After Beavis And Butt-head's rapid rise to mainstream success, cultural reactionaries attacked the show as a corrosive, youth-warping product of the bleak teen nihilism it so savagely satirized. During its Clinton-era heyday, it became difficult to separate the show from its hype. MTV didn't help by playing Beavis And Butt-head on a seeming perpetual loop, merchandising it up the wazoo, and cashing in with a tie-in album and movie adaptation.
Now the new three-disc initial volume of Beavis And Butt-head: The Mike Judge Collection, a collection of 40 cartoons cherry-picked by Judge himself, along with a smattering of extras, provides a welcome bit of distance and historical context. It helps that subtler, more sophisticated projects like Office Space and King Of The Hill went on to confirm what Beavis And Butt-head strongly suggested: that Judge is one of America's most trenchant and perceptive social satirists.
The fearlessly minimalist animated smash is first and foremost a feral parody of its target demographic: It reduces the average MTV viewer to a semi-literate, almost sub-verbal mass of seething, barely controlled impulses. Latchkey kids inhabiting a grim teenage wasteland devoid of the civilizing influence of parents, the series' 14-year-old anti-heroes seek little beyond scoring with chicks, attaining money through any means other than honest labor, consuming the lowest-common-denominator bottom rungs of the entertainment universe, and maybe munching on some nachos. They occupy a world in which conversations are nothing more than opportunities to delight in double entendres, and authority figures are either shaking with anger, wildly ineffectual, or both. Their misdeeds are rarely punished, but their faith in other people invariably is. The show offers a take on youth culture minus the culture, adolescence robbed of romance, glamour, or morality.
Beavis And Butt-head implies that its utterly amoral protagonists aren't aberrant anomalies so much as sturdy archetypes that ricochet through the generations, shock troops in a coming wave of de-evolution. In one of the show's most resonant running gags, the boys' mindless, grunting laughter is parroted back at them by adults who should know better. That may be the key to the show's enduring popularity, as well as its most sinister implication: The idea that there's more than a little Beavis and Butt-head in everyone.