It got the misfits right, but it got the popular kids right, too.
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.
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.