Why Did It Come to This?
A Critical Look at Daria at the Dawn of the New Millennium


Brian Taylor

Lots of you know me from Paperpusher’s message boards You know, the freak who quotes Re-Animator off-and-on, and just showed up one week and now can’t be gotten rid of? I’ve been engaged in a few good debates with some of you regarding the nature of the interrelationship between Daria and Tom, as well as whatever possible futures might exist for Daria and Trent. And I’m getting to be known through my fiction, which these days takes a rather realistic and somewhat critical eye (within a humorous context, at least thus far) towards the nature of the relationships on the show. Or tries to, with the notable exception of any of the crossovers I’ve begun, or any of the assorted bizarrities that I’m writing (most of my output, but that's another story). But I’m not here to talk about me; I’m here to talk about Daria, where it’s coming from, and where it’s probably going.

As Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West) says in the immortal Re-Animator, “Birth is always painful.” Considering that the true parent of what the show has become is episode #313, “Jane’s Addition,” this is indisputably true. Is this an on-canon episode? It sure as hell is, thanks to the fact that it is an official, recognized episode of the show. That’s all it takes. But it’s not really Daria, and here’s where the problem pops up. Simply put, while I am all for character development and change and growth, this was not the proper way to go about it. It takes the angst from “See Jane Run,” expands it a thousand-fold, and then runs with it. And the worst thing is that they just kept going with it, throughout the fourth season and into the movie. Probably into season five, as well, but I’ll come to that in time.

Point number one - if Jane and Daria were really friends, this should not have happened the way it did. Daria should have at least been able to accept the fact that things were going to be different from now on, without (A) turning into a vindictive, whining bitch, or (B) actually holding a grudge about it. It’s one thing to see Tom being put down by Daria out of the episode’s context, where he may seem like just another mindless jerk, and another thing entirely to see this generally nice guy get verbally slammed by his girlfriend’s best friend for no other reason then that he is his girlfriend's date. (Awkwardly phrased, no?) The only possible explanations I have been able to come up with at all - and these have not been beared out at all, as near as I can tell, by evidence at that juncture of the series - is that Daria had her eye on Tom first, and was annoyed when Jane hit it off with him; alternately, that Daria has a crush on Jane and is disappointed in seeing her take up with a guy. Is there any proof for this at all? No, but it’s the only thing I can come up with that doesn’t make me want to create a “Slap-the-Hell-Out-Of-Daria” java game.

Daniel Suni suggested that Daria is going down the tubes because they are moving her away from her own cynical behaviors in the first two seasons. I suggest, rather, that Daria is going down the tubes because the characters really have lost that cohesion they once had, as a result of character development that feels forced rather then natural. That Daria and company are being dragged kicking and screaming into development, and not going in that direction of their own volition.

Point number two - Tom’s own behaviors in this episode, I feel, are perfectly acceptable within the context of the episode. In fact, I’d say he was more than acceptable in being so polite and civil towards Daria despite the barrage of sarcasm. It’s extremely hard to dislike the guy, especially when OH (Our Heroine, for those not in the know) is behaving like a spoiled little brat. It’s reasons like this why I actually like Tom as a character, and feel that there is a lot of potential for an interesting guy here. When we learn more about him, which will happen.

Point number three - the sudden, abrupt shift from more parodic/satiric/fantastic episodes into something closely resembling pure teen melodrama. No real warning, no indication. Just bam! I wish there was some sort of satire here that I could see, but it looks to me like an episode of Dawson’s Creek merged into Daria. At least, regarding the friendships and opposite sex relationships, anyway. And since most of the series’ charm came from the somewhat more realistic (at least, initially) discourse between characters...

However, there is one part of “Jane’s Addiction” that is worth mentioning, that is completely within character, and is completely believable. That aspect? The way they handled the Daria/Trent subplot. Kudos to the writing crew for not changing Trent into yet another unbelievable character. Flaking out on the school assignment - much like Daria says - is completely believable, as is his response to her carping. Does this pretty much kill the Daria/Trent romance thing? Depends on how much of a ‘shipper you are, and how much you want to read into a faint smile and kiss on the cheek. In a not-so-subtle address to the audience, paying attention to the D/T conversation post-project indicates that they’re (the writers) done with it. Probably for all times, but there is a chance that (A) it will resurface at the end of the series, or (B) that the crush itself merely switched sides. Both of those, however, make up another essay. That’s it for quality characterization in #313, so far as this fan is concerned. The rest is a bunch of absolute hogwash - and completely illogical - in regards to our main character. And without her behaving logically, it’s not really Daria. The multimedia project itself was a horrendously unrealistic manner of bringing things to a head, but it was kind of amusing to behold.

