From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today’s battle: Liz Shannon Miller judges Joan of Arcadia versus Daria. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.
The fundamental premise of the best high-school shows, the ones that stick with you, is that high school is excruciating. Every kid wants someone with authority to acknowledge that, and what higher authority is there than television? So depicting the high-school experience on television is always fertile ground — whether it be in the form of an animated MTV comedy or an ultraodd CBS family drama.
MTV commissioned Daria — technically a spinoff of Beavis and Butt-head, but really very much its own thing — in 1997. The show’s title character lived under the shadow of idealized adolescence both figuratively and literally, constantly reminded by her ultrapopular sister Quinn that she just didn’t fit in — and profoundly aware of why that was. For many young people who ended up just missing My So-Called Life, the often bleak, melancholy cartoon was the most authentic depiction of high-school life on television in the 1990s. The premise was simple: Daria Morgendorffer went to school, hung out with her best friend Jane, dealt with Quinn and her family to the best of her abilities, and counted down the days until her dry wit and above-average intelligence would help her escape to a better life.
Daria’s isolation from mainstream teen culture gave her a sharp outsider perspective on it, something that came into play often, most explicitly during an episode that deliberately satirized Jane magazine and its founder, Jane Pratt. When the 30-something Val, a “role model … in touch with the teen within” asks Daria to define edgy, Daria’s answer is one of those perfect slams at the way the 1990s prepackaged and commercialized the teenage experience:
“As far as I can make out, edgy occurs when middlebrow, middle-aged profiteers are looking to suck the energy — not to mention the spending money — out of the ‘youth culture.’ So they come up with this fake concept of seeming to be dangerous when every move they make is the result of market research and a corporate master plan.”
While Daria might not have been “edgy,” she still had an anarchic spirit; she and Jane were constantly fighting to find their own voices in the systems they were trapped in.
Of course, Daria was not a show without flaws. Things went off the rails with Tom, a relatively normal, chill guy initially introduced in season three as a love interest for Jane, Daria’s arty best friend, before he and Daria formed a connection. The arrival of Tom was a bit of a land mine; it’s understandable that after a few years the writers wanted to shake things up, but Daria had never before been a love story (beyond Daria’s fruitless crush on Jane’s brother, Trent). By introducing Tom and making him a real source of conflict, Daria got bogged down in the sort of romantic drama it had always skillfully avoided in the past. Plus, while the show treated Daria and Tom getting together in appropriate fashion — as an egregious violation of trust — the damage it did to Daria and Jane’s friendship was excruciating to watch.
In earlier seasons, Jane and Daria had fallings-out, but they were grounded in issues beyond their love lives. The season-two episode “See Jane Run” is a great example: For a number of reasons, Jane joins the track team, and, sure, one of those reasons is a cute boy, but it’s deeper than that, and when Daria feels hurt as a result, her feelings come from her loneliness and isolation.
Yet despite those missteps, Daria still had real power as a series because it never stopped taking its subject matter seriously. That was a trait shared by Joan of Arcadia, which was smart and sweet and frank and intriguing on a level we don’t often see on broadcast television. The CBS family drama had a murderer’s row of talent onboard — Amber Tamblyn! Joe Mantegna! Mary Steenburgen! Jason Ritter! — and a unique premise: A high-school student ends up talking to God (in all His/Her human-looking incarnations) on the regular because God has a plan for her. It’s a bold topic, to be sure — especially since the show’s approach to religion doesn’t exactly line up with fundamentalist Christian philosophy.
Not unlike Daria, Joan represented the sort of teenage girl who defies tropes: not popular, not a brain, not alternative. She was a singular person, beyond stereotypes, which is quite often something television struggles to depict, especially within the structure of an ensemble drama. The show also nailed one of those things that high-school shows don’t always pull off: capturing the fact that the average student has a lot of life to manage. Every week, without fail, Joan and her friends were burdened with homework, jobs, after-school projects, and family commitments; they had hectic schedules that felt very familiar. Maybe we weren’t as busy as we thought we were in our teen years, but during the crunch of finals or the late nights of homework, we all felt overextended in a very real way.
But the problem with Joan of Arcadia was that it had other things on its mind. The first-billed actors on the show were Mantegna and Steenburgen. Both were incredible, and anchored the show’s emotional highs and lows with ease. But it doesn’t often happen that the actor playing the title character is third-billed in the credits. That said, it made sense because Joan really committed to its classification as a family drama, with the occasional departure into (of all things) a police procedural. Not only was 19-year-old Kevin’s paralysis after a car accident a major focus of the series, at times, patriarch Will’s law-enforcement work in Arcadia had equal weight to the work of God that his daughter was doing. While the narratives occasionally intersected, with Joan’s missions having a mild influence on the case of the week, just as often, they didn’t. Instead, you simply watched Mantegna solve crime for a good chunk of the episode. Creator Barbara Hall’s writing was more inspired than whatever’s currently happening on Criminal Minds, but police work wasn’t why we tuned in. The ensemble nature of Joan let the cast shine, and the show had a sense of humor about its high-concept premise, but it was perhaps that scattered focus that caused the series to go from Emmy nominations in its first year to cancellation in its second.
Meanwhile, Daria had the balls to face high-school life dead on — no metaphors, no dodging — and admit that those four years before graduation often just flat-out suck. That meant so goddamn much to those of us who might have originally considered film, television, and books a means of escaping reality, and then discovered something even more profound in them: the sensation of feeling understood. Daria is the girl who keeps being told that things will get better when she’s older. Daria is the girl who is smart enough to know that this is true. And Daria is the girl who knows that this doesn’t make the status quo any better.
Joan of Arcadia was a nice, smart CBS show I enjoyed watching. Daria echoes with me still.
Liz Shannon Miller is TV Editor at Indiewire, and has been writing online about television since the early days of the internet. She can be found on Twitter having semi-regular nervous breakdowns about The X-Files.