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.
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.