Tag Archives: Aughts TV revisited

Daria, Sometimes it’s Hard to Believe You’re in High School

From its inception, MTV has been an alluring mix of substance and vapidity. Part of its genius throughout the ’80s and ’90s was that it could appeal to the cool kids while still attracting the attention of the sheeplike masses: those content to turn sleepy eye on cheesecake bikinifest The Grind, chuckle at Bill Bellemy’s beach house hijinks,  and even occasionally share the fidgety, unhinged enthusiasm of TRL’s spastic adolescents. Hard to remember though it may be, MTV used to be a channel that showed music videos (substantial and vapid), reality shows, and some surprisingly unique comedy. The State, Beavis and Butthead, Buzzkill, Daria and various shorts like Donal Logue’s “Jimmy the Cab Driver” series are all evidence of the off-kilter sense of humor MTV once had. Even between-show promos were an outlet for little-known artists and animators who wished to work their magic on that morphing MTV logo. As we all know, in the aughts and beyond, MTV has departed from their musical roots in favor of “reality” programming like Laguna Beach, The Hills, 16 & Pregnant, Made, True Life, etc. etc. They’ve abandoned attempts at comedy (for the most part), as well as programming focusing on anything 0utside-the-mainstream (such as the long-cancelled 120 Minutes). I think it’s safe to say that MTV no longer saw the point in including the cool kids when the popular kids were making them rich.

When I heard that MTV was finally releasing Daria on DVD after eight years off the air, I was so excited that I pre-ordered the set two months in advance. Since Daria graduated high school a year after I did (with the so-so final movie Is It College Yet?), I’ve only been able to revisit the show via the occasional late-night rerun on The N or hopelessly truncated snippets on youtube. But seeing the fervor with which the DVD set is being received, I’ve realized that the far from forgotten series may get its due after all. Daria was one of the best television shows of the 90s, and certainly one of the all-time top female protagonists on the small screen.

Daria premiered in early 1997, when I was inching through my final semester of junior high school. I don’t remember when I first saw it; I watched so much television in those days that it was a rare cancelled pilot or midseason replacement I didn’t catch on its original airing. I may have been initially turned off by the animation, but as it’s prone to do, MTV aired the reruns nonstop until my defenses wore down. Daria couldn’t have coincided more perfectly with my adolescent development, as 1997 was my year of Catcher in the Rye-obsessed, poetry-writing, headphones-wearing misanthropy. Finishing 8th grade was a relief; entering high school was a disappointment, and the next four years were a boring slog toward the future. Though I was never able to be as detached, sarcastic, smart, and sharp-witted as Daria, the show was a great respite from everything at that age that says “Join! Join! Join!” Daria was not interested in fitting in, or joining things, or even having plans for Friday night. It sent the message that we didn’t need to keep straining for and being rejected from the things we didn’t even really want. We could, like Bartleby, simply prefer not to.

Daria wouldn’t have worked very well, of course, if it has just been about one teenage girl and her disdain for the world. Her one good friend, Jane Lane, was a slightly more adventurous, less churlish misfit. (Once a high school classmate told me I reminded him of “Jane from Daria,” and I was so flattered I could have hugged him.) Rather than riding around with boys and a gaggle of friends after school, Daria and Jane usually end up in Jane’s room, Jane painting as Daria flips through a book. This always struck me as a surprisingly realistic depiction of what many high school kids do. Most episodes focus on the banal: a trip to the mall, avoiding parents’ friends, a particular field trip or class assignment. Jane and Daria, similar to Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World, tend to drift around not doing much of anything besides mocking Daria’s sister, Quinn, and her fashion club acolytes.

The “popular” kids on Daria are stereotypes, of course, but they have many sharply observed moments. Daria’s sister Quinn is a shallow, preening, pain-in-the-ass, but she often reveals how her insecurities lead her to behave the way she does. More often than the teenage characters, adults and the school system are implicated in the creation of monsters like Quinn. Daria is  not afraid to present Daria and Jane as its main protagonists, leaving the in crowd in the lurch. On a related note, I keenly remember one day in the gym locker room at school hearing one of the most popular girls mention watching Daria the previous night. This notion left me perplexed for the rest of the day. What would Daria have to offer her? Couldn’t she see that it was mocking her lifestyle and everything she stood for? The only conclusion I can draw is that Daria makes being a misfit so cool that everyone, even the most popular girl at school, wants to be like her.

"The Road Worrier"

My personal favorite storylines always involved Trent, Jane’s slacker-musician brother with his smoker’s cough, whispering voice and affable demeanor. He is, of course, the kind of guy that sets the hearts of artsy, bookish girls aflame, and Daria is no exception. Daria’s dealings with Trent are some of my favorite moments in the series, because she reacts to him the way I always reacted to any boy I was even remotely interested in during high school. Blush, clam up, occasionally flee. In the episode “The Road Worrier,” Jane does her best to snap Daria out of it. While Trent and his bandmate wax poetic about success, she urges, “Say it, Daria. Whatever you’re thinking, just say it. They’ll go on like this forever.” Of course, as Daria eventually lets her guard down, she finds that saying what’s on her mind works much better than keeping quiet, and Trent observes “You know, Daria, sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re in high school.”

