Is being popular a crime? One gets that impression from the wealth of movies and television programs that celebrate high school's lovable losers while expressing casual contempt for the earnest youngsters who dedicate themselves to being well-liked. Though it's taboo to admit it, I was a pretty popular kid. Mind you, I wasn't so popular that I could work my devoted followers into a violent frenzy capable of toppling the rickety government of a former Soviet republic. But I was pretty popular.
And so Daria, the celebrated MTV animated series, really rubbed me the wrong way when it debuted in 1997, my senior year in high school. Like so many teen-oriented sitcoms, Daria was clearly written by former wedgie-deserving misfits who now had the opportunity to take revenge on their erstwhile tormenters, very few of whom wound up as professional television writers or animators. The paradigmatic popular kids on the series, quarterback Kevin and his "babe" Britney, a cheerleader, are portrayed as empty-headed boobs who nevertheless find themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. The popular kids were defenseless, a fact that offended my youthful sense of justice.
Daria centers on the adventures of Daria Morgendorffer, a keenly observant young woman who has little patience for the idiocies and indignities that define life at her drearily conventional suburban high school in the fictional town of Lawndale. At first, this provided plenty of fodder for cheap shots at the high-school establishment. Yet over the subsequent seasons, culminating in the brilliant TV movie Is It College Yet?, Daria became something different. Rather than worship its all-knowing alternateen protagonists, the series humbled them, persuading them to let their guard down, open themselves to new experiences, and question their gut instincts. In the process, Daria became the greatest work of young adult fiction since the cave paintings at Lascaux.
After eight long years, all five seasons of Daria are now available on DVD. Though the collection is lighter on special features than I'd like—where are the commentary tracks?—the episodes themselves are worth the price of admission. Daria begins the series as a meek and defensive kid, the kind who mutters barbed witticisms under her breath. She quickly discovers a best friend in Jane Lane, a budding artist who, despite her lackluster academic record, is more than capable of matching Daria's wit. Jane, like Daria, doesn't buy into the high-school hierarchy. She's less interested in being popular than in dedicating herself to her work, an extraordinary commitment in someone so young. The two are inseparable and extremely loyal to each other.
Daria and Jane challenge each other in ways that force both of them to confront their fears. As a brainy kid, Daria is inclined to retreat into the life of the mind—or to veg out by watching endless episodes of Sick, Sad World, the Current Affair-like schlock news series that Daria and her friends can't turn off. But Jane, the more socially precocious of the two, is always dragging Daria to rock shows and parties. While Daria takes on the pose of the primatologist observing adolescent man-apes in their natural habitat, Jane has a more larkish attitude to the social scene. Her confidence in her coolness allows her to approach high-school life with a fearless élan, some of which eventually rubs off on Daria.