Monday, September 3, 2012

MTV's Daria: Its One Great Miss

Since I want this blog to look at media as well as general social issues, it only makes sense that I start with the show that was my passion for the good part of a decade: MTV's Daria.

From the left: Jake, Helen, Quinn, Daria, and Jane
Many are probably already familiar with the show, since Daria was finally released on DVD in May 2010.  In case you are not, though, here is a brief description.  Daria was a half-hour animated series that ran from 1997 to 2002, for a total of 65 episodes and two full-length TV movies.  It was a spinoff of Beavis and Butt-head, another MTV animated show that ran from 1993 to 1997.  The character of Daria was originally created because someone at MTV thought that Beavis and Butt-head could use a smart female character as a foil for the "protagonists."  Around 1995, MTV executives approached Beavis and Butt-head writer Glenn Eichler with the idea of creating a spinoff show for Daria.  That was when MTV executives had a glimmer of intelligence, and MTV programming was actually pretty good.  (Not that it was flawless: already by 1995, The Real World was growing stale and histrionic, a disturbing sign of reality trends to come.) 

Daria was a smart, cynical teenager with a talent for delivering cutting one liners.  In fact, Daria was one of many smart, cynical girls to emerge during the 90's.  Already, the decade had witnessed the rise of Roseanne's Darlene Conner and Wednesday Addams of the Addams Family movies (as well as Christina Ricci in anything, really).  A forgettable 1992 B-movie had even introduced us to Buffy Summers five years before she got her own show.  The "smart, cynical" trend might have begun in the 90's, but contrary to what many might believe, I don't think it ever went away.  The most obvious current example that I can think of is Nostalgia Chick, a latter-day Janeane Garofalo if ever there was one.

So what Daria did wasn't necessarily new, but she did it damn well.  Daria moved her to a new town, Lawndale, and gave her a family to work off of: mother, father, and popular younger sister.  Daria's mother Helen was the breadwinner of the family.  Hard talking and power suited, she was the sort of lawyer I hope to never become, but I do find sort of awesome to watch.  Daria's father Jake... had issues.  I'll just leave it there.  Daria's sister Quinn was her antagonist, in so far as the show had one.  For at least the first three seasons, she was everything that Daria envied and despised: cute, popular, and fearless in social situations.  

Daria also had a new crop of teachers at Lawndale High to hit with her verbal darts.  Sensitive, clueless Language Arts teacher Mr. O'Neill.  Bitter, enraged history teacher, Mr. DeMartino.  Manhating science teacher Ms. Barch.  Tempting targets though they were, they were nothing compared to the students.  There were Kevin and Brittany, the school's quarterback and cheerleader, whose special talent was smiling vacantly.  Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany -- aka the Fashion Club.  Quinn's generic love interests, Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie.  And lots of random backgrounders who tended to just stand around and stare.

Jane Lane was an exception to the rule, so naturally she and Daria quickly became best friends.  Their friendship was one of the best parts of the series and was key to making Daria seem human.  Daria's crush on Jane's brother, Trent, was also the first sign that, despite her best efforts to hide it, Daria was still a teenager and could be ruled by her emotions.  

The thrust of the series was jaded, cynical Daria slowly learning that people weren't one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and that even the stupidest could be perceptive (well, Brittany at least, if not Kevin) and helpful now and then.  Most significantly, Daria reached a peace with Quinn, who became less afraid of using her brain.  Of course it helped that Daria was about to leave for college and she and Quinn would no longer share the same territory.  

I was in college when I first started watching the show.  It was like an elixir for me and my roommate -- oh my God, a show about us!  (The first episode I saw was "The Invitation.")  And even now, Daria is something of a revelation.  While yes, there were other smart, sarcastic girls on TV, they usually had a "cool" element that made them too far removed to be relatable.  As soon as Darlene Conner reached her smartest and most cynical, she left for a prestigious art school and was no longer a regular cast member.  Even if Buffy weren't a vampire slayer, there was something too pretty and blithe and flippant about her for me to believe that she could ever be truly unpopular.  And Wednesday Addams... enough said.

Remove Daria's almost superhuman ability to quip, and she was... kind of dull.  She wore the same styles day in and day out, hated trying new things, and watched a lot of exploitation TV.  Most significantly, despite Daria's constant barbs, she never got into any real trouble.  One of the few exceptions was in Season Two's "Arts N Crass," when she and Jane destroyed their poster.  Yet as Helen pointed out to Ms. Li, they couldn't very well be punished for destroying their own work, which Ms. Li and Mr. O'Neill had stolen.  Daria's utter normality made her relatable in a way that most other quippy heroines were not.

So what is that "one great miss" that I was referring to in the title?  Well, this post is already much longer than I expected, so I'll let you know next time.

The image was taken from Wikipedia and is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  See Wikipedia's explanation for more details.

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