Objectivity Free Landslide Victory
By: Guy Wheatley
Hindsight may be 20/20, unless we're still busy musing over the latest star attraction that deters it to 20/40. As I write this, in the last days of the lull 'twixt Season Four's end and the premier of "Is It Fall Yet?", take a wild stab in the dark over which eps in question I'm talking about, and their irrevocable effects on our perspectives. I'm not speaking about shippery terrain here or Daria's capacity for fault or fornication, mind you, I'm pining about our gestalt retrospective about the series and its peaks and valleys. In particular, the dubbed and derided "valley" known as Season Three.
Now, in the course of community reaction to this most volatile powder-keg of all seasons, Season Four, it wouldn't be too generous to call it bipolar, split 'twixt the Season Four's first "sad" half and then its flip "happy" latter half. During February and March of Season Four's initial march (no pun intended), we chewed the collective fat of such provocative fare as "Partner's Complaint," "Murder She Snored," and "The F Word" with a grimace (the indignant upstarts anyway, who had a sense of self-righteousness about what the show is about...including moi). Even less toxic eps like by-the-numbers ensemble fare of "Antisocial Climbers" and the entirely self-effacing whimsy of "A Tree Grows in Lawndale" irritated the char-dev crowd who's palates were still sweet with remembrance of such classics as "Arts N' Crass" and "See Jane Run." It was the Season's half that gave birth to such works of contention as Daniel Suni's "Cynic's Complaint" and "On Comedy, Drama, and Emotional Involvement," long-winded, meticulous diatribes about how the show had gone astray all in the swoop of six eps, and two essays which rebuked this old-school conservative stance, Kara Wild's "It Happened to Jane" and C. E. Foreman's caustic satire "This Show Sucks!" There were grumblings from lessor quarters too, on the message boards from Major and Indie-Fan alike about what in the hell was going through Glenn Eicher and co.'s collective mind. Accusations flew about Daria's character selling out her traditional cynical, pessimistic integrity, deviant exploitative liberties being taken in Jane's character, overexposure of school spirit poster boy and girl Kevin and Brittany respectively, pandering to the lowest common denominator, and basically scriptwriting that showed it had yet to get over its "filler" and "fantasy" obsession. These are not nontrivial gripes.
Though I wasn't around personally, I imagine the spirit of this fatalistic conjecture was a repeat of what happened in the Daria community a year before during the first half of Season Three. The show ventured to the far side with a tongue-in-cheek broadway musical parodic crossover and just plain weirdness with holiday avatars visiting Lawndale. Then there were those dreaded "filler" eps ruining all the char-devvers' fun with the likes of "The Old and the Beautiful" and "The Lost Girls." I imagine even some people thought "Through a Lens Darkly" was too slight to be considered serious Daria fare, and in the process was already making a few of the hardcore Season Oners irate. I imagine vis-a-vis to Season Four's dissection, there was similar speculation about where the show was headed, particularly after its zenith of the venerated Season Two. Season Three's new emphasis on whimsy, send-ups of pop iconography, and middle-of-the-road eps not concerned with making a Major Character Revelation every 21 minutes was quite distressing for a few people; Michelle Klein-Hass's "From Now On, Keep it Real!" rant encapsulated this revulsion for those in the community.
Then all of a sudden, as swiftly as the downpour didst rain on Season Four's parade, the clouds did part and in shone the light of redemption. Who would have thought that neo-shipperism was come to bail out Season Four's reputation from critical purgatory? After all, in the drought following Season Three shipperism was considered acutely passé; the faux-breakup scene 'twixt Daria and Trent at the end of "Jane's Addition" pretty much settled the matter, at least for the anti-shipper punditocracy. Nonetheless, this didn't stop "I Loathe a Parade" paving the way for Season Four's reassessment. We got a couple of breaks in the season with char-dev would-be classics "Psycho Spa" and "Groped By an Angel," finally coming to a head with the season's "triumph" of the double-hitting "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling." Come back Glenn, all is forgiven. This attitude was evident as much with my end-of-season probing of the Daria commune's collective judgment about the Season; all of a sudden it was on the top of everybody's list, the best thing to hit since Season Two--maybe ever.
