By Ken Tucker
October 27, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

They sit in judgment. Well, actually, they sprawl in judgment, their sneers at the ready. Beavis and Butt-Head may be the best TV critics ever, at least for a certain kind of TV. In the ’90s, they dissected the visual signs and verbal disconnects of music videos with the rigor of semioticians (Beavis and Butt-Head and Barthes).

Now in 2011, they’ve returned in Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head to succinctly dismiss the brain-draining stupidity of Jersey Shore (imagining J-Woww’s future with her grandchildren: “Grandma J-Woww, where did you get syphilis?”) and the poignant idiots on 16 and Pregnant (“So she’s not a bad actor, she’s a bad person”). Creator Judge brought his boys back on Thursday night with a new half-hour packed with both one-liners and sustained plots.

Exposed to the Twilight movies, B&B tried to get themselves bitten by a werewolf so they can score some hot chicks, but they mistook a disease-ridden street person for a werewolf. The poor guy happily bit them multiple times, but all they ended up with were scars and various strains of hepatitis. Even more intriguing was a beautifully drawn-out scene in which Butt-Head incessantly teased Beavis for crying (well, they were tears induced by an onion, but Butt-Head didn’t know that) — the taunting lasted for years, until we saw them as old men, still ragging on each other (“I was not moved!”). In both of these scenes, Mike Judge and company get at the root of B&B’s appeal — their shaky grasp of masculinity, which compels them to lash out at the world, including each other.

The neat trick Judge pulls off in the new Beavis and Butt-Head is in convincing us that there’s a substantive difference between the the slack-jawed mouth-breathers of 16 and Pregnant and the slack-jawed sniggering Beavis and Butt-Head do: The latter are blessed and cursed with self-awareness. (“How come we were born as us?” Beavis asked while watching an LMFAO video.) They know they’re wasting their time watching stupid TV and dreaming up stupid schemes. Yet Judge has them do these things with a lack of irony (also a hallmark of his frequently superb King of the Hill) that makes the boys active participants in their own humiliation — they get hurt, physically and emotionally.

It is, in short, great to have these genius cretins back among us, judging and being judged.

Twitter: @kentucker