It’s Time to Rediscover ‘Daria’

A couple years ago, I bought a Jane Lane T-shirt. If you don’t know who that is, you may recognize a picture of her. And I say that because every time I’ve gone out wearing the shirt, it’s rare I haven’t gotten a “Hey, nice shirt” (usually from twentysomething women with dyed hair), or at the very least a “That’s, uh…that’s Daria, right?” But that’s sort of how it goes with Daria, the series, in general. Over a decade out from its finale, it remains a recognizable pop culture reference point, popping up randomly in strange places, like that time when Katy Perry dressed up as Jane for Halloween, or when CollegeHumor made that Aubrey Plaza-starring, live-action Daria trailer a couple years ago.

Yet, at the same time, it’s a rather under-watched and under-discussed series today, this despite its entire run being available for streaming (well, except for the two hour-long movies that bookend its final season) on Hulu Plus. I only know a handful of people who’ve seen more than a few episodes, and I rarely read anything new about it, even in an era where retrospective articles (like this) are more and more common. So with Broad City returning for its second season last week, I thought it’d be a good time to look back at Daria, another comedy with a refreshingly different female friendship at its center, albeit one that’s vastly different and about as misunderstood as its title character.

To start with the basics, Daria ran on MTV for five seasons from 1998 to 2002, developed by two Beavis & Butthead staffers, Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, who decided to spin off the character of Daria Morgendorffer and follow her and her family’s life after she moved and transferred schools. More generally, if you ask anyone for a summary of the series, the most likely answer you’ll get is something like, “It’s about a sarcastic high school girl who speaks in a really monotone voice and hates everyone.” And that’s true. But that’s also a very limited definition.

It makes sense why the show’s remembered that way, though. After all, her cynicism is what most often draws people to the show to begin with, something that’s endured on the internet via one of its favorite pastimes: making GIFs and image macros for Tumblr. Unfortunately, if you aren’t familiar with the show, those broadly bitter quotes people tend to share probably just makes Daria seem like a hipper take on Garfield.

In actuality, Daria is a frequently whip-smart, laugh-out-loud satire that isn’t simply content with ripping into high school and youth culture, but also sets out to tackle issues of status and class hierarchies. That it does this via surprisingly well-developed characters that evolve in subtle but tangible ways as they age is what makes it remarkable and distinctive.

That’s something pretty difficult to see from dropping in only for an episode or two, to be sure. Story arcs rarely carry over from episode to episode but character dynamics and relationships don’t exist in a stasis. It isn’t always taken for granted that everything will return to the status quo by the episode’s end like in, say, The Simpsons. Early on in the series, for example, Daria is the voice of the audience, as we identify with her every quippy kiss-off. But as the seasons progress, the show becomes more critical of Daria’s cynicism, and she learns to come to terms with how her attitude can be close-minded and self-defeating. In fact, because of this, it’s a show that actually benefits from binge-watching. The sum is truly greater than its parts.

Of course, I can’t really discuss Daria without noting that it’s one of the few major adult-oriented animated series driven by women. In fact, competent, fully functioning men are few and far between in the series’ world, always well-intentioned doofuses, amiable slackers or temperamental rageaholics. Really, only Tom Sloane, Jane and then Daria’s long-term boyfriend, registers as the sole consistently reasonable male presence on the show, and he’s easily the least-remembered major character. (Though that’s fairly easy to see why – his character is, basically, ‘what if Daria was wealthier and boring?’ And that’s coming from someone who likes him.)

Daria doesn’t always (or even usually) take a purely activist bent, but its feminism is an implicit constant: There are episodes that deal with topics like body image, sure, yet it’s more likely to show women just being strong, intelligent and complex, shaping their own identities and pursuing their own interests without making a big show of it. Daria and Jane are unique, beloved characters for their deadpan wit and attitude, yeah, but also because they’re given free range to comment on anything and everything, more freedom, sadly, than many current female characters are afforded. And even Daria’s little sister, Quinn, written out as vapid, insensitive and the butt of many a joke, becomes more responsible, independent and self-assured as the series draws to a close, even admitting, if just once, that Daria is actually related to her.