Actually, this doesn't bother me as much as the perceived cretinous attitude that all of a sudden, in the wake of Season Four's behind-the-music-styled comeback of its later half, the season wasted no time in burying the program's previous mediocre-at-best effort, Season Three. A season that, in the context of retrospective posts I find the board when discussing Daria as a whole, seems condemned with associative cringe-inducing embarrassments such as "When Depth Takes A Holiday" and "Just Add Water." Such a myopic remembrance of the season is tantamount to referring to Season Four exclusively on the merits of "Murder She Snored" and "Mart of Darkness." For all the accusations of how much Season Three was a "poseur" and "filler" season, let me tell you, if we were judging the two seasons be the merits of their aforementioned lows alone, Season Three would bury Season Four hands-down.
Let's start with the the dirtiest piece of laundry for both seasons, the fantasy-themed "When Depth Takes a Holiday" and "Murder She Snored." Now it's something of the norm to denounce both of them for trivializing the reality-based format of Daria which sets it apart from the majority of another animated shows which generally specialize in satire or humor alone, with no nod to char-dev ("The Simpsons," et al). I abide by this critical norm, but as a case for the lessor of two evils, I definitely have to go with "When Depth Takes a Holiday," ironic considering that "Murder She Snored" is technically the "realistic one" of the two! Here, it was about stylistic basis. Despite "Murder She Snored"'s slick disclaimer of having the majority of its events take place in a dream and thus making sparing it from being "fantasy" I couldn't shake the impression that the ep was a facetious waste of time. It seemed more like an excuse in retro-gumshoe kitsch for television trivia pursuit fans than anything else--even the "test leak" plot went unresolved. By comparison, "When Depth Takes a Holiday"'s events, bizarre as they were, were less intrusive as the plot unfolded. Yes, there was a plot, and queer as the events were, it was cohesive and pretty damn witty. There was also an air of self-conscientiousness about the silliness of the ep itself, with a lot of self-referential dialogue about how much none of it made any sense. I give the writers credit for owing up to that.
Next up it's the battle of the ensemble eps (sounds like a catchy pugilist round-up, doesn't it?), namely, Season Three's "Daria Dance Party" and "Just Add Water" against "Antisocial Climbers" and "Mart of Darkness." Mart of Darkness of Season Four's claim is easily the most throwaway ep of Daria, all of its recycled jokes and routines unraveled in all their frayed and redundant glory; as far as its rank goes, on most personal lists it's not much higher than "Murder She Snored." I think it's a lot worse than Season Three's counterpart "Just Add Water," which as Mike Quinn succinctly summed up may have been "Fair Enough" on a boat, but it didn't come off nearly as stagnant, probably on the strength of the little enjoyable subplots (I don't know if there was a main plot in "Just Add Water"...Daria and Jane's intrepid quest for uninterrupted shut-eye?). Jake putting on his marketing expertise spiel and Helen's half-hearted support at least made a subtle expose of the friction in there marriage, and who didn't get a rise out of Mr. Demartino down to the felt at the poker table, a hyperactive personality who epitomized the very nature of the "bad beat"? I don't even think that "Antisocial Climbers" ("The Daria Hunter" on a mountain, without the Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and The Dear Hunter allusions, to its detriment) can be called superior to "Just Add Water"; nothing in "Antisocial Climbers" really seemed to stand out to me, sans the faux-make-your-peace scene with Daria and Jane braving the worst of the blizzard. And Season Three's other noteworthy ensemble (or border ensemble) piece, "Daria Dance Party," dwarfed them all with its funniest expose of Sandi and her whip-cracking exploits to date and Jane's Jackson Pollock tableau in the school gym.
