Requiem for Daria.

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Jan. 21 2002 4:43 PM

Requiem for Daria

Daria slips into the Ghost World of great high-school drama.

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I have come not to praise MTV's Daria, but to bury her. And a sad, cold funeral day it is. For unlike recently resurrected Buffy Summers—Daria's spiritual sister in angry-and-conflicted teen-age girlhood—it doesn't look like Daria's going to rise from the dead any time soon. And sadly, the show is biting the dust without ever getting the credit it deserved: for social satire, witty writing, and most of all, for a truly original main character. Tonight's Daria finale is a two-hour movie titled "Is It College Yet?" and it's a bit of a classic: a sharply funny exploration of social class most teen films would render, well, cartoonish.

Daria started out as a minor character on MTV's smartly dumb Beavis and Butthead. But after four years, the deadpan sidekick got her own timeslot—and with it, a whole conformist suburban community to roll her eyes at. Like Charlie Brown, she wore a uniform: short pleated skirt, stockings, combat boots, and thick round glasses. From her lipstickless lips, a thousand wisecracks bloomed, in a vocal affect flat as asphalt. The opening credits showed her standing, face blank, arms limp, as her peers jumped around her trying to catch the volleyball. Anyone who ever wanted to opt out of adolescence entirely (writer meekly raises hand …) could relate.

The last 15 years have proved to be a real renaissance for girls on TV, from My So-Called Life's Angela Chase to Freaks and Geeks' Lindsay Weir; not to mention Buffy's Willow Rosenberg, Roseanne's Darlene Connor, and Lisa Simpson. But no one could call Daria "spunky"; her sarcasm proved so extreme it amped way past wiseass into some scary dimension of its own. She was a fabulous-but-screwed-up curmudgeon in the tradition of Hawkeye Pierce and Dorothy Parker—wits whose standards for human behavior were so high even they couldn't meet them.

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Like the Simpsons' Springfield, Lawndale was a shooting gallery of satirical targets. Many of these seemed at first sight to be mere stereotypes: tyrannical administrators, vapid teen-agers, deeply dysfunctional teachers, and Daria's own conformist family—corporate mom, father seething with repressed rage, and Quinn, Daria's giddy "popular" sister. But the Daria writers had an eye for the specific and the empathic even in the most familiar subjects, like the Lawndale High Fashion Club—a clique populated by Quinn and her three appearance-obsessed friends. In the quartet's endless debates about the secrets of popularity ("Nooooo moooooles!" drawled Tiffany once about the perfect boyfriend), the show perfectly captured the passive-aggressive machinations of teen-age girls seeking coolness at any cost. And the writers regularly gave the counterculture characters far rougher lumps for their self-righteous pretentiousness than the mainstream ones. ("I was pre-khaki's commercial and don't you forget it!" shouts Jane Lane's retro-loving "outsider" boyfriend as he storms out.) In fact, characters who seemed at first like the easiest targets—like Daria's yuppie mom—often turned out to have the most insightful and complex observations. Despite its surface misanthropy, Daria fit in less with Welcome to the Dollhouse than compassionate satires like Election and Rushmore: The stupidest characters had a sense of dignity, and even its smartest got a kick in the pants.

And actually, in the end, Daria was often hardest on Daria herself. As the seasons went by, the main character was increasingly forced to confront the flipside of her principled withdrawal from the world: her crippling terror of rejection, a streak of ugly self-righteousness. ("I shouldn't have bit your head off," says one of her friends after a fight over ethics. "Don't worry about it," replies Daria. "I was tired of that head anyway.") The emotional anchor of the show lay in the rat-a-tat dialogues between Daria and artsy Jane Lane, whose relationship became strained in the final two seasons. Daria ended up dating (stealing?) Jane's boyfriend, the sweet-but-spoiled preppie Tom Sloane. This blowup was portrayed with intriguingly realistic continuity for a teen comic: Daria never quite got off the hook for betraying her friend's feelings, even though the two did, in the end, make up.

"Is It College Yet?" plays out this mix of psychological realism and social satire beautifully. The film homes in on the elitism of the United States college system, as the high-schoolers head off to very different paths in life, based on their economic prospects—unlike, say, the characters on 90210. At the center of the movie is Daria's growing discomfort with her preppie boyfriend's sense of entitlement: He takes for granted that he'll get into an Ivy League school and doesn't seem to recognize (or at least, take seriously) the privileges he gets via family connections. Token African-American valedictorian Jodi debates her father about attending a black college—it might make it easier for her socially, he argues, but she won't be associating with "the people who run the country." Dumb jock Kevin gets left back, and his cheerleader girlfriend is clearly going to break up with him because she can see he has no economic prospects. Meanwhile, bohemian Jane Lane, lacking resources or any family expectations, is paralyzed by the possibility of rejection by a fancy art school and nearly talks herself out of applying at all. (After a talk with Daria, she applies for late acceptance, shrugging, "I want to be a starving artist, so I need to ring up more debt.")

It's remarkable to have a TV show end on such an ambiguous, even downbeat, note. But then, that's always been Daria's strength: undercutting social fairy tales. Granted, plenty of cultural products send the message that it's OK to be a confused, mercurial, rebellious, disaffected, lonely teen, be they indies like Ghost World or mainstream fare like She's All That. But Daria aired on the station that teen-agers watch, right alongside, and in stark contrast to, Britney's crop-tops. Like all the best fairy godmothers, Daria was in the right place at the right time. It's a shame that this year's crop of freshmen won't have her bitter wit to guide them through high-school orientation.

Emily Nussbaum lives in New York; she writes for Slate, the New York Times, and Nerve.

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