The Great Rewatch: Daria: the Complete Series
Over the holiday weekend, I jetted through Daria: the Complete Series and time-warped through my own high school / early college experience. Daria was an animated TV show that ran on MTV in the late nineties, about a flat-voiced, cynical teen girl navigating the baffling social structures of high school. She felt loathing for popular kids, including her fashion-conscious sister, Quinn. Her best (and for the most part only) friend was quirky art student Jane Lane, and her crush was on Jane’s burnout brother Trent.
Ah yes, Trent. [fans self]
Anyway, the show was a cultural touchstone for me—I was Daria for Halloween once—and now it’s a time capsule, of the mid-nineties, of MTV at its creative peak, and of a period in my life that looks way better through the lens of nostalgia than it did at the time. Anyway, click ahead to read about my favorite episodes of the show—the ones that are most illustrative of what I loved / love about the show. (All links are to Outpost Daria, one of the most well-stocked fan sites I have ever seen on the Internet. My compliments to Outpost Daria.)
“Esteemsters” (101) – The first full-length episode (the pilot was a five-minute short), in which the Morgendorffer family moves to Lawndale and introvert daughter Daria is forced to try to fit in as the new kid. For those of us out there who naturally recoil from situations where we are forced to walk around and say, “Hi, nice to meet you!” this is a nightmare of epic proportions. Daria’s sister Quinn, of course, has got a clique before she’s barely out of the car.
So, the episode hits on typically ironic high school truths: in class, Daria answers one question correctly and gets praise from the teacher; when she tries to answer a second she’s asked to quit showing off. The guidance counselor who really wants Daria to know that she cares can’t quite manage to call her by the right name. And, she gets diagnosed as having low self-esteem, requiring her to take a class in realizing her actuality (a phrase the teacher—the touchy-feely Mr. O’Neill—can’t satisfactorily define). The episode is all about how Daria takes these sucky yet inevitable situations and manipulates them to better her situation. She makes friends with Jane while they snark on self-esteem class together; she leverages her parents’ guilt over her problems fitting in with others into family outings that no one will enjoy except for her. Finally, she manages to turn her statement of self-actualization into an opportunity to embarrass Quinn. All around, the episode is a fine introduction to the themes of the show and the majority of the characters. The best part of the episode is this classic line (and unofficial mission statement of the show):
Daria: I don’t have low self-esteem. It’s a mistake. I have low esteem for everyone else.
“Road Worrier” (111) – A classic first-season episode in which Daria and Jane hitch a ride to a rock show with Jane’s brother Trent and his bandmate Jesse. Jane is well-aware at this point that Daria has a crush on Trent, because Daria, in Trent’s presence, can only maintain red-cheeked, embarrassed silence. During this trip, Daria gets a chance to sweat out her self-consciousness—she bumps her head, sits on a sandwich, breaks her glasses, and has to take a pee break in the woods. Finally, when the van breaks down, Daria sits with Trent and she manages a few minutes of small talk with him. She finds that however cool he might be, he’s not exactly a god among men—he’s totally unmotivated, and he’s kinda dumb—but they find common ground in being outsiders and he even tells her that she’s cool for a high school kid. Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl knows that Daria will feed off this compliment for months, maybe years. It’s a monument to the subtlety of the show that these small victories are so memorable.
One drawback: the episode features a great send-up of the video to REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” which was huge back then. The scene remains in the episode, but because of the issues with music rights, the REM song does not accompany it. They couldn’t have paid for that one song?
“Arts ‘n Crass” (201) – What I love about this episode is that the plot is the perfect illustration of one of the major themes of the show—smart kid tries to survive high school, integrity in tact. In this episode, Daria and Jane collaborate on an art project which is a biting commentary on girl culture (via bulimia). The school wants to submit the project to a contest, but the principal (the mercenary Ms. Li) is put off by the unpleasantness of the subject matter and demands that it be changed to a positive message. The girls decline to do so, and the school changes it anyway, so they crash a school board meeting and deface the poster. The principal calls Daria’s mom, Helen, who is always pushing Daria to get more involved! brighten up your outlook! and so on. However, Daria’s mom is also a lawyer, and delivers this kickass speech.
Helen: All right, Ms. Li, let me make sure I have this straight. You took my daughter’s poster from her, altered its content, exhibited it against her will, and are now threatning discipline because you claim she defaced her own property, which you admit to stealing? …Ms. Li, are you familiar with the phrase ‘violation of civil liberties’?
Bam! One of the few episodes where refusing to bow to hypocrisy plants Daria and her mom on the same side. In high school, that constitutes a raging success.
“Quinn the Brain” (203) – One thing that surprised me, in watching the complete series, is how likeable the Quinn character actually was. Even though she was Daria’s main nemesis—popular and bubbly to Daria’s glowering moodiness—she was a fully-fleshed character, with cares and worries and triumphs and failures that were different from Daria’s, but no less important. (Daria once told Quinn, after hearing Quinn’s complex and labored reasoning for some ridiculous belief: “sometimes your shallowness is so thorough it’s almost like depth.” And weirdly, it really was.) In this episode, Quinn is forced to stay in on a weekend and write an essay to rescue her falling Language Arts grade (isn’t that so quaint? The kids in Lawndale take “language arts”! I giggled every time they said it) and writes a passionate diatribe against the necessity of study called “Academic Imprisonment.” She gets positive attention about it and flirts with the possibility of becoming ‘a brain.’ Daria doesn’t like this, however, because it disturbs the yin-yang of their sisterly roles. If Quinn is the brain, what is Daria? The less-cute brain? Daria cutes herself up in some of Quinn’s clothes and pretends she’ll be stealing Quinn’s trio of admirers and, seeing the error of her ways (i.e., how stupid you look trying to be someone you’re not), Quinn restores proper balance to the universe. “I’m through being an intellectual. I’m too well-adjusted.”