I also think Season Three has dibs on the superior "Ep of the Beholder," or what I call the season debut which typically sets the tone of the rest of the season, and usually focuses on image-perception (assuming we're talking about "Through A Lens Darkly" and not "Daria!", of course). "Partner's Complaint" had good intentions in aiming to show that Daria was not the Lawndale's Greatest Authority on everything, and could be at fault with her judgmental tendencies. However, it was marred by making Daria look sanctimonious and foolish, all the while condoning Jodie's behavior in hypocritically backtracking on her own morals in order to curry favor with their economics assignment. Then with an extra relish Jane gives Daria a window to "apologize" for her bitchy reproach towards Tom with a bunch of bewilderingly scatterbrained, patronizing verbiage. By comparison "Through A Lens Darkly" was not as toxic as an affair while still providing Our Heroine with a moral dilemma. She had to come to grips that her behavior was not entirely in her altruistic, outcast milieu, even a little vain, wrestled with the ethical implications of flirting with contacts, and made her peace with the issue in the end without coming off as overly meek. It's been alluded as to being a "fanfic in action" quite a bit, but whether or not we thought it too slight isn't really the point; for Daria it was significant. As far as char-dev forays go, I don't think it could have been much more succinct, or tender for that matter.
Following this there is the other significant batch of eps that constitutes the body of the season, those that aren't easily classified as "Ensemble," or "Ep of the Beholder," or "Fantasy," "Shipper," or "Char-Dev." They may either failed attempts at char-dev or situation based eps, material that most of the Daria canon is based on, sometimes rather sweepingly and derogatorily referred to as "filler." Now I'm able to enjoy a good ep of Daria as long as it flows well, provides a few laughs, and is in-character. It's not mandatory for me to see a major epiphany striking one of the characters or my preconceptions of the characters. But, I think that on the most part, Season Three outstrips Season Four here as well. I enjoyed "A Tree Grows in Lawndale," one of the "whimsy" eps without being outright fantasy for its self-depreciating vibe, and it was one of the few eps that was able to not grate on my nerves with an over-exposure of Kevin and Brittany; their shenanigans as Kevin the martyr and Brittany the maiden hung out to dry were pretty hilarious. Unfortunately, the whole "loser town" slant I thought was overplayed, and thus, the ep didn't hold a candle to Season Three's underrated "The Lawndale Files." A return of Artie, Fashion Club solidarity, Trent's "hell music," serious business for the indie set, and a McCarthy episode of hysteria in Jake. For humor, what more could you want? "Of Human Bonding" was a serious char-dev disappointment. On an otherwise tedious telemarketing conference where Daria's antsyness mirrored my own boredom, the only thing going for it was the promise of some breakthroughs with Daria and Jake's relationship, which instead came to naught, and a Fashion Club subplot that was, well, another Fashion Club subplot. Contrasted with Season Three, it's cousin "Jake of Hearts" comes off as profound with Jake's attempted heart-to-heart on his "deadbed." It's a wittier affair all the while with Quinn and Helen affecting the roles of perfect wife and daughter, whilst Daria gets to shoot down two very annoying DJs in a superior (to "Of Human Bonding") subplot. "Groped By An Angel" was the best of Season Four's median terrain, after all, it showcased the empathic "spiritual" side of Quinn, who working against type, was entirely selfless in this ep, for her anyway. Unfortunately 'twas not as strong as it could have been, mainly because the subject matter was trivialized by substituting the new age pap of Guardian Angels in place of organized religion and god, rendering the plot conflict puerile at times, as well as a disappointing cop-out by Daria revealing her own "beliefs" at the ep's end. Therefore it wasn't the deserving heir apparent of either Season Two's "Quinn the Brain" or even Season Three's "Speedtrapped," quasi-Quinn-centric eps which many Pro-Quinnites use as evidence of her sympathetic side. Both were far funnier, and plausible, adventures than Quinn's crisis of faith over celestial cherubs. Still, none of these thematic disappointments were the atrocity that was "The F Word." The main plot catalyst of Mr. O'Neill's "Succeed to Fail" assignment was dubious enough; it was a goal which seemed more suited for asphyxiating romantics or artsy nihilists than pop-psyche pollyannas like O'Neill. The downbeat results weren't surprising, how could they have possibly surprised him? Of course, the real salt in the wound was Jane's contrived lapse into conventionality of cheerleading of all things, on the flimsiest of pretexts "Being unconventional was too easy." It would have been less toxic to opt for some other activity with better reasoning, as was done in this ep's precedent, "See Jane Run." Unfortunately, "The F Word" wasn't worthy of that ep's tradition. This was even before things got really ugly at the end of the season with two noteworthy eps chronicling Jane's tailspin into a jealous, overemotional, whiny, philistine over the oldest of all complications that they program had done a good job of eschewing thus far, a man. Nevermind Daria all of sudden justifying Jane's mistrust in the bargain.
