In the Media

The Washington Post
June 1, 1997
Wither Daria: Meet The Teen Terminator
MTV's Hot New Toon Is Sharp, Funny -- and Female
By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 1997; Page G01


Daria stands 5 feet 2 in her stomper boots. She regards the world's inanities through thick black-rimmed eyeglasses and an even thicker veil of ironic detachment. She never laughs.

"But she smiles," the producer objects. She's worried that the 16-year-old star of MTV's acerbic new animated series is sounding a bit... inanimate.

"Yeah," the show's story editor chimes in. "She smiles every time something bad happens to a family member."

Okay, Daria Morgendorffer smiles, though very slightly and only on rare vengeful occasions. Otherwise, her wisecracks are so deadpan -- as she endures psycho teachers, clueless parents, an irritatingly perky younger sister and nitwit high-school classmates whose names all seem to end in "y" -- that you worry about her hemoglobin level. She's the Duchess of Droll.

"It's just part of high school -- some people mature quickly intellectually, but they're stuck in this Romper Room mentality," the series' story editor, Glenn Eichler, says with some empathy. "They wish they had someone to turn to and say, 'Aren't these people stupid?'" Enter Daria (pronounced DAH-ree-ah), whose response to being placed in a remedial self-esteem class is a sarcastic mutter: "I don't have low self-esteem... I have low esteem for everyone else."

She's racked up impressive ratings since her spring debut as the cable network's sharp female counterpart to the moronic Beavis and Butt-head. As Daria becomes one of their most-watched shows, MTV executives have ordered another 22 to 26 episodes of the half-hour sitcom to supplement the 13 already in the can. Thus, the cartoon chronicle will continue well into 1998, a reflection of TV programmers' growing infatuation with animation. "It's not relegated to Saturday morning anymore," says Abby Terkuhle, who heads MTV's sizable animation unit here. "And it's not just for kids."

Blame the Simpsons, who proved that a prime-time cartoon -- one without the chirpy tone that word once implied -- could draw grown-up audiences and turn big profits. The Simpsons and this season's new animated entry, King of the Hill, have given Fox potent Nielsens on Sunday nights: The shows rank No. 3 and No. 2, respectively, on the network, behind only The X-Files.

HBO's new animation division just launched Spawn, adapted from Todd McFarlane's dark, often grisly comic book and shown Fridays at midnight. In July, that time slot will pass to Spicy City, from in-your-face veteran animator Ralph Bakshi, who's created a vixen named Raven (with the voice of Michelle Phillips) to preside over a funky nightspot where various adult-oriented adventures unfold.

MTV's Terkuhle rattles off a long list of animation projects in development at the mostly music network: a variety show called Cartoon Sushi, to be seen this summer; several series pilots; an animated veejay named Cindy who'll introduce and comment on the channel's videos. Meanwhile, Beavis and Butt-head rolls on, though it's been downgraded from a daily to a weekly MTV show. Unlike David Caruso, however, the duo made a successful transition from TV to film: Beavis and Butt-head Do America has topped $65 million in domestic grosses and is headed for Europe; negotiations for a sequel are underway.

Add Comedy Central's Dr. Katz and The Critic, USA's Duckman and Nickelodeon's Ren & Stimpy -- and the uncute cartoon seems to have become a television staple.

Declarations of a Golden Age of Animation make Eichler and Susie Lewis [Lynn], the co-creative supervisors of Daria, a bit uneasy. "It's a Bronze-ish Age," Eichler demurs, noting that cable networks involve a tradeoff -- greater freedom for smaller audiences and comparatively modest budgets. But, he adds, "It's a good time to be in animation, no question... I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a wave of animation on the broadcast networks in two years" -- the time it will take network programmers to respond with their own series.

Eichler and Lynn are both veterans of Beavis and Butt-head, where Daria first won a walk-on role after creator Mike Judge and colleagues suddenly realized there wasn't a single female in the show. "It would be perfectly in character for a really smart, alienated girl to hang out with those guys just to [bleep] off her parents," says Eichler, who was that show's story editor as well. Daria, who looked very different in her B&B incarnation, found the two chuckling idiots perversely amusing; they called her, with no particular fondness, "Diarrhea."

Spinning off an entire show for Daria, however, took some persuasion. "You go through a long period of letting the bosses get used to the idea that they're going to be spending some money," Eichler says. "It's like growing a really, really slow plant." Though an animated show is less likely to see its actors demand a million bucks an episode, it's not cheap -- start-up costs often outstrip the price of a new live-action sitcom. "It's a very labor-intensive medium," Terkuhle says.

Daria, for instance, requires about 35 artists, supervised by Lynn, and a squadron of six to eight freelance writers (including a Simpsons veteran and a couple of NewsRadio writers) commanded by Eichler. It also employs actors (a writer of MTV on-air promotions named Tracy Grandstaff provides Daria's Gobi-dry voice), directors, design supervisors and assorted aides de camp. The actual animation work is done in Korea.

Producing each half-hour takes 10 months. Even at a budget of less than $500,000 per episode, half the cost of a major network's animated sitcom, Daria represents a sizable investment for MTV; the heh-heh boys, whose show relies heavily on music videos, come cheaper.

Accordingly, plans for Daria poked along: Lynn made a pilot, which was subjected to focus-group testing among teens in deepest suburban New Jersey in late 1995. The team began writing and recording the first 13 episodes in early 1996. Daria et al. weren't ready for prime time until this March. But the critics have been impressed: The Nation called Ms. Morgendorffer "a 10th-grade Dorothy Parker," while the New York Times TV critic, John J. O'Connor, simply confessed, "I think I'm in love." And about three-quarters of a million other viewers, divided almost evenly between the genders, regularly tune in on Monday nights at 10:30. (The show is replayed Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. and Sundays at 9 p.m.)

Fans on various Daria-related World Wide Web sites, who normally debate fine points like how many la-la's there are in the opening theme song "You're Standing on My Neck" by Splendora (answer: 32), were braced for battle recently as rumors of the show's cancellation floated around the Internet. They weren't true, but Eichler and Lynn took the mobilization as a compliment.

But popularity, as Daria can so readily attest, may prove a mixed blessing. MTV, whose most recent It Girl, Jenny McCarthy, probably represents the Antichrist to Daria Morgendorffer, is a slightly odd home for this show in the first place. And what would Our Heroine make of the looming wave of Daria merchandise, including T-shirts, watches, baseball caps, a calendar and a trade paperback from Simon & Schuster [ 1 ] in the fall? Remember, this is a girl who, asked by a modeling agency scout to kindly remove her glasses, replied sweetly, "I need them to see scam artists."

Obviously, she'd hate this stuff. "I know," Eichler says. "Believe me, she does."

But she'll probably survive. In fact, given that her writers allow her to triumph in ways that brainy high school nerds seldom do, she'll get even. Although the ultimate victory for the Darias of the world is, of course, adulthood.

What will Daria be when she grows up? "A story editor of a cable show," is Eichler's guess. Wait, what about all that expensive higher education she's clearly destined for? "A story editor," he amends, "who has a PhD in French literature."

Webkeeper's Footnotes:
[ 1 ] The Daria Diaries by Anne D. Bernstein.