This episode also features one of my favorite lines from Jane, an explanation of how Quinn could be earning popularity for doing her schoolwork:
Jane: Today it’s brains [that are ‘in’]. Tomorrow pierced tongues, then the next day? Pierced brains.
“Through a Lens Darkly” (301): During a driving lesson, Daria indicates to her mother that her peripheral vision is not very good, and Helen suggests she get contact lenses. Daria immediately takes offense at the idea that there’s anything wrong with her glasses-wearing self, but then becomes intrigued and decides to try it. At school, everyone makes a big deal over Daria’s effort to improve her appearance (and there’s a running joke: Daria tells everybody, “No, they’re for driving.” And everybody responds, “Oh. So why are you wearing them now?”) and makes her self-conscious to the point that when her eyes react badly to the contacts and she can’t wear them for a day, she also can’t bring herself to put the glasses back on. Daria moons around, glum about the fact that she’s more shallow than she thought—she cares what other people think about how she looks!—and then, in an inspired moment, idiot cheerleader Brittany manages to make her feel better about it, by speechifying that knowing that Daria cares about her looks makes Brittany feel less vapid. Even though Daria was insightful and well-read, the show never forgot that she was also a teenager, still figuring things out for herself. The fact that she can succumb to the same pressures and temptations as anybody else disappoints her, but also makes her feel more a part of the human race than she ever has before. Then, having learned this lesson, Daria recommits herself to her glasses, because for better or for worse they are a part of who she is—something that sets her apart as someone who “sees things that other people can’t.”
“Jane’s Addition” (313) / “Dye! Dye! My Darling” (413) – Ah, the timeless high school tale. Two misfits bond as best friends, united through their status as loners. Then one gets a boyfriend. This time around, it’s Jane, who, in the last episode of the third season, meets a J. Crew-looking dude at one of Trent’s rock shows and begins seeing him despite Daria’s protestations. The guy, Tom, is inoffensive enough, but Daria finds plenty to criticize about him, the better to passively-aggressively communicate her crankiness about becoming a third wheel to her own best friend. Believe me, I played out this story many times in my real life, and always in the Daria role.
Well, Tom hangs out all through season four, and Daria grows accustomed to having him around. Her relationship with Jane changes, but endures. Daria starts to like Tom as a person, and by the finale of that season, before you can say, “Saw this coming a mile away,” Daria has a crush on Tom and he’s ready and willing to leave Jane for her. This was around the point during original airings that I kind of drifted away from the show. It seemed a little hacky to take Jane and Daria to this soap operatic place. Also Tom was so weirdly conventional, which is why I always called him J. Crew-looking dude. (Plus I never got to date any boys in high school, so why should Daria get to? Hmmph.) Now I can recognize this arc for what it does: first, it tests and ultimately strengthens Daria and Jane’s friendship, which is founded on a mutual distaste for the rest of the world, but which grows to real affection for one another. And second, it kickstarts a new stage in Daria’s life—the “letting your guard down” era, the “a boy likes you and IT’S OK,” era. So some of us ‘misery chicks’ didn’t hit that era until college. I’m glad Daria got it out of the way earlier.
“Boxing Daria” (513) – This is the last official episode of the series (the second Daria movie came after, and wrapped up all the characters’ stories). The entire last season, which I had skipped in its initial run (either because I was a college student and too cool for Daria at that point, or because I was still in a snit that the show saw fit to give her a boyfriend) actually really impressed me with the way it portrayed such a strange and difficult period in teenagerhood: the “oh God, it’s all ending” era. Daria and her friends are beginning to prepare for college, and Daria in particular is beginning to revisit the decisions she’s made about the kind of person she is. “Boxing Daria” beautifully visits upon both themes. Feeling overwhelmed by the major life changes on the horizon, and having traumatic memories of a fight her parents had over her when she was a small child, Daria starts huddling up inside an empty refrigerator box in the Morgendorffer’s yard. A great image, which—if I’m being honest—vividly reminds me of exactly how I felt at that juncture myself.
Of course, she can’t stay in the box forever, so Daria decides to take a drive to visit Tom at his parents’ cottage, but gets in a fender bender on the way. She calls Jane to come comfort her and their relationship (which has been on shaky ground ever since the Tom controversy) is completely healed. Then Daria apologizes to her parents for the attitude she has subjected them to, finally recognizing the effect that her prickliness has on everybody else in her life (that’s a pretty grown-up insight—some people never get that one). (By the way, I once gave my mother a Mother’s Day card that said, “I want to apologize for my behavior during those rough years” and when you open the card it says, “You know, birth to present.”) Of course, Daria’s parents, though occasionally oblivious, are often awesome, and tell her that they knew that when she was being difficult it was just a symptom of her brains and maturity. I know it sounds very, “and everyone learns!” but Daria was pretty perceptive about making these things organic and earned. It was, in fact, a really good show.
Specially inspired moment: In flashback, a psychologist gives child Daria the answer that she will use to fail the inkblot test in the first episode, “Esteemsters” (“a herd of wild ponies running free across the plains”). Talk about going full circle.