But, I won't go into that just yet. I do think Jane's character has been Season Four's biggest casualty thus far, but Daria herself has started to fray around the edges. Or more to the point, those edges have been sanded over to make her character less intimidating. When Daria is speaking on the phone to Jane in "Mart of Darkness" about going along on a shopping trip and Daria answers "I don't know, I'm in the middle of a golden stretch of my sitting-on-my-ass project," or something to that effect, it could also reflect her lackadaisical involvement in Season Four. She seems to be revolving elliptically around whatever conflict in happening with a secondary character. Though this is typical of ensemble eps such as "Antisocial Climbers" and "Mart of Darkness," it's also applied to outings like "A Tree Grows in Lawndale," she mostly acting as token cynic commenting blithely on Kevin and Brittany and faux-lamenting about the newly dubbed "loser town" of Lawndale. In "Of Human Bonding," barring the failed attempt of real-life bonding 'twixt Daria and Jake, it instead centered on Jake trying to oil up to Jerry Larry Carload and show off his marketing expertise, while bringing out the Dictator-Maddog rant-card again. In "Psycho Therapy" most of the issue-airing came from Morgendorffers other than Daria, and in "Groped By Angel," just like in "A Tree Grows in Lawndale," she acts the token cynic observing and commenting on Quinn's new-found, and lapse, in faith. If she's taking an active role in presenting her side of a story, she's often depicted as curmudgeony, unrealistically uncompromising, or naïve and foolish, as the way she was shot down in "Partner's Complaint," conversely leaving Jodie with little to answer to, and her say in personal beliefs at the end of "Groped By Angel," which sounded like a public service statement for community service or Barney lesson-of-the-day motif. The only real eps I can think of in which she has a role in the forefront that's meaningful are the shipper eps. I think Daria as a character is starting to be processed within an inch of her life; all of the writers have penned her dialogue to sound "sarcastic and cynical," but it has no real bite. All of her quips must fall into place and play off other people's comments with prompt timing before anything worthy char-dev-wise is done with her character, which is often nothing at all, considering the limiting 21-minute format on the show and the suffusion of cameo characters that have been dragged out. Daria often seems riding second shotgun in her own show.
Sure, these apathetic roots were starting to surface back in Season Three, but at least in that season Daria was still able to take on bloated convention and institution in "The Lost Girls" (perfect title, by the way). That was en ep that the program was made for, a swipe at the MTV marketing demographic and youth-centric culture in general, managed by people out of that 15-24 aged set anyhow. "The Old and the Beautiful," the ep that secured my fanaticism for Daria and is nowhere as bad as most people claim, showed a Daria that was able to make amends with her allergic reaction to engaging in community service, a char-dev characteristic, while still maintaining her droll persona; she would have to in order to bring Allen Gingsburg and Lord Byron as reading material for the elderly. Even efforts like "It Happened One Nut" that could have served as a wake-up call for Daria assessing her future before solely playing the comedic angle of Daria-gets-a-job-and-it-sucks were better efforts than most of Season Four's filler pool. Most of all, Season Three was a reminder that the writers had a sense of humor and weren't afraid to shy away from pop culture send-ups or eps that were purely tongue-in-cheek, but they didn't shy away from meaningful char-dev for Daria either, after all, this season pissed Season Oners off too. The joyous parody and celebration that was "Daria!" didn't try to justify itself in the continuum like "Murder She Snored" did, with its disclaimer that all but said, "It was all a dream."
To be fair, I'll concede to some high points of Season Four that struck a chord with me. "Psycho Spa" had no peer in the char-dev terrain it ventured into; I thought it was the crown jewel of the season. Jake and Helen had some needed exposure, but it never got too heavy-handed while Daria kept her own shrink at bay with wry self-diagnosis. "I Loathe a Parade" was my favorite of the shipper triumvirate; the shipper tension 'twixt Tom and Daria was kept ambiguous so nothing could be pined down for certain, whilst hilarity ensues with the Lawndale parade. For a purely guilty pleasure, I think "Legends of the Fall" has no peer either--unfavorable Simpson Halloween special comparisons aside, I thought it had a very good, very witty glimpse into anachronistic slices of what Daria could be in different eras. Still, all of these I find exceptions of the norm; I don't find Season Four giving me that same consummate satisfaction that previous Seasons have.
