It got the misfits right, but it got the popular kids right, too.
And Daria's affection shapes Jane in turn. They develop a sisterly bond that Jane clearly needs. In "Lane Miserables," one of the best episodes of the series, we meet Jane's rarely seen, rarely discussed family, a grab-bag of affectionately drawn bohemian clichés. One gets the sense that Jane and her brother Trent have been neglected by their free-spirit parents and much-older siblings, who, charming idiosyncrasies aside, are too self-absorbed to take much interest in the youngest Lanes. Jane and Trent wind up moving in with the Morgendorffers for a few days, and hilarity ensues. But there's a serious subtext: Daria has become Jane's surrogate family. As the series progresses, Daria's faith in Jane's talent and intelligence comes to the fore, particularly on the rare occasions when Jane openly expresses self-doubt.
The high-school pecking order was, in the end, almost totally irrelevant to the series, in part because you come to understand that the popular kids have woes, and wits, of their own. Jodie, a popular African-American hyperachiever, offers a useful contrast to Daria in her willingness to be more strategic about navigating the rocky shoals of adolescence. She doesn't share Daria's fairly narrow understanding of integrity. And Jodie's boyfriend Mack, one of Kevin's teammates on the football team, demonstrates—through his loyalty to Jodie, his sensitivity, and his intellect—that not all popular kids are vapid goons.
But it's Quinn, Daria's popular and attractive younger sister, who grew and changed the most over the course of the series. She starts out as a vicious, vacuous little monster who refuses to acknowledge that Daria, awkward in her glasses and clunky black boots, is her older sister. The portrayal of Quinn in early episodes was perhaps the most damning indictment of Daria, offering as it did a troublingly unnuanced and mean-spirited portrait of the popular. Quinn joins Lawndale High's Fashion Club, a group of young women who, like her, are portrayed as cluelessly boy-crazy. So far, so conventional.
Yet the complex dynamics within the Fashion Club—the subtle but constant power struggles—eventually became one of the most stimulating aspects of the series. The Fashion Club girls aren't necessarily the brightest bulbs, but they are as bound up in complex relationships as the brainier Daria and Jane. Quinn, meanwhile, eventually decides to cultivate her natural intelligence and to go beyond profiting only from her looks. Slowly but surely, she embraces Daria as a sister and as a confidante, expressing a protectiveness that also betrays great warmth.
To the show's great credit, the adults mature over the course of the series as well. The Morgendorffers are very much a 1990s family: upwardly mobile, prosperous, and shaped by the evolving boomer values of parents Jake and Helen. Jake, the kindly but scatterbrained father, was traumatized by military school and a cruel and capricious father. His crippling anxiety has left him a half-functioning man-child who plays second fiddle to Helen, the highly capable mother and wife and hard-charging lawyer. Helen is a kind of superwoman. She carries her heavy burdens lightly, but she always speaks with a breathy intensity and is highly attuned to how she and her family are perceived by others. Though capable of scolding her daughters, Helen is more inclined to go for the gentle reproach, knowing that it's more effective. Though it's subtle, you get the sense that Helen at the end of the series is less status-conscious than she was at the start, and more in tune with the changing moods of a daughter she has come to respect as an adult. To be sure, Jake doesn't grow quite as much. He's saddled with the role of comic relief, but he wears it well.
One minor tragedy of the Daria DVD box set is that it includes vanishingly few traces of the soundtracks that accompanied the original episodes. Part of the charm of being an MTV animated series is that Daria was, despite the unchanging ensembles worn by its characters, very culturally au courant. Songs like the pulse-pounding classic "Getting Jiggy with It" and Beck's "Where's It's At" gave the series a cachet it otherwise would have lacked. Because of punishingly high license fees, the songs of my youth have been replaced by uninspired Garage Band loops. Somehow, though, this barely detracted from my enjoyment of the series. Then again, drinking a glass of molten lava would barely detract from my enjoyment of the series. It managed to create vividly drawn characters—teenage and grown-up—in an animated series with sub-Scrappy-Doo production values. Daria: The Complete Series will delight whether you were a wearer of clunky boots or president of the Fashion Club.
Reihan Salam is a writer in New York.