Thursday, November 03, 2011

Culture Shock 11.03.11: Beavis and Butt-Head bite the channel that feeds them

When the first new episode of "Beavis and Butt-Head" aired on MTV last Thursday, nearly 14 years after the show's apparent end, it was as if Beavis and Butt-Head had never gone away.

Like Sherlock Holmes returning from his "death" at the Reichenbach Falls, Beavis and Butt-Head picked up right where they left off.

They're still in high school and still laughing their way through every painful misadventure.

Their comeback seems perfectly timed. Something about this moment seems to be crying out for the deep cultural insights only two oblivious, cartoon teenagers can provide. And the first lesson Beavis and Butt-Head have for us is a simple reminder: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

When Beavis and Butt-Head vanished, it was from a world where the Internet was still new, "reality television" as we now know it was limited to MTV's own "The Real World" and MTV still aired music videos.

Beavis and Butt-Head return to a world of smart phones, smart cards and "Jersey Shore," to which "smart" doesn't apply.

But it's all the same to them. For Beavis and Butt-Head, the world was and is black and white.

There are things that are cool, and there are things that suck. And Beavis and Butt-Head know the difference.

In the 1990s, they told us Michael Bolton and Vanilla Ice sucked. Now, from the comfort of their battered sofa, they can confirm all of our darkest suspicions about "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom."

They may not have a large vocabulary, yet Beavis and Butt-Head have their place of distinction alongside other criticism-dispensing duos, like Statler & Waldorf and Siskel & Ebert's thumbs.

As before, Beavis and Butt-Head are idiots. In the season opener, they decide to become werewolves or vampires — it doesn't matter which — in order to attract women, because, as you know, women are all into that "Twilight" stuff. So, they get a homeless man, whom they mistake for a werewolf, to bite them.

Unfortunately, all that gets them is a litany of diseases that would intimidate even Greg House.

Yet when they watch television and talk back to it, Beavis and Butt-Head are almost geniuses, identifying and ridiculing stupidity wherever they find it.

Does TV make Beavis and Butt-Head smarter? Or is TV just so dumb now that they seem smart by comparison? What are we supposed to take away from Beavis and Butt-Head's half-baked couch-potato wisdom?

During his 14-year hiatus from "Beavis and Butt-Head," series creator Mike Judge turned to the Middle American pragmatism of "King of the Hill" and conceived the sci-fi comedy "Idiocracy," about a future that values anti-intellectualism and celebrity above all else.

When Beavis and Butt-Head talk back to their TV, it's impossible not to think of them as Judge's voice, and not just because he provides the literal voices for both.

There's a weird circularity to that. In the '90s, critics cited MTV in general and "Beavis and Butt-Head" in particular as prima facie evidence of Western civilization's decline and imminent demise.

Those were scary times. MTV had to forbid Beavis from saying "fire" on the off chance of his inspiring a generation of arsonists.

Today you again hear pretty much the same complaints about MTV in general and "Jersey Shore" in particular. And Beavis and Butt-Head have joined the chorus in passing judgment.

As far as Beavis and Butt-Head are concerned, the future of "Idiocracy" is the present of television, which has made Snooki and The Situation household nicknames.

It's too bad Beavis and Butt-Head aren't smart enough to get the joke.

I'm sure they'd laugh.

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