Still, all of this tat may not matter. Conceivably, you could cede to all the points I've just made about filler-to-keeper ratio 'twixt the two seasons, or at least about overall writing quality, but be still hiding behind the monolithic power of those twin pillars "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling." The eps that "saved" Season Four, exonerated it from past sins, or at least ensured a cycle of maturation for most waiting viewers. For some the best thing sense sliced bread, or when Daria exited her family Lexus in "Esteemers" uttering "I'll try to help her (Quinn) through this difficult period of adjustment." Now, interestingly enough, "Lane Miserables" and "Jane's Addition" were also the shipper eps of Season Three, but they didn't bail the rest of the season out the way that Season Four's shipper-eps did. Or maybe they did, briefly, but since then acknowledgment about that Season's peaks has been glossed over, and it's now the black sheep of the Daria canon. Whether or not you liked the direction of "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! Darling," however it piqued you, I thought that "Lane Miserables" and "Jane's Addition" were superior eps. "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! Darling" were one-note affairs, all about the tension and triangulation between Daria, Jane, and Tom (well, there was the Morgendorffer Hotel subplot of "Fire!" which no one cared about). In "Lane Miserables," the shipper tensions 'twixt Daria and Trent were underplayed; the subplot of the avalanche of visiting Lanes was just as relevant, not to mention hilarious, and showed the writers had memories of these then-esoteric character references, first mentioned in "The Teachings of Don Jake." "Jane's Addition" was about the fracture in Daria and Jane's friendship, just as much as it centered around Tom, and how Daria's friendship for Jane sometimes comes off as conditional. Daria got to fire off her perspective on the matter in no uncertain terms, before an uneasy truce commenced, which finally seasoned into acceptance by Season Four, without portraying Daria as weak or flaccid. No, Season Three's shipper affairs weren't as "heavy" or dramatic as Season Four's, they aren't muddled in teenage awkwardness and helplessness, and Season Four's will probably have weightier complications. But they weren't humorless, they didn't sabotage Our Heroine's milieu, they had char-dev credit, and they even introduced Tom.
Eps like "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling" tend to bring out the worst in the message boards. I could empathize with Rey Fox's reasons for his board departure, he quoting he never liked "Oh My God!" type eps which pique such a overflowing reaction. Even as I write this three weeks after "Dye! Dye! My Darling"'s initial premier the trickle of new, daily threads on the dynamics of Tom, Daria, and Jane that were unstrung before us never end It's dead horse that won't be spared flogging anytime soon either, as I'm sure many of these infinitesimal debates will segue into the ones following "Is It Fall Yet?", since the promos seem to give every indication of continuing to milk these relationship developments 'twixt Tom and Daria, and the estrangement of Daria and Jane. One might as well rhetorically ask why didn't "Legends of the Mall" get as much attention with lengthy harangues about the dramatic structural changes the program would go through in presenting a 50s or 60s styled Daria, or "The Lost Girls" with discussion about the pathetic inability of some to let go of the excess or hipness of their youth, and the real-life irony of Daria making such a statement, being hosted on such a gonad network as MTV. The child is more mature than the parent, apparently. Eps like the shipper ones don't, or shouldn't, deserve the lavishing attention they get. I feel they do because they speak out to the gossipy, self-styled, 101-izing relationship expert in all of us, ready with pat deconstructions of Daria/Jane/Tom's actions, what they mean, and what they should do. It's fun and an easy way to speculate, but I think it belies an ugly side.