While much of that rests in the background, though, the series’ biggest preoccupation is perhaps with social class. A lot of sitcoms, from Friends to Modern Family, present massive NYC apartments and tastefully appointed suburban mansions as if that’s the norm. Daria, on the other hand, makes much of the fact that its characters are meant to be rich. Just about every single character on the show is upper-middle class or wealthier, with the parents overworked and sometimes neglectful of their children, and the children spoiled and unsatisfied. Over and over again, the series visits snooty private schools and universities filled with patronizing and privileged students and faculty that consistently equate their status with success and happiness. Daria and Jane call out a lot of these people to deflate their importance, but as wise as they can be, they’re still high schoolers oblivious to a world outside their bubble.

That’s when the show’s needling of Daria’s cynicism comes in to play. In Season 5’s “Prize Fighters,” for instance, Daria’s more or less scoffs at her mother’s idea of applying to scholarships on the basis that the application and interview process is beneath her. To an extent, she’s right; the whole process has little to do with her academic merit and far more to do with empty platitudes and pretending to be someone she’s not. But forcing her parents to pay thousands extra (a sum she knows they can afford) because she doesn’t want to apply is impractical and selfish. Daria prizes her integrity and calls out others who don’t, but while it’s an admirable stance, it’s also one largely borne out of a privileged upbringing, of never having to worry about a situation that would cause you to need to compromise your beliefs, even temporarily, and the show knows that and fingers her to blame.

That preoccupation with class dovetails with its occasional forays into race, embodied by the struggles of Mack and Jodie, Lawndale High School’s token black students who call out their tokenism regularly. Jodie, particularly – valedictorian, president of every club, pretty, popular – feels she has to be everything to everyone and eventually confides in Daria about the pressure she faces to represent her race to the student body. It’s a pressure that runs so deep that she eventually decides to attend an HBCU after graduation against her parents’ wishes, before transferring to a predominately white Ivy League, just to have a temporary reprieve from her self-consciousness. These are moments that give pause – potent asides from a major supporting character who feels marginalized among her community and among her friends. And, more importantly, it draws some of Daria and Jane’s complaints into sharp relief.

Admittedly, some topics like that are only broached head-on occasionally, sprinkled in a handful of episodes throughout the series, yet the fact that it considers these types of knotty subjects at all sets the series apart from most teen shows at the time – and even now – let alone an animated one.

Now, if you haven’t seen the show before, I probably just made it sound horribly boring and serious. That really couldn’t be further from the truth. Daria’s a comedy first – a show with someone like this as a major character couldn’t really be anything else – and it does an expert job of squirreling away all the themes I mentioned inside some great jokes.

Since the show went off the air, there really hasn’t been too much like it. Considering MTV, and most other cable channels, turned to reality and unscripted TV in the decade following Daria, there aren’t too many obvious descendants of the show on its home channel, but its legacy can be felt here and there elsewhere on television. Daria, especially, became the archetype for a sarcastic, disaffected character, and virtually every show with a snarky young woman gets the comparison eventually. (There’s a reason Aubrey Plaza was chosen for that CollegeHumor sketch: her work on Parks and Recreation as April immediately invited infinite references to Ms. Morgendorffer, be they apt or not.) Then there’s the case of Daria’s co-creator and showrunner Glenn Eichler, who later utilized his gifts for slyly mixing character-based humor and social satire as a writer for The Colbert Report.

Granted, Daria is not a perfect show, but it’s an awfully good one, one that deserves to be revisited or discovered for the first time. And with streaming and DVD options available (something that took years to happen, by the way, because of music licensing issues), it’s easier than ever for a whole new generation to be turned on to a certain caustic high schooler. Sometimes they just need some reminding that she’s out there.

Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and sketch comedy guy. He recently started linking to his Twitter out of compulsive need.

It’s Time to Rediscover ‘Daria’