The Revenge of Daria
Rebecca Dana argues that the heroine of Daria—MTV's animated series that ran from 1997-2002, out on DVD this week—was Jean Paul Sartre in the body of Lisa Simpson.
La la laaaa la la
If that five-note chorus grabs you like a slap-bracelet; if it pings around your inner ear alongside half-forgotten Weezer and Fiona Apple lyrics; if it conjures up long suburban afternoons spent not watching high school football games, then congratulations! You are a disaffected twenty-something member of the MTV generation, and this is your lucky week. After eight long years of disappointing television, Daria is back.
All 65 episodes of the original animated series, starring that lovable combat-booted misanthrope, are now available on DVD. It’ll cost you $72.99, and most of the original music is gone because license fees were too high. But of course that’s the case, because if the eight-disc set came too cheap, easy or intact, it wouldn’t be Daria. It would be Sex and the City, or some other contemporaneous chick series that came out on DVD moments after the show went off the air and has been sitting, unwatched, in your CD Logic ever since.
We need someone who’ll burst our bubbles and remind us how good it feels to roll our eyes.
Daria, for those too young, old, or popular to remember, was a spinoff series of Beavis and Butt-head that ran from 1997 to 2002, during the golden era of MTV programming that snuck in between “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Real World 75: Snooki Becomes an Unwed Teen Mom, or whatever they’re airing now. The show followed Daria Morgendorffer, a cynical, low-affect teenager surrounded at all times by morons. She wore a green blazer, round glasses and her mousy brown hair in a mousse-less blob. She was Jean Paul Sartre in the body of Lisa Simpson and the wardrobe of Patti Smith. Without her, Zooey Deschanel wouldn’t exist.
Daria and the Morgendorffers (her powerhouse-attorney mother Helen; her simpering, clueless father Jake; and her perky, popular sister Quinn, president of the school Fashion Club), live in a standard-issue upscale suburb called Lawndale. In the first episode, “Esteemsters,” Daria meets her best friend Jane, an artist and therefore marginally more socialized than she, in a freshman self-esteem class. For five seasons, she crushed on Jane’s brother and endured the ceaseless banalities of high school life. And then, with a sly reference to William Tecumseh Sherman and a joke about peeing in locker room showers, it all came to an end. And those of us who spent our adolescence in the thrall of Daria’s anti-heroism had to go try to figure out who the hell Joey Potter was and why the dark-haired one and the blond one were both in love with her.
It is one of the great accidents of history that just as Daria Morgendorffer was going off the air, mid-way through George W. Bush’s first term, Canadian supermodel Daria Werbowy was storming the scene, wowing editors and designers with her 5’11”, 34-24-34 bod. And so now, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the one-word moniker “Daria” is more likely to conjure up Lancome ads than the wise-beyond-her-years teenager invented by Glenn Eichler, who went on to write for the Colbert Report, and voiced, marvelously and monotonously, by Tracy Grandstaff. If she were a real person, Daria, who had the keenest eye for irony of her generation, would just love that.
It is one of the great non-accidents of this age that Daria is returning now, mid-way through Barack Obama’s first term, when all the earnestness churned up in the last election is finally giving way to that warm, familiar late-nineties blahs, to which Daria so glumly gave voice.
We have weirdly entered a cultural time-warp. Once again, television is full of bouncy blondes resurrected from the late-nineties and squeezed into ever shorter, tighter dresses. Between Gossip Girl and 90210 and The City—not to mention the volumes of young adult literature aimed at cultivating a particular form of Upper East Side financial-sexual lust in American teens—we need our girl back. We need someone who’ll burst our bubbles and remind us how good it feels to roll our eyes.
The Boomers are zeroing in on retirement. Generation X is still staring down the same old sinkhole. And those of us reared on MTV, for all the lamentations about our laziness and our sense of entitlement, are just about grown up. We voted. We paid our taxes. We made it through Melrose Place and the short-lived Melrose Place remake. We’re ready to shrug our shoulders and awkwardly embrace Daria once more.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.