Most of the Majors and Indie-Fans on the boards alike seem to approve the direction of Daria's last two eps, or at least condone them, nevermind the emasculation of Our Heroine and her partner-in-crime, nevermind the overexposure of Kevin and Brittany earlier in the season, nevermind the lowest common denominator panning with this love-triangulation. Few have openly spoken against them. Those who do I feel have something of an unspoken judgment passed on them, that they are churlish, retro-minded, unrealistic folks and less than well-bred. Fans living a Season One pipe dream, and why-can't-they-just-leave-us-char-devvers-the-hell-alone-and-take-up-chess-or-something. There seem to be a lot of apologists for "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling!", using all sorts of glib euphemisms about what transpired: "It's not betraying its roots, Daria is partaking in character development!" "Daria isn't pandering to a more salacious audience, she's coming to terms with her feelings and letting down those pesky barriers!" "Daria was never asexual or purposely, ironically abstinent, she's voyaging yonder as only a wide-eyed, wondering, horny virgin can!" (ooh la la...) This has never really bothered me, as I'm a passionate fan of a show with a protagonist who makes a point in being nonconformist. Obviously, I'm not a fan of "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling" and feel they are counterproductive to what the show has traditionally tried to represent and champion.
I won't bore you with an in-depth chicken-little expose of EXACTLY when wrong in these last two eps and WHY that is so, or shell out tiresome "sell-out!" attacks or "soap opera" derision, which admittedly, as many have pointed out, is hyperbolic. However, I liked my Daria with some boundaries; note that "boundaries" need not be synonymous with "stagnating" or "stifling." After all, my favorite Season is Two, not One, and the fact that I'm making a sympathetic case here for Season Three means I can't be entirely conservative. Nonetheless, I liked my Daria to be an archetype of sorts, someone who wasn't afraid to call someone on their crap, to take on the Man, corporate interests, media-pandering and institutions, a Daria that was hyper-articulate, who actually read, who had wisdom beyond her years, wasn't insecure in her cynicism or fell into the traps of many teenage girls, who thought about greater issues than popularity, fashion, or boys. A heroine in an age group with a very real paucity of heroines. I also liked my Jane to be lugubrious, flippant, an artsy chick who wasn't afraid to take a swipe at someone and wasn't bleating about being abandoned by her boyfriend. Daria for me has always been about the underappreciated high school experience for the geeks and the outsiders, beyond "The storybook fantasy that these are the best days of our lives," Jane quoted in "Arts N' Crass," beyond the games that girls and boys played with one another, a teen show than didn't obsess about their budding sexualities for once, but rather sneered at it. A show that could appeal beyond the demographic of its characters, and does. "You don't get it, there's a principle involved," Daria told off middle-aged customer research specialists in "Malled." There really is. "Realistic progression" and "char-dev" specifically for the point of attenuating Daria and Jane's cynical side be damned. I really haven't found many of these initial stellar qualities that made Daria stand out in Season Four, or when they've been there, they're watered-down. In "Dye! Dye! My Darling" when there was that shot of an obseqious and crestfallen Daria apologizing to Jane for kissing Tom in the middle of a school hall, with a quiet, porous audience, I had a freeze-frame, kodak moment in my head: "Is this the Daria that I knew and loved?"
But I digress. I've had my primary point, which was to make a plea against Season Three's purported lackluster rep, contrasted against Season Four's enormously inflated one. I believe that Season Three almost holds its own with Season One, and if some of its weak links were strengthened or allowed to develop where the chance was presented, like in "The Old and the Beautiful" and "It Happened One Nut," it could have even rivaled Season Two." So friends, I implore you, if the only reasons you think very highly of Season Four are named "Fire!" and "Dye! Dye! My Darling," please reassess them, and if the only reasons you denounce Season Three are "When Depth Takes a Holiday" and "Just Add Water," please reassess them too. Mind you I don't go to bed at night nattering my molars together like Mr. Demartino in "Legends of the Mall" over how Daria has betrayed my sensibilities; this is just an opinion piece, I still love the show enough to religiously tape it, and schedule around tapings (which will include "Is It Fall Yet?"). Oh, and you people who infinitize about the phantom minutia of the Daria cast's sex life, trust me, it's an exercise in futility. I also play chess anyway, so I might as well keep watching Daria. Finally, one last good-natured swipe at you Season Four apologists: Season Three had a whole minute of screen time for Aunt Amy, our own adult uber-Daria...what do you have to say about THAT?