It says something about the timeless appeal of a show’s premise, that after a fourteen-year hiatus it should successfully return to the screen without characters, writing, visuals or narrative devices updated in any way. Studio executives like to refer to the ‘zeigeist’, using it to terrorise screenwriters into revising material so that it might reflect some crude notion of current social mores. The return of Beavis and Butt-head seems to be a special case in this respect. Based on strong viewing figures for reruns of the originals, which ran from 1993-97, MTV approached Mike Judge, creator and voice of B&B, with the simple request of some more of the same.
Critics could say that Beavis and Butt-head (adolescent head-banging sex-crazed Metalheads) are uninspiring characters with no charm or moral fibre whatsoever. Their voices, grunts and giggles are grating, and their actions, whilst not exactly sadistic, are antisocial to say the least. They’re so socially inept it’s impossible for them to actually develop any cumulative relationships with other characters, so that their ‘nearsighted’ neighbour, Tom Anderson, never seems to recognise B&B despite the frequent trouble they cause him.
But despite or because of these shortcomings B&B are still both funny and lovable. It’s oddly endearing the way they never perceive the full scale of woe that they inflict on others. On a school trip around the local army barracks they sneak into a control room and, under the impression they are playing arcade games, start remotely controlling planes that wreak havoc all over the world. Equally amusing is the way in which their teacher, David Van Driessen – an eco-conscious hippie who is so naively benevolent that he never perceives B&B’s sarcasm – offers them frequent opportunities for redemption. A frequent narrative device is that B&B will misconstrue a school project as an opportunity for sex. B&B light up when Van Driessen, upset by an oil spill, is seeking volunteers to help ‘clean the oily chicks’. Misunderstandings ensue. In another episode they support a Christian rally that is against the teaching of Darwin in school, thinking that it will mean they won’t have to attend science classes. When it transpires that they’ll still have to go to lessons, in which Darwin is merely replaced with creation theory, they storm out.
Often surrounded by moral fervour or panic, war or oil spills or health scares, B&B are shut off in their little world of sniggering egocentrism and feeble nihilistic quests for sex and/or the macabre. Like South Park’s juvenile characters (a show they paved the way for) B&B are the ignorant American youth pitted against the hypocritical insanities of the adult world and the vulgarities of consumer culture. They’re trapped in a loop, never succeeding and never learning from any of their experiences.
Crucially their adventures are interspersed with scenes of them at their unsupervised home, sitting on the couch watching MTV. It’s a delightful inconsistency how perceptive and witty B&B are in these sections, talking over music videos. And this is one part of the show that has changed since the original series. Where before B&B’s comments were limited to MTV music videos, now this includes Twilight and YouTube and reality TV such as Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. In a brilliant episode, and in an attempt to gain Edward Cullen’s irresistible allure, they seek to become sexy supernaturals by getting bitten by what they believe to be a werewolf, but which is actually just a very hairy rabies-infested homeless man.
Beavis and Butt-head return so that we may laugh with them at the video culture that now truly immerses us all, in a way that was only prophesied in the original series. Many people have now adopted the tone of B&B and become their own snotty ‘couch critics’, tweeting and status-updating on the infinite video fodder of the Internet. One difference is that what’s ‘cool’ and what ‘sucks’ is to ‘like’/ ‘dislike’. It really is essential viewing for anyone who, like myself, often finds themselves sat round with friends, smirking at Internet video pap.
Behind the lewd humour and slapstick calamity B&B is a heartfelt, though non-strident, critique of the numbing manipulative influence popular culture can have on young people. But at the same time it’s about a power that stupid culture can give you. After all the money and fanfare and personalities pumped into music videos and reality TV, you can still just sit back and say to yourself, or your friend, “this sucks”. There’s a winning joy in having that power. It’s the kind of power that gets Rage Against the Machine Xmas No.1 to the chagrin of Simon Cowell.
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