Today’s post is from a guest writer! Tom Schneider is a friend of mine. He got a 1600 on his SATs, back when that meant two perfect scores instead of three mediocre scores, and he has interesting thoughts about things sometimes. Sometimes, he will share those thoughts here. If you crave more T-Schneid, follow him on Twitter:@RealCynicalJerk.
So. I’m going to be writing a series of recaps of the complete series of Daria, the animated MTV show from the tail end of the 20th century. For many of you, no explanation of this fact is needed. In fact, for Daria fans, the only thing that needs explaining is why nobody has done this sort of thing before. But for any readers who do not already recognize the brilliance of Daria, perhaps a word of explanation is needed as to why these posts are worth your time.
Simply put: it is my belief that Daria is the greatest animated series of all time. Full stop. Now, this is partly a matter of definition. I would probably agree that, say, seasons 4-8 of The Simpsons are better than the 5 seasons of Daria. But taken as a whole, all seasons included, and in particular with regard to serialization and depth of character, Daria stands alone. And it is my aim in this series to win over the skeptics, educate the unaware, vindicate the believers, and ultimately do my small part to help prevent this magnificent achievement from sinking into undeserved obscurity.
These posts, in length and aim, are more-or-less modeled after the AV Club style of television recapping (despite my abiding dislike of Todd VanDerWerff). That said, in order to keep my ramblings in some kind of shape, I’m limiting myself to the format seen in this and all subsequent posts. This section is intended for a straightforward recap of the events in the episode(s) being covered. As this is just an introductory post, I considered sketching out the overall story of the show from start to finish. But that would be spoiler-y, and while I’m not going to worry too much about spoiling a show that’s been off the air for over a decade, there are a few developments in later seasons that are worth seeing fresh, if at all possible.
So, what I’ll do instead is sketch out the basic setup of the show. If you’ve seen more than a few episodes of the show, you already know all this, and can skip to section 3., but I’d like to get the characters introduced now, so when I get to the actual episodes I can just say, i.e., “Jake,” rather than “Jake (Daria’s father).” Without further ado:
Daria takes place in the fictional town of Lawndale, an upper-class suburb. The show centers around the Morgendorffers: Helen and Jake, their older daughter Daria, and their younger daughter Quinn. Daria is a stereotypical 90s character: sarcastic, intelligent but unambitious, cynical, misunderstood. Quinn is bubbly and popular, and spends all her time thinking about fashion and boys. Helen is a workaholic lawyer, who tries to drive her kids hard but is too busy driving herself even harder. Jake is a self-employed “consultant,” and not a very successful one, haunted by memories of a brutal childhood.
Jane Lane is Daria’s best (and only) friend. The two meet in the first episode, and bond immediately. Jane is an artist, more cynical even than Daria, but also more socially adept. Her parents are ineffectual when they aren’t absent, and she is usually alone at home with her older brother Trent, who is unemployed, and has no particular interests beyond his band Mystic Spiral.
Most of the show takes place at Lawndale High, the faculty and students of which are, with a few exceptions, extremely broad caricatures of various kinds of incompetence (though as will be seen, there is far more subtlety at Lawndale High than meets the eye). A few of the most important characters are:
Ms. Li: The wildly authoritarian principal, delusionally committed to her bizarre visions for the school.
Mr. DiMartino: History teacher, whose disgust with the stupidity of his students has led to permanently bugged out eyes. The most grotesque character design on the show.
Mr. O’Neill: English teacher. Sensitive, empathetic, arguably the only faculty member who truly cares about the interests of his students, Daria in particular. Unfortunately, he is also the most ineffectual character in the show.
Kevin and Brittany: QB of the football team and head cheerleader, a couple. Dumb.
Jodie and Mack: Among the very few more-or-less normal students at Lawndale, Jodie and Mack are also its only two African-American students. While we see very little in the way of overt discrimination, their skin color is never quite ignored.
The Fashion Club: Quinn’s primary friends, the club consists of her, Sandy (the president), Stacy, and Tiffany. All four exist in a universe in which the Fashion Club is the central institution in the school, if not the world. This opinion is shared by nobody.