And then I come to the great conceptual abortion that is “Partner’s Complaint.”

Rather then - say - improving the melodramatic nature of the series, and finding its way back onto believable character grounds, this actually makes things worse. Now we have a Daria who is (apparently) holding a grudge against Jane for dating, to the point where she actually goes and works on the economics project with Jodie, leaving poor Jane with Brittany. Let’s face it - this is plain wrong. Does Daria harbor a secret crush on Tom, or does she harbor a secret crush on Jane? Either one of these might account for her behaviors, as said above, but there’s just no proof this early on. What is actually worse is the fact that this show gives hypocrisy a good name. This coming from the guy who believes that every man, woman, and child is a born hypocrite and can do nothing to change this. Jodie’s behaviors in regards to acquiring the loan are questionable at best, and Daria selling her own beliefs short are even more questionable. Everyone looks like a hypocrite, and in fact everyone is a hypocrite by the end.

But where “Partner’s Complaint” really loses me is the fact that, at the end, Jane accepts Daria’s apology, but rather then coming across as magnanimous, it comes across as... well... condescending. Admittedly, Daria does have a lot to be sorry for (I wish I was kidding here, but I’m not), but Jane shouldn’t seem so smug about this. Some of you may really love this episode, but both me and my brother thought that this one was a great big fat enigma right off the bat. Possible questions to the writers - Why do this to us? Why do you feel that splitting Daria and Jane apart over Tom is such a great idea? Why did you turn Daria into a sniveling whiner, moping about how no one lives up to her standards? (Admittedly, no one does, but I don’t need to hear Daria whining about it all of the time.) I really would like to have these answered some time. I would also really enjoy slapping this incarnation of Daria upside the head.

“The F Word” is not quite as bad as it looks on the surface. In fact, Kara Wild pretty much nails it on the head in her examination of it. This is (upon closer examination) a rather critical look at the nature of popularity. Besides, the scene where Trent tells Tom not to abandon Jane has me cracking up every time I see it. I’m not going to touch this one, which might seem odd. But I see nothing here that really contradicts what we know of Jane, because we really don’t know a whole lot about Jane (I am in agreement with Ms. Wild over this point, as well) outside of little bits here and there, and a few different inferences we can make about her from what we do know. Daria - well, after seeing her get so worked up over the Tom debacle, there is (unfortunately) nothing much that contradicts her here, either. Or at least, the “new” her. By the way, I’d also like to say that I enjoy this one because of the brief Jane daydream, which proved to be eerily prophetic in one way. Hmmm....

“I Loathe a Parade” is the next episode I’m going to mention here. Simply put, this is the big kahuna, the point where things really go into Never, Neverland and don’t come back. Daria and Tom - bonding. And the ending truly suggests (but does not really predict) the inevitable turn of events. It’s not bad, really, although I find it somewhat bothersome that it only took an hour or two for Tom and Daria to bond. Sure, they knew each other for months, but for a good portion of this time Daria was being a really frigid “icebox woman.” Tom really is way too nice, considering the way Daria had/has been treating him up until this point. Other then that, I have no problems with it. It was nice to see the Guptys back in action, and the scenes with O’Neill as the Lion provide me with moments of hysterical laughter. Mostly, a throwback to the pre-drama days of the show, back when the realistic absurdity of the situations were enough to carry things through to the end. And this one - along with “Fire!” represent the only two really outstanding episodes in season four, in my opinion. Most of the rest were weakly conceptualized, poorly-executed, thinly-plotted excuses to get to “Dye! Dye! My Darling” and “Is It Fall Yet?”  

“Fire!” works because it at least seems realistic. It does have some of the old humorous approach, in particular the trip to Le Grand Hotel and Quinn’s involvement with Bobby the Cyber-Stalker. It has the Daria/Trent ‘shipper fan’s wet dream, and yet does not play up the romantic angle (but does drop a few hints...). It finds Daria and Jane more in their old modes then usual, and it finds us empathizing more with Daria then we