There are milestones and then there are milestones in popular culture.
Five years after the debut of two of our most controversial and cretinous television characters on MTV, the end arrives tonight for "Beavis and Butt-head."
The finale -- titled "Beavis and Butt-head Are Dead" -- might not give you quite the same sense of loss as the last episode of "Cheers" or "M*A*S*H," but the crudely drawn cartoon about two repulsive teen-age boys with particularly annoying laughs is nevertheless landmark television in its own way.
Many believe its popularity was telling us something about ourselves in the 1990s or, at least, something about male adolescence. One way of getting at that message is to think of a graph.
At the high end of the chart are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as exemplars of males coming of age in American popular culture. At the absolute nadir -- after the line plunges through Wayne and Garth and Bill and Ted -- are Beavis and Butt-head as the post-modern descendants of Tom and Huck.
The dots between Twain's 19th-century pair and MTV's contemporary duo do connect. Mike Judge, 34, the creator of "Beavis and Butt-head," himself invites the comparison by borrowing a Twain plot device in the finale, in which everyone at Highland High thinks Beavis and Butt-head are dead and the boys get to watch their own funeral before walking off into the sunset.
But I think those who take the argument one step further, using the popularity of "Beavis and Butt-head" as Exhibit A in making a case for the dumbing-down of America, are wrong.
I'm nowhere near joining Time magazine's pop culture columnist Kurt Anderson, who called the series "the bravest show ever run on national television."
But, again, in its own way, "Beavis and Butt-head" is intelligent social satire that especially speaks in a meaningful way to a generation of teen-age boys who are going through a uniquely complicated socialization at the hands of their baby-boomer parents.
"I guess maybe I shouldn't be the one to say why it's culturally important, but 'Beavis and Butt-Head' is kind of my reaction to the whole fringe aspects of the political correctness movement," Judge said in a telephone interview last week.
Abby Terkuhle, the MTV executive in charge of animation, puts it more directly, saying, "I think they're popular because they're politically incorrect."
Or, as Time's Anderson explained it, "We may all be too well socialized to ever say stuff like, 'For a big, muscular dude, he sure sings like a wuss.' But you laugh because it is an insight that you deny yourself."
Beavis and Butt-head are at their most incorrect when it comes to sexuality and matters of gender. The nicest thing you can say about them in this regard is that they are budding misogynists.
They are most often shown sitting on a sofa watching television, picking their noses, eating and indulging their capacity for flatulence. Their brain-dead critiques of what's on the tube regularly focus on female body parts. Of the dozen or so words in their limited critical vocabularies, "chicks" is about the only one this paper will print (and, believe me, we are all better for it).
"It's pretty vulgar sometimes," Judge acknowledges, adding that does not allow his 5- and 2-year-old daughters to watch.
"I don't mind its being vulgar if it's really funny. But I'll be the first to admit that there are times when it's vulgar and not funny. And that's when I toss and turn at night and say, 'Why did I record that line?' "
Judge has made serious mistakes in other matters, too, with the series -- most notably jokes about animal cruelty and images of Beavis playing with fire and saying, "Fire is cool."
In one 1993 episode, the pair made a joke about putting a firecracker in a "cat's butt."
Five days later, a cat was found killed by a firecracker in Santa Cruz, Calif. A campaign was mounted against the show, and MTV promised the cat episode would never air again.
That same year, the show was blamed for a series of fires set by kids, including one set by a 5-year-old Ohio boy in which his 2-year-old sister was killed.
"That was awful. If someone is accusing your show of causing the death of a child, what can you say? It's horrible," Judge says.
But he believes his series was wrongly accused, because the children in that fire did not have cable in their home. Furthermore, he adds, the mother had left the children alone.
Still, after the incident, MTV banned references to fire and deleted it from those episodes already taped -- although plenty of fire can be seen tonight in flashbacks.
"I thought it was a little overreaction and cowardly," Judge says of the moves made by MTV after the fire controversy. "That was kind of admitting the show had something to do with it when it didn't."
As to the charge that his work is dumbing us down, Judge says, "Are you going to say that you shouldn't do a show about real life? Should TV be showing only all straight 'A' students and people with good jobs? 'The Cosby Show' was like a doctor, a lawyer and kids who go to Princeton. After a while you start to feel inadequate or weird or something."
With baby-boomer moms trying to apply women's-movement theory to raising kids, and baby-boomer dads denying themselves the kinds of insights on masculinity described by Time's Anderson for fear of being labeled sexist, Judge is one of the only voices in our culture telling teen-age boys, "What you're feeling is not weird or necessarily bad."
That same male voice, in the person of blue-collar Texan Hank Hill, can be heard desperately trying to socialize his 12-year-old son, Bobby, into manhood on the Fox series "King of the Hill." The huge male audience and Top-20 Nielsen ranking of the second-year series, created by Judge and Greg Daniels, suggests there are a lot of folks who want to hear it. (Judge actually does the voices of Beavis, Butt-head and Hank Hill.)
With the tremendous success of "King of the Hill" and the demands of producing a prime-time animated series, Judge says his main thought as Beavis and Butt-head go slouching into reruns is relief.
"You know, it's never really slowed down since the first short in 1992. It's been non-stop. So, it feels pretty good, finally, that I don't have to crank out more episodes."
But he admits starting to miss them a little and admits they became more likable and less weird even to him over the years.
"When I first started out with the first show, which was 'Frog Baseball,' they were just two guys that I would definitely want to keep my distance from. Like, if they came into a restaurant, I would go, 'Oh, God, I hope they don't sit over here.'
"But, by the end of the series, I would think that two guys like that would at least be fun to sit and watch TV with."
Bye bye, Beavis
What: "Beavis and Butt-head Are Dead," series finale
When: Tonight, 10-10: 30; tomorrow, 7 p.m.-7: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 11/28/97