When “Beavis & Butt-Head” hit it big on MTV in the early ’90s, it became the latest televisual thing that was going to bring about the end of Western civilization as we knew it. But we’re still here, and if you want to argue that we’re worse off as a people than we were back in the day, I can give you a whole bunch of more likely culprits. Hint: several of them air on MTV, and are being mocked by the two guys as the series returns tomorrow night at 10, 14 years after the last season aired, now titled “Mike Judge’s Beavis & Butt-Head.”
For the most part, neither the show nor its two protagonists have changed much. The boys are still wearing their AC/DC and Metallica t-shirts (and their friend Stuart still wears a Winger t-shirt, which seems even more out-of-date), they still spend lots of time snickering at and/or misunderstanding everything that’s on TV, and they’re still fundamentally clueless about pretty much everything. The most significant change between 1997 and 2011 is that MTV has given up any pretense of being a music video channel, and as a result, most of what the guys comment on are MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “16 & Pregnant.”
And seen in the light of the current generation of MTV hits, not to mention the changes in general to teen culture in the last 14 years, Beavis and Butt-Head seem almost quaint, and certainly more harmless than they appeared back in their heyday.
Their neighbor Tom Anderson suffered lots of anguish (and property damage) at the hands of Beavis and Butt-Head, but the show’s larger portrait of those two was of boys too ineffectual, stupid and marginal to cause much trouble for anybody but each other. That continues to be the case for the two stories featured in tomorrow’s premiere. In one, the boys are convinced by the “Twilight” phenomenon that they can finally score with girls if they become a vampire or werewolf; the only people to suffer from this quest are Beavis & Butt-Head themselves. In the other, Butt-Head takes great pleasure in Beavis having cried while watching a reality dating show, but no one else cares in the slightest about either one of them.
But whether they’re causing headaches for others or just themselves, the two – and the show – remain very funny.
It turns out that their brand of blunt but unexpectedly wise snark translates just as well to trashy reality shows as it did to trashy hair metal videos back in the day. I won’t give away all the jokes, but just as an example, Butt-Head watches the “Jersey Shore” women making up a chart of everyone in the house who has hooked up with each other, and notes, impressed, “If they made this chart long enough, they could find out where herpes began.”
Watching the premiere, I did wonder what Beavis and Butt-Head would be like if Judge had conceived of them today. Though juvenile cluelessness is a familiar sight in every generation, it feels like the 2011 Beavis and Butt-Head would be clueless in slightly different ways – the internet, which was just beginning to penetrate everyday life when the show went off the air, is a treasure trove of shaky information – though that might have required reconceptualizing the show and characters so much as to not be worth the trouble.(*)
(*) MTV has, in fact, paired the new episodes with “Good Vibes,” an animated series from director David Gordon Green and starring Josh Gad and Adam Brody as a pair of more contemporary teenage outcasts who spend all day online, playing video games, playing with smartphones, etc., and dreaming of women they’re not likely to ever hook up with. It has some good moments, but only one of the three episodes MTV sent out seemed funny from start to finish, and trying to modernize “Beavis & Butt-Head” would have almost made the new show redundant.
Beavis and Butt-Head are who they’ve always been, for ill or (comedically) for good. I’m glad to have them back.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com