The year was 1997. Hanson’s “MMMBop” was jostling with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” for the top spot on the charts, Bill Clinton’s “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky were still private, and an MTV animated cult hit about two morons in high school called Beavis and Butthead was wrapping up its controversial four-year run.
Beavis and Butthead’s cultural contributions to the world are significant but are, alas, another story for another time. This is about a minor character introduced early in the show’s run named Daria Morgendorffer, a brainy, fashion-challenged, free-thinking foil to the mindless inanity of the show’s titular duo who spawned her own series when the original ended.
Daria ran for five seasons and two movies. After a nearly decade-long wait and an online petition signed by more than 30,000 rabid fans, Daria: The Complete Animated Series is finally available on DVD.
The show debuted in 1997 and quickly picked up a cult following. The show portrayed the pettiness of suburban high school drama with biting satirical force, with Daria serving as the lone beacon of sanity in the whirlpool of empty drama swirling around her.
I might have been the only member of the 12- to 17-year-old male demographic who liked Daria (“Seriously? Dude, Beavis and Butthead was so much better,” a friend said judgmentally when I mentioned the DVDs), and when I heard the show was coming to DVD, I began to wonder if the show had kept its edge after almost a decade off the air.
The characters are basically typecast stereotypes, but they haven’t lost their relevancy. Daria’s father is a neurotic mess who can’t get past his torrid relationship with his own late father, her mother is a high-powered lawyer addicted to her job and juggling personal and professional responsibilities, and her younger sister Quinn is everything Daria’s not — fashion-obsessed, popular and vapid.
Her parents mean well, but they just don’t get their daughter. There’s a moment in Season 3 where she’s sitting at the table with her parents, who are trying their best to connect with their daughter. Feeling the conversation starting to wither away, Daria’s father asks her if she has read anything interesting in the newspaper recently.
“Hmm,” Daria replies dryly. “I did see an article by an efficiency expert who claims one really intense conversation with your child over breakfast is worth a whole week of unfocused parenting. Did you catch that article?”
The characters at Daria’s school are even more entertaining. There’s the self-promoting principal, the pitifully emasculated new-age teacher of the self-esteem class, the dumb jock, the brainless cheerleader, the man-hating feminist, and the elite, pretty and highly sought-after members of the fashion club.
It would be tempting to label Daria as another entry in the two-tiered, jocks-vs.-nerds culture war that characterizes American high school in popular culture. But the popular kids are not the enemy on Daria; they are the butt of the joke. Daria and her best friend Jane constantly mock them, and for good reason, since the show portrays them as exceedingly shallow and superficial.
But if that was it, the show wouldn’t have aged well. The show made a point of slowly introducing depth to the stereotypical characters it loved to mock. Daria eventually steals her best friend’s boyfriend, the black (and popular) valedictorian Jodie struggles with telling her parents she’d rather attend a black college instead of a white-bread elitist one, and the star quarterback hides his shame at having failed his senior year and being unable to graduate with his girlfriend.
The result is fascinating. There are very few shows that idolize nonconformity with such tact as Daria. But it’s the honesty with which the show deals with its characters that I think is mainly why the show remains so popular. It is more than the jock-nerd binary that ’80s flicks were so fond of; the show gave dimension to even the conformists it had so much fun lampooning. And it idolized a protagonist that dared to go against the grain and be herself, not the person her parents and her school wanted her to be.
A final note: A discussion of music is in order.
Like Beavis and Butthead before it, Daria’s soundtrack famously featured then-popular songs playing on the radio, at parties, on television, etc. But buying licensing rights for all the songs used in the original series would have made the transfer to DVD impossible, claims series creator Glenn Eichler. Good riddance, I say. As much as hearing “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” at a cartoon party might have transported me back to 1998, I didn’t really notice its absence. The generic replacement music didn’t distract from the show’s themes.
Authentic, no, but still a worthwhile buy, sure.