That Mike Judge has returned to where his bread was first buttered and resurrected Beavis and Butt-Head to self-satirize yet another MTV generation is cause for celebration. This collection of the show’s first revival season shows that this isn’t a mere retro-humping cash grab; in fact, Judge’s years of work on the more straight-laced King of the Hill has clearly made him a better storyteller, and the evidence is that these new stories of his bastard boys are some of the best Beavis and Butt-Head tales to date. Beavis and Butt-Head are the same chuckling, hopeless white trash they’ve always been, and their misadventures are no less pointless or destructive as before, but now there’s definitely a much smarter sense of comedic timing in their antics.
Watching Beavis spaz out into his caffeinated alter ego Cornholio and become a cult’s messiah may feel sort of inevitable, but the twist in which he gets bored and unknowingly sets his loser friend Stewart up for hot culty group sex is kind of a nice payoff. Showing Beavis and Butt-Head as unwitting pawns of the Intelligent Design and anti-Planned Parenthood movements makes for some bizarrely pointed social commentary. (In the latter, the pair take a Jesus fundie’s assertion that a women’s health clinic is a whorehouse seriously and enthusiastically, with delightfully painful results.) The episode in which Beavis and Butt-Head confuse a field trip to an old timey tourist village with time travel results in some hilariously dim-witted attempts at causing time paradox.
Yet the best episodes are the same now as before, featuring the idiots rambling around town with no agenda, warping their environments with their askew worldviews. Nothing in this collection was so delightful as the episode in which Beavis and Butt-Head reacting to a supposed apocalypse by raiding a 7-11, or the one when they simply wandered around the mall like gleeful teenage perverts, or Butt-Head making fun of Beavis for the rest of their lives because an onion made him cry.
If there is a problem with the revival of Beavis and Butt-Head, it’s that everyone is now in on the joke. Like the metal bands they revere, age has made these two moron savants respectable. Where once Beavis’ wide-eyed pyromania had to be hushed and up due to a kid supposedly self-immolating in imitation, and the pair’s destructive tendencies had to be preceded by a Don’t Do This At Home disclaimer, our twitchy friends are once more given free reign to smash shit and shout that fire is cool. (Beavis also makes a few references to being molested, which comes off as disturbingly comedic.) And today, I doubt that anyone howls that Beavis and Butt-Head is poisoning the youth of America. People have finally caught on that the show is at its core Looney Tunes in human form, giving it an aura of benign slapstick.
Where this becomes a problem is when Beavis and Butt-Head know they’re cool. Despite being from a time when MTV had total control over youth pop culture, the old series wasn’t big on name-dropping pop culture to prove its cred. Instead, they cheered for the awesome videos and verbally mauled everything that didn’t pass their standards of cool. As such, the show became something of a musical tastemaker in its own right.
Today’s Beavis and Butt-Head are much more with the times and behind the curve. They riff on Twilight. They reference Grand Theft Auto. They know the entire cast of Sex and the City. (Sure, that knowledge is only used to suggest a mash-up sequel to Sex and the City and The Human Centipede, but still). Worst of all, they watch a lot of Jersey Shore.
A few blessed music videos show up for Mystery Science Theater-style mockery in Volume 4, but far more often, the modern Beavis and Butt-Head watch a lot of shitty MTV shows. I know that between the old series and now, MTV all but killed off music videos ‒ which, by the way, isn’t to say that the art form no longer exists ‒ but having Beavis and Butt-head instead make fun of MTV’s post-video programming isn’t an adequate replacement. No matter how fine the ridicule, it’s not biting or edgy. It’s redundant advertisement.
Furthermore, flooding this show with clips from those shows ‒ even if it’s to burn them with some pretty genius wit ‒ makes this show secondary to those ones. The fifth time I heard Beavis and Butt-Head refer to The Jersey Shore’s “Smoosh room,” I began to wonder if I was watching a commercial for those guidos, juiceheads, and gorillas, if the true goal of reviving Beavis and Butt-Head was merely to raise the profile of all of MTV’s other shit.
I watch the old series for the video mockery first and the cartoon episodes second, and in the new series my preferences are somewhat reversed. Nonetheless, the new series is a much more clever, focused, and polished animal than its wild beast predecessor. Take that for what it’s worth to you, but there is a great humor in noting that a show once hailed as a sign of pop culture’s apocalypse is now one of pop culture’s best shows.
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