Beavis and Butt-Head return | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

The return of Beavis and Butt-Head

Throughout the alternative-rock era, from humble origins in 1992 through hosting their own show from ’93 to ’97, two of the funniest but most insightful voices rock criticism ever produced worked as a tag team shining a needed spotlight on the fads, hypes, poses, and pretensions of the day, occasionally celebrating but more often agitating for music that was “cool” over that which “sucks.”

No, not these guys; we’re talking, of course, about Beavis and Butt-Head. And now, 14 years after the end of their initial run, their proud creator Mike Judge—who also has given us Office Space, King of the Hill, and The Goode Family, for better and worse—is bringing those sages in worn concert T’s back for round two.

In part, this can be seen as more inevitable alt-rock nostalgia and yet another cash-in encore, a la the return of the Pixies or the Smashing Pumpkins. But the most fascinating thing about the original incarnation of the sketchily-drawn but nonetheless enduring heavy-metal morons/savants is that their familiar ratty couch was based in the rec room of MTV, the very temple of all that they were devoted to ruthlessly mocking. (And devoted readers may recall that, long before it became the most vapid wasteland of reality crap on television, this blogger had voiced his disdain for the network as one of the most destructive forces music has witnessed—in this piece on its 20th anniversary for the Sun-Times, for example, or in this chat with NPR’s Morning Edition.)

Before you applaud MTV for having the ability to laugh at itself, remember that the network, one of the most deviously successful creations ever emanating from Satan’s laboratory, was based from day one on the premise that one of the most successful tools to sell all things MTV was to sneer at MTV itself and the act of selling. Rarely has any corporate behemoth so thoroughly understood the adolescent psyche, but its motivations never were benevolent, just commercial.

In any event, the key difference about the New Millennial version of the dynamic duo is that this time, they won’t be critiquing music videos in between their mundane but amusing misadventures. They’ll be riffing about clips from MTV’s reality series, which include the excreable Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant, and My Super Sweet 16, among others.

Is this because MTV no longer shows music videos, and its executives could not care less about that form? Or is it because music just isn’t as important and all-consuming a part of the lives of their perpetually adolescent and thus ever-evolving target demographic? Certainly a bit of both are at play. But it also is illuminating to note that subsequent DVD collections of Beavis and Butt-Head (and its excellent spin-off Daria, which Judge did not oversee) are sold stripped of all music-video content, presumably because of the prohibitive cost of licensing. And that robs the old episodes of a big part of their fun.

Yet if cracking wise/harshly critiquing reality TV initially seems unnecessary and not nearly as entertaining—it does essentially parody itself, right? And we already have The Soup—the screener of the new series proved absolutely fresh, vital, and hilarious. As in the past, our heroes stumble cruelly and cluelessly through life in the connective tissue of two mini-episodes per show—trying to turn themselves into rejects from Twilight in “Werewolves of Highland,” for example, because chicks really dig the furry beasts—returning in between to the couch to kill even more brain cells watching the worst garbage on television while, unwittingly or not, elevating this junk to cutting entertainment via their commentary. (Butt-Head on 16 and Pregnant: “This would be a better show if they, like, actually showed them getting pregnant!”)

If Beavis and Butt-Head Mach II continues to be as sharp and stupid-fun as this first episode, their return will be a welcome one indeed. Catch the re-premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday.

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