Review: Beavis & Butt-Head reclaim their thrones of the reaction video genre
The easiest review of this week’s new Beavis & Butt-Head TV series revival could probably be written as:
Huh-huh-huh, heh-heh-heh, huh-huh-huh. He said “easiest.”
If you still fondly recall the ’90s pastiche of the world’s two stupidest teens’ giggling, moronic hijinks, with “TV” interruptions between scenes, Beavis & Butt-Head‘s newest episodes, debuting Thursday, August 4, exclusively on Paramount+, will do it for you. Yet crucially, the series has been taken over by a new generation of writers and directors who grew up on creator Mike Judge’s original version.
This means a few things for the series, and some of those aren’t relevant to Ars Technica (though I’ll summarize my general thumbs-up opinion later). But one thing stands out as an interesting generational marker: a change to the series’ old TV-watching scenes and how their execution reflects a new era of app-fueled media consumption.
A primer: The original series, the 2011 reboot
For anyone who missed Beavis & Butt-Head in the ’90s, the MTV series wasn’t just a massive pop-culture sensation but also a cleverly low-cost operation. Crude animation kept costs down while also pairing well with the series’ grungy ’90s tone. Plus, instead of animating full 22-minute episodes, each episode only had roughly 10 to 12 minutes of traditional animation.
The rest of each episode was filled with the titular characters (heh, heh, heh) watching music videos while Judge rattled off jokes in their voices. MTV had the rights to rebroadcast those videos at the time, and in a way, Beavis & Butt-Head became another MTV broadcasting block of videos when it ruled the pop-culture world. (In the years since, those licensing rights are far messier. Last month, Paramount+ brought back a tiny percentage of original Beavis & Butt-Head video-watching sequences, with most edited out and trapped on fans’ classic VHS tapes.)
You may have missed the first Beavis & Butt-Head revival, which lasted only one season in 2011 and updated the series’ TV sequences to include snippets of original MTV programming, particularly Jersey Shore. This was when MTV essentially acknowledged that the “M” in its name had been all but wiped out by reality shows, dating contests, and blacklight nightmares. While this revival briefly referenced a then-burgeoning YouTube, the 2011 version wasn’t ready to imagine a universe in which either Beavis or Butt-Head knew how to work a desktop computer or a TiVo.
These scenes are clearly curated by and for people who watch videos on the Internet. Ahead of this week’s premiere, Paramount made the revival’s first two episodes available to members of the press (heh, heh, heh, “members”), and for the TV-watching bits, it sure seems like someone connected an Internet video-streaming box to the duo’s ancient rabbit-ear television. (Their Winger-loving neighbor Stewart, maybe?)
One highlight sees the duo watch a minutes-long ASMR demonstration, one of the YouTube era’s biggest genres, and it plays out in an unsurprisingly amusing fashion. Butt-Head lowers his voice to match the YouTube video’s volume, and Beavis is cowed into whispering in kind. Jokes about the host’s noise-making arsenal emerge. Then Beavis begins to lose his cool: The combination of a cute woman as host and unusual whispering get him riled up. Butt-Head offers a familiar-sounding, “Shut up or I’ll kick your ass” in response. It concludes with Beavis’ aroused persistence making Butt-Head mad enough to slap Beavis, but even his slap is ASMR-appropriate: a soft glance of his hand on Beavis’ face.
The boys also watch some TikTok videos, which include a high school student opening up a college acceptance letter and an ex-con teaching viewers how to make prison tattoos. All three Internet reaction videos are far more scripted than the stream-of-unconsciousness stupidity that the duo typically applied to older music videos (heh-heh-heh, “stream”), and that’s almost certainly by design. In the nearly 30 years since the animated series’ debut, the reaction-video genre they invented has become its own industry, so its progenitors have chosen to adapt with a more polished and funny take on the concept—particularly with Beavis and Butt-Head both hilariously impersonating the ex-con’s accent. (Part of me wishes the characters had been active when reaction videos to viral NSFW videos were en vogue. Perhaps this season, we’ll get “Two Girls, One Beavis”? A series fan can dream.)
Praying that Beavis hosts a hot tub stream by season’s end
not just videos
The two episodes I’ve previewed also include four “standard” Beavis & Butt-Head episodes, each roughly seven minutes long, and much like Beavis & Butt-Head Do the Universe, these episodes benefit from these utter idiots landing in modern scenarios, surrounded by normal people with functioning brain cells. In conversations with my friends, I’ve really enjoyed summarizing and spoiling what I’ve seen thus far.
I was rolling on the ground while watching the duo misunderstand modern escape rooms or tail their hippie teacher Mr. Van Driessen at a farmer’s market. And I was howling when Beavis met a living, speaking manifestation of fire—paying off an early real-life controversy about young viewers falling for the cartoon character’s pyromancy. This stuff is hilarious, and just like the June film, the duo’s antics become that much funnier when juxtaposed by reasonably intelligent people nearby. If you like the comedic works of Mike Judge, run, don’t walk, to Beavis & Butt-Head on Paramount+.
The duo’s original “this sucks, change it” mantra would have made sense as attached to Internet video-watching marathons, but the new series thus far ignores the compulsive-feed aspect of services like Instagram and TikTok. The result pales compared to SNL’s recent takes, which mined the inherent comedy of TikTok’s rapid-tap feeds (though that could change in future episodes). And it serves as a stark reminder that Beavis and Butt-Head are elder statesmen of the genre. They don’t necessarily betray their high school stupidity, but some of their banter, designed to play out over the course of a three-minute video, sounds less like paint-huffing teens and more like college-educated fans of paint-huffing teens.
The same applies to the new series’ occasional music videos, and these scenes are a monument to how much the music industry has changed since Beavis & Butt-Head premiered. K-Pop sensation BTS appears in the first episode almost entirely on the strength of their Internet-grown fame, while the duo also watches a pair of not-at-all-rockin’ acts: Latin boy band CNCO, which exploded in the mid-’10s on the iTunes charts (remember those?), and country musician Cale Dodds. Used to be, inclusion on Beavis & Butt-Head meant good things for a band’s profile during an MTV era. Now? These videos are just dressing for elaborate joke setups, like when Butt-Head whispers the full name “Cale Dodds” over and over in a somewhat seductive fashion.
The artists’ inclusion probably won’t set Spotify search results on fire due to how fragmented music listening habits have become—but also because the duo isn’t just flipping to a hard rock or metal song and emoting over and over, “This kicks ass!” However, you may be surprised to see how the duo reacts to BTS; again, today’s teens are listening to more diverse music than the MTV-dominated days of yore, and it’s refreshing to see that even these two morons react appropriately to that reality.
Might Beavis & Butt-Head do more to resemble the modern reaction-based Internet in future episodes? Possibly! But while it’d probably be hilarious to see the duo host a Twitch gaming stream or lose their minds when they find out about hot tub streams, the current show crucially understands that these high schoolers are from a different generation: one where carefully constructed jokes come and go quickly, as opposed to the same characters riffing for hours while engaging with a chat room. Their comedy continues to benefit from the meta-narrative reality of us watching them watch stuff, and as elder statesmen of that genre, they know better than to copy its modern stars.
So, yes, Beavis and Butt-Head sit back on an oversized couch, watch an oversized CRT TV, and deliver overwrought joke setups about whatever it is they watch. I never expected the duo to become a new pop-culture version of The Muppet Show‘s Statler and Waldorf, but as an older viewer who can get fatigued by the bloat and cheesiness of Twitch feeds, I’m here for Judge’s creations somehow becoming the genre’s top states-teens.
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