclusion; MTV, at least, has said it was moved to bring the show back partly by its continuing popularity with its current viewers, who’ve watched the reruns online.) But the comedy of stupidity knows no generation. And with a wealth of targets to catch up on, I’m glad the show is getting another chance to erect a monument to the American id.

In its pants. Heh-heh-heh. (Oh, you knew there was one more coming.)