Let us take a moment for Generation X, the forgotten middle child buttressed by the primary combatants in the great schism currently defining American culture. Trend-charting magazine articles have left them stuck between the Boomers, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of a disappearing status quo, and the Millennials, ushering in a brave and confusing new world with the help of the ascendant Gen Z. As dominant forces in the mainstream, they’ve accordingly enjoyed the spoils of the nostalgia market, with Disney cranking out live-action remakes of 90s favorites for twenty-to-thirtysomethings while Rolling Stone and other legacy publications continue to prop up the musical tastes of people in their 60s. Will no one think of the eye-rollers, the alt-rock pioneers, the disaffected masses that slagged consumerist ambitions decades before the first meme joking about the utter brokenness of capitalism?
That may soon change, however, based on a handful of recent announcements from the TV industry. A mini-revival of seminal Gen-X animation has been slated for the immediate future, ostensibly catering to a demographic raised to view this sort of thing as a crass corporate cash-grab. Last year saw MTV unveil plans for the new cartoon Jodie, a spinoff focusing on a secondary character from the zeitgeist-seizing comedy Daria, itself a spinoff from the adventures of wonder-idiots Beavis and Butthead. The sniggering twosome will also get another shot at the small screen, as Comedy Central announced just last month that creator Mike Judge will bring his most famed creations back for a new series loosing them on the world of 2020. And the network made similar headlines again earlier this week when it revealed that Ren and Stimpy, those hyperactive icons of grotesque Saturday morning dadaism, would also mount a comeback after nearly 30 years off the air.
Jodie eventually jumped MTV’s ship for Comedy Central as well, concentrating what now seems like a concerted effort around a single programming slate. In theory, animated intellectual property should be fertile for rebooting; the faces of Daria, Beavis and the like won’t age, and the voices of the actors portraying them behind the scenes generally don’t either. In the event that they have, it’s easy enough for a network to find a dead auditory ringer for a replacement. But retrofitting these properties to a new era, which have spent so long identified with their own, could prove problematic.
“It seemed like the time was right to get stupid again,” came the quote from Judge attached to the Beavis and Butthead press release, a stirring declaration of intent. The beatific dumbness of the characters made them folk heroes to a generation marked by disillusionment and healthy cynicism, a pair of holy fools whose belief system didn’t have to extend far past rocking out and cracking wise. Daria Morgendorffer, the over-everything Gen-X-er, was the only one in their world who really seemed to understand what they were about. When Daria got a program of her own, she would lob the occasional feminist critique, while still remaining committed to her core ironic detachment. Ren and Stimpy, meanwhile, leaned into a juvenile nihilism with giddy violence and innuendo that pushed the envelope on kid-friendly host Nickelodeon.
As these shows return, they’ll have to contend with a greatly altered entertainment landscape that may not be as hospitable to their distinct sensibilities. Many greeted the news of Ren and Stimpy’s return with anything from dread to revulsion, due to the recent revelation that the series creator John Kricfalusi had sexually harassed two underage women during the 90s. As if to speak directly to this point, the Variety item breaking the news about the Ren and Stimpy reboot notes that Kricfalusi will be in no way involved with the series’ production, and that he will receive no financial remuneration from it. Even so, the series was so integrally informed by his sense of humor that any reboot cannot be fully free of his influence.
The outline for Jodie in Deadline’s report makes a more perceptible overture to timeliness: “Jodie will satirize workplace culture, Gen Z struggles, the artifice of social media and more. With themes of empowerment across gender and racial lines, explorations of privilege, and a wicked sense of humor, Jodie marks the first adult animated sitcom to center around an African American female lead in nearly two decades.” The agreeably progressive ethic aside, this spirit of feelgood go-getter copywriting would activate the real Daria’s gag reflex.
That’s as clean an omen of the impending friction as one could expect, a sign that these characters may be less than compatible with our present moment of earnest cause-championing and overdue awarenesses. Judge has evolved with the times in his capacity as showrunner for Silicon Valley, and yet when it comes to those hooligans Beavis and Butthead, it feels like it’s only a matter of time until they get themselves cancelled.