That’ll do for now. There are certainly many more characters worth discussing, but we’ll cover them as they come up. What’s left is to describe the basic format of the show. The ostensible format of the show could be stated in one sentence as: Daria goes to a high school filled with idiots, and endeavors to maintain her autonomy and independent point of view, with the help of her friend Jane and her own superior intellect. Now, this is the basic setup for a million “school stories,” whether they be TV shows, books, movies, or whatever (for example, it’s more or less the setup for The Catcher In The Rye). I’m pretty sure that that’s all MTV ever asked it to be, and if it was just that, then it wouldn’t be much more than a piece of 90s nostalgia, only memorable for me and whatever generation it is I’m supposed to be part of. But beneath that surface, and without ever undermining it, the creators of this show managed to create something entirely different. And that difference is what I’m here to explore.
This space is reserved for a specific element (usually a single scene) in each episode that I want to examine in more detail. Since there’s no episode for this recap, I’ll focus on the one common element in every Daria episode: the opening credits sequence. And a fine credits sequence it is! In fact, watching it just now made me realize that I really didn’t need to go through all that in the 2. Recap section, since the opening credits tell you basically everything you need to know about the show. It’s a simple concept: a series of scenes in which Daria is surrounded by people completely wrapped up in some artificial endeavor (sporting event, high school romance, a wedding), and is herself completely unmoved by them. (Note: YouTube doesn’t appear to have a clip of just the credits, but I did find this live-action version of them, which is pretty impressive.) But while simple, the sequence is nonetheless skillfully handled, particularly in the way it subtly undermines the audience’s sympathy for the lead character. After all, ostentatiously reading a newspaper at a wedding, and standing by while your classmates get injured in volleyball, aren’t really admirable things to do. So right away we’re told, in a way that could easily be overlooked, that while the show is called Daria, it’s never quite entirely on her side. And finally, the theme song itself, “You’re Standing On My Neck” by Splendora, is just such a perfectly 90s alternative-ish song. It wouldn’t feel the slightest bit out of place on, say, a They Might Be Giants album, and it hails from that brief moment in time when women fronting rock bands seemed like it might be just, like, a normal thing. And the combination of upbeat melody with the deadpan delivery of the title line is as good a way as any of summarizing the way that I (and many like me) felt at that specific time in history. It’s not that I thought that anything was wrong, per se. It’s just that, somehow, I couldn’t breathe.
In this segment I intend to try and pull together the ways in which the facts recounted in sections 2. and 3. demonstrate my thesis. With no episode, there’s not much to go on yet, so instead I’ll simply give you a final warning: don’t let this show fool you. The show will always seem to be telling you how it feels (and thus how you should feel) about its characters, and it will do so in blunt, almost artless ways. But this is a lie. It doesn’t actually want you to feel the way it’s telling you to feel. Like Daria herself, and like every intelligent, cynical, disaffected adolescent (of any age), the image it is projecting is one that it desperately wants you to see through. It puts up the artifice so that it doesn’t have to waste time explaining itself to people who don’t or won’t understand. But for those with the eyes to see, the truth is right in front of us, pleading to be understood.
5. Bullet points!
-This space is reserved for random thoughts that don’t fit in sections 1-4. Here goes!
-How big a Daria fan am I? I own 2 editions of the complete series on DVD, despite the fact that only one was ever released. Years before the official version came out, I made one myself, spending hours in the early years of BitTorrent pulling together every episode (including the unaired pilot), burning them all onto DVDs, compiling, printing out, and assembling an episode guide, and packaging the whole thing in a DVD case resembling a high school locker, with cover art printed out and taped on. It is, in certain ways, superior to the official release.
-As far as watching it legally at this point, the options I’m aware of are Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and the DVDs. I would strongly urge you to utilize one of those legal methods. Yes, some of your money will go to monstrous MTV executives. But some of it will end up in the pockets of the people who made the show, and they deserve all the money they can get.
-How big a Daria fan am I? My wife and I went to a Halloween party dressed as Daria and Trent respectively (a friend came as Jane). Our costumes were the BOMB (for example, they were better than those in the live-action video I linked above), someday maybe I’ll put a picture on here.
-I do have to point out that, while I’ll be going through the series chronologically, the series really doesn’t cross the line from “very good” to “classic” until around Season 3. So, for the first two seasons in particular, I will sometimes be covering multiple episodes per post, since they don’t all necessarily merit an in-depth analysis.
-How big a Daria fan am I? I’m doing this series because I tried on numerous occasions to write a single post explaining why I’m such a huge fan of Daria, and abandoned every draft after it was thousands of words long and still hadn’t come close to saying everything I wanted.
-If anybody reading this has any feedback, or just has their own deep thoughts about Daria that none of their friends understand, I would passionately love to hear from you. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’m ready to talk Daria with anyone, any time.