Much like Daria, as high school went on I began to enjoy being myself more, hanging out with my one or two close friends on the fringes of high school life, sitting home Saturday nights reading and listening to Bob Dylan. I found a few like-minded people to be sarcastic with, and managed to scrape by until graduation. The later seasons of Daria were not as magical to me, but they remained realistic and true to the characters. The episodes that remain the hardest to watch center on the love triangle between Jane, her prep school boyfriend Tom, and Daria, who eventually steals him from Jane. Jane and Tom getting together in the first place was disappointing in the same way as when a real-life best friend gets a boyfriend; we felt we were losing her, and that somehow this bond between Daria and Jane would be interrupted. And of course, it was. Jane and Daria made up, but they were never as close. Despite being cartoon characters, their friendship was more real to me than almost anything I’ve seen on TV.

I imagine that through hype, older siblings and such, younger audiences will be discovering Daria on DVD. It holds up remarkably well, and remains full of some of the sharpest observations out there on high school and female friendship. Without Daria, my teenage years would have been a little bit lonelier. Here’s to all the brains and weird girls.

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Aughts TV Revisited: The Magic of “The Office”

I must admit, the beginning of the aughts did not set my expectations high for television in the new millenium. Reality shows were in full controversial flux, with the likes of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Joe Millionaire making headlines for bringing out the worst in people. There was the influx of boring game shows with Matrix-like sets (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link), the growth of procedural dramas, and the quite decline of my favorite genre, the sitcom. The nineties seemed impossible to top, having given us the greatness of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons at its best. The networks tried to hang onto the genre with flat family centered fare like Yes, Dear and According to Jim. But in 2001, a BBC show called The Office came along that reinvented the sitcom and made the aughts bearable long after its short run. Its American version, along with newer hits Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Arrested Development owe it a debt in terms of style and subtlety. The Office‘s influence is more potent than ever six years after its series finale.

With the American Office currently surfing that same tide that compelled Fonzie to jump the shark, it becomes clear that one of the smartest decisions Gervais and Merchant made with the original was letting it go in its prime. Part of this was due to early struggles with ratings, but on American television it is unheard of for a show to complete two seasons and two specials, achieve massive international success and acclaim, and then go quietly into the night. This decision leaves the show fresh in our minds and joyfully re-watchable; it hangs together like a film, and its seriality is emphasized and clear. No plot becomes unwieldy or far-fetched as so many sitcom plots do. The first season is more lighthearted and comedic, with the second season twisting into drama and bringing us to an almost gut-wrenching low point in the first Christmas special.

What remains most influential about The Office as a sitcom is its documentary-style set up, with cameras catching what appear to be offhand exchanges and conducting confessional-style interviews with characters. The dialogue is tightly scripted, and it’s a tribute to great writing and acting that it appears so off-the-cuff.  It is through this innocuous lens that we meet David Brent, Gervais’s self-absorbed boss who tells juvenile jokes and talks in circles about his life and management philosophies (he’d like to be remembered as “the man who put a smile on the face of all who he met”). But he’s so much more than that. His childish jealousy and insecurity lead to a number of the show’s best moments (a singalong of his band, Foregone Conclusion’s, repertoire; a dance-off with Swindon boss Neil), and his personal experiences later in the series are the most affecting. We also have Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a character who is at once a serious know-it-all and a childish naif; Tim (Martin Freeman), a witty average joe who still, at the age of 30, sleeps in his childhood bedroom and has no idea what to do with his life;  and Dawn (Lucy Davis), a bored receptionist set to marry a creep who won’t let her pursue her dream of being an artist.

We grow to love these characters despite the obvious flaws and poor decision-making of each, and in addition to laughing at and with them, we also feel wounded with Tim when he’s bullied by Chris Finch, trapped with Dawn when she moves to Florida with Lee, and rejected with David when he loses his job at Wernam-Hogg. We’ve all spent time in a place like Slough, less a town and more of a state of mind: bleak, confining, routine. The Office Christmas specials were the most impressive of the series because they weren’t afraid to dwell, to an uncomfortable extent, on the dark undertones of the show. The point of the Office, is seems to me, was to focus on the ways in which people get trapped in jobs and life, and how we cope with this by scaling our fantasies down and attempting to act them out within these confines. We see this in the way David slumps in his hotel after a degrading promotional appearance, and in the way Tim accepts David’s old position and begins adopting his own Brent-ish management speak.

The end of the series is, of course, some of the most satisfying television ever created (from Tim’s illustrated note to Dawn, “Never give up,” to David’s long-awaited dressing-down of Chris Finch). The characters seem to finally have what they need to move forward in life. The series doesn’t push it, however, so once the euphoria wears off we won’t be stuck seeing the characters’ lives falter once again. What makes The Office so special, I think, is something its imitators can’t get a handle on: dynamics. Like great composers, Gervais and Merchant attuned the audience to subtle shifts in mood. They brought us down and back up again, the whole time laughing, squirming, and feeling.

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