Creators: Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis
Series Run: 1997-2002
Review by: Shane Roberts
Not everything that came out of the 90’s was bad, just the vast majority of it. Between MTV polluting the radio with boy bands and rap music and beating intelligence to a pulp with reality TV, there was a little show called Daria that didn’t just say it was ok not to be popular, it showed it. It was a show that lampooned the very culture MTV was creating, and a show about caricatures that invented a new type of person to caricature.
Like Hank Hill from King of the Hill, the titular Daria began life as a character on Mike Judge’s animated series Beavis and Butt-Head. Daria Morgendorffer (voiced by Tracy Grandstaff) was a classmate of the two boys, and the Daria spin-off opens with Daria and her sister Quinn (voiced by Wendy Hoopes, who also voices Daria’s best friend Jane and her mother Helen) moving from the Highland setting of Beavis and Butt-Head to Lawndale, and then never mentioning the Mike Judge show again. Daria ran for five seasons of around fourteen 22-minute episodes each, along with two hour-long made for TV movies, and an unaired 5-minute pilot. Mike Judge had no hand whatsoever in the Daria spin-off, except to give permission to use the character.
Daria chronicles Daria Morgendorffer’s experiences as a student of Lawndale high from the day she and her family move to the new city and she begins high school until the arrival of her college acceptance letters. The five seasons feel like four years of high school, with the two movies taking place during the summers following her 11th and 12th grade years. Beyond dealing with the typical wheelhouse of issues that teen shows deal with like romance, popularity, friendship, family, and so on, Daria tackles subjects such as racism, sexism, corporate America, psychology, socioeconomic status, and art. At first blush the show sounds, feels, and looks like one long sarcastic jab, but you’ll quickly find that the social and media commentary are very insightful more than a decade later, the caricatures are never as simple as they seem, and the dialogue is Mamet meets MTV.
Similar to Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years, Daria acts as both protagonist and narrator, except unlike Kevin, Daria not only does it in real time but usually out loud, and frequently by using her best friend Jane Lane as a sounding board. While Daria does have romantic situations during the show, Jane is her primary partner, and their relationship is one of the main focal points in the show, the other being Daria’s relationship with her sister Quinn. If Daria is the speaker then Quinn is the subject. Quinn is the most conflicted, and thus the most interesting character in the show. Being the most attractive girl at Lawndale High and Vice President of the Fashion Club, she spends most of her time either pretending to be dumber than she is to blend in with the popular crowd, or making up false reasons about why Daria lives with her, instead of admitting to the two of them being sisters.
There’s a huge cast of characters here, the high school feels real and complete with all types of students represented: the ditzy cheerleader, the ditzier quarterback, the overachieving African American girl, the creep A/V guy, and the teachers and staff as well: the sensitive male writing teaching, the angry coach turned history teacher, the Hitler-esque principal. Even the parents of most of the more peripheral students make an appearance at some point, and there are also ambient characters from the city a la The Simpsons that make recurring cameos. The best things about Daria are the surprising secrets you find out about each character when they get an episode more or less focused on them. The quiet girl in the fashion club is really a closet lesbian, and the ditzy cheerleader that’s dating the quarterback dyes her hair black and moonlights as an alternative girl at various underground rock venues to see how the other half lives.
The art in Daria has become iconic. The animation was amazing for the time, and is timeless enough to hold up extremely well today. Unlike pretty much every live teen drama from the past twenty years, you won’t have any trouble telling the characters apart here, and all of them are drawn and written with care and love, as every character should be. Some characters get a wardrobe change starting in season 4, and the whole show gets a slightly darker, inkier look, which is very subtle but still does a nice job of making everyone seem older and conveying the passage of time. Again, like The Wonder Years, there’s a ton of licensed music in this show, which is no surprise, considering MTV’s obvious connections, especially in the 90’s. Each episode features around three riffs from various top 40 hits of the time, with the end credits featuring a much more substantial portion of a select hit song, lyrics included. And while you’ve hopefully forgotten that Macy Gray and Sisqo even exist, a few infamous Blink-182 guitar riffs or Eminem verses will definitely take you back to what was a simpler, albeit much less intelligent time in your life. But when the show was current, the music selection was hyper-current, and it made it feel even more connected and relevant to its MTV-bred audience.
One of Daria’s biggest draws is the versatility of its viewing experience. You can marathon it over the course of a week, or catch an episode here and there for months or years. Back when I had cable, the show was basically on 24/7 if you were willing to search the channels for it, frequently being given marathon sessions on the b-stations. Like its brother spin-off King of the Hill, you will miss very little watching the show out of order. The vast majority of the plots are self-contained, and there are no cliffhanger episodes. The two movies feel like satisfying extensions of the show, earning the right to have triple-length story lines compared to the regular episodes. The second movie Is It College Yet? in particular, feels like the perfect send off for the show, a love letter to fans in the same vein as Firefly’s Serenity.
Like anything, Daria has its ups and downs. The show does an incredible job of establishing its world, characters, and rules, so it’s usually when the show switches to a fantastic, magical, or trippy scenario that the show stumbles the most. One episode in particular, where Daria experiences personifications of various major holidays like Christmas and Halloween is probably the lowest point. At the other extreme, it’s when Daria’s criticism of current themes becomes entwined fully with the show’s world that Daria shines brightest. Particularly memorable episodes include a scathing critique of Jane Pratt of Jane magazine fame as she shadows Daria for a day at school, and Daria standing up against the school system selling its soul to get money from a soda corporation.
If you like coming of age shows, teen dramas, the 90’s, animated shows, or just deadpan humor, you’ll love Daria. It’s a great distraction or a great obsession, depending on how deep you want to dive. Daria does more than bring a Wonder Years style show to an unculture-shocked audience, it invents a completely original main character, and it’s hard to think of anything else that’s done that in the past 20 years.
Rating: 5 out of 5