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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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‘Parks and Recreation’ and the Struggle of the Sitcom

Parks and Recreation

Today, I read that one of my favorite shows, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, is struggling so much in the ratings that they have enlisted the wooden, blank-eyed talents of pretty boy Rob Lowe to help attract female viewers. This is a show with a strong female cast which already has (for my money) and resident ladykiller in southern charmer Paul Schnieder. How could this be? I asked myself, but the answer was already clear: nobody watches sitcoms anymore.

This led me to check out the Nielson ratings for the first time since TV Guide was novel-sized, and boy, how things have changed. I remember way back when NBC was on top, and CBS was famous for old people programming like The Cosby Mysteries and Touched by an Angel. Now CBS is the number one network, riding high on programming about crime scene investigators, Naval investigators, investigators in Los Angeles, and psychic investigators, a decade-old reality game show, and a newsmagzine prominently featuring eightysomething anchors struggling to understand contemporary phenomena.  All of which constitutes, well, old people programming. CBS, not one to change horses midstream, has simply plowed ahead, operating under the assumption that aging boomers, the first television generation, would be their best bet. Leave those elusive big-spending youngsters to their Mad Men.

The most noticeable shift over the past fifteen years (using my TV Guide-reading timeline) has been the demise of the sitcom. This was where NBC flourished with their “Must-See TV” formula, a genius plan to dump terrible shows (The Single Guy, Veronica’s Closet, Jesse, Caroline in the City, and a host of short-lived failures) between shows like Seinfeld and Friends, as a way of duping those too lazy to change the channel. Charting the death of the sitcom is not new territory; well all know that reality TV is cheaper, crime shows have a higher success rate, and spin-offs are cowardly but a good bet (see the multitudes of CSIs and NCISs, as well as the putrid dramedy Private Practice). As I wrote in an earlier post on Television, Flow, & Liveness, both reality TV and serial drama create more urgency than sitcoms: American Idol and Lost need to be watched live if an audience member wants to experience all aspects of the show (and watercooler conversation counts). We have no need to watch sitcoms live; in fact, syndication has turned sitcoms into more of an anytime treat–Frasier with breakfast, Seinfeld before bed. Why should we be expected to get all excited about a prime time lineup of sitcoms? We’ll watch the American Idol  results because we need to see it now, and catch up on comedy during a Saturday morning hangover.

Sara Gilbert and Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory

Two sitcoms have found their way around this conundrum by adhering to the CBS philosophy of not changing a damn thing. Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, like ABC’s According to Jim before them, simply ignore the fact that television culture has changed since the 90s, and therefore cater to an audience that either doesn’t know things have changed, or wishes they hadn’t. Static camera, laugh track, wacky neighbors, funny theme song, check. Say what you will about these programs, but on the rare occasions I have tuned in, I was surprised by the comfort I felt settling into that old formula (not to mention indulging my love for nerd-heroes Jon Cryer and Johnny Galecki). The Big Bang Theory doesn’t want us to forget that Johnny Galecki was on Roseanne, but rather takes pains to remind us, featuring guest stars like Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf. You see? It seems to be saying, Things haven’t really changed. The Big Bang Theory wants audiences to be able to draw a straight line back to Roseanne, past The Simpsons, through Laverne and Shirley until we get back to square one. Next stop, golden age.

The ratings problems encountered by a great sitcom like Parks and Recreation can be traced to the lack of a direct link to the comforting golden age sitcom. It’s aligned itself closely with The Office, when really it’s more about character development and relationships than quirky discomfort. While I don’t think Parks and Rec should be turned into a Two and a Half Men clone, the position it and many shows find themselves in demonstrates that the sitcom is at a crossroads. It can be our cozy companion in childhood reminscence, or it can develop and establish itself as something new. Whatever happens, I just hope this beloved format can fight the crime show wave to the other side of 2010.

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Why Does Everyone Hate ‘The Marriage Ref’?

Ever since its premiere following the Olympics closing ceremony, critics have been shitting all over The Marriage Ref, NBC’s new Jerry Seinfeld-produced game show which features celebrities helping real life couples resolve marriage disputes. Entertainment Weekly called it “tedious” and Time‘s James Poniewozik used words like “corny,” “low-rent,” and “god-awful.” Even Ricky Gervais, appearing on the program alongside Larry David and Madonna (an intriguing lineup if ever there was one) exclaimed early on, “What is going on? This is a strange program. I feel like someone’s put crack in my drink. What is going on? This is the weirdest show I’ve ever been on. It’s already weird. It’s weird that I’m here with you two. I don’t know what they’re doing up there.” After watching two episodes, I’m not convinced it’s hopeless, and with some changes it could become a hit. Who doesn’t want to see famous and entertaining people sitting around making jokes with one another ? The View, after all is wildly popular, and the women featured on that show are not terribly funny or really famous for anything else (Whoopi aside).

Unfotunately, Poniewozik and Gervais are right: The Marriage Ref is corny, and uncomfortable and off-kilter. Seinfeld’s goal was apparently to harken back to the game shows of the 1960s, which often featured celebrities cracking jokes and bantering with one another. Perhaps it’s that dusty retro feel that makes The Marriage Ref so strange: TV has changed, and this kind of old-fashioned set up can at times come across as more strained than Cosmo Kramer’s dumpster-salvaged, imaginary Merv Griffin Show. The idea itself is not a bad one. Seinfeld has oodles of famous friends, and seeing them onscreen together week after week is a delight. And one can’t just put a bunch of celebrities on TV; they need something to talk about. The couples featured are wacky and familiar, though the presentation of the couple segments is perhaps edging scarily close to America’s Funniest Home Videos-style sound effects and Bob Saget voices. (Maybe it’s the jaunty background music? What is it, exactly?) This is where the corny comes in. Nothing on The Marriage Ref is untouched or left to stand on its own. Everything is fussed with and tortured, in what is indeed a very retro way, making it all feel hammy-awards-show-funny instead of prime time comedy funny.

The laughter is a big problem. Tom Papa may indeed be a funny comedian, but his monologue is stuffed with so much raucous, canned-sounding laughter that it’s impossible to appreciate his wit. There’s allegedly a studio audience, but one that I imagine is strapped to their chairs, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to laugh loudly at that ever-illuminating laughter sign. This is a mostly improvised comedy program. I understand that not every gem from the mouths of these famous funnypeople will have a crackerjack punchline. Some of it may be lame, some serious, some deeply unsettling. But what’s even more unsettling, in a David Lynch’s “Rabbits” sort of way? When the audience laughs uproariously at things that aren’t even really jokes. It’s creepy. And corny. And tedious.

Another misstep that has been pointed out by many critics is the presence of poor NBC newswoman Natalie Morales, who must have drawn the short straw somewhere along the line. Smiling uncomfortably and perched on a chair, she does “research” on her little computer and pipes up with banal statistics that she seems to realize we could have easily looked up ourselves if we really cared. This is another retro touch that, as much as Seinfeld may want it to, simply doesn’t work in the age of Wikipedia. Statistics are not hard to find, and this exercise backfires by leaving the guests of honor figeting uncomfortably in silence.

So what’s the point of my analysis? I’m just being hard on Jerry like all of these other critics, never forgiving him for leaving us to wallow in syndication after nine iconic Seinfeld seasons. I believe it’s true that Seinfeld’s involvement has made critics hate the show even more. What betrayal! What bitter disappointment! Our golden boy, our baby blue! But all is not lost. The Marriage Ref can be saved. There is a lot of tweaking that needs to be done. But the idea of three mismatched celebrities actually hanging out and talking to each other, instead of some neutral talk show host, is too exciting to pass up.

It actually reminds me of that other show about a bunch of famous people getting together, joking and arguing about stuff: Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. Jerry Seinfeld was actually featured on the very first episode of that program, which entertainingly combined politics, comedy, and the spectacle of dumb people arguing. Sadly, the show was cancelled amidst Mahr’s (ridiculously overblown) comments regarding the September 11th attacks, in what would be a death-knell for open political discussion on network television. I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate the show until the end of its run, but I think it’s something that The Marriage Ref could look to for guidance. Of course, I’m aware that TMR isn’t at all political, and is supposed to be goofy and lighthearted. But why is it so nervous? One of Mahr’s best qualities and a host (and occasional pundit) is his laid-back nature and sense of reason. TMR comes across as nervous and high-strung as George Costanza during a massage. It needs to let its guests relax, and breathe, and banter like they’ve all been trained to do by publicists and comedy club one-night-stands. It needs to present its likable couples as they are, and trust the audience to acknowledge their quirks for themselves. To answer my question, people hate The Marriage Ref because it tries too hard. Jerry, of all people, should know enough to just relax. He’s even Steven, after all. Things will work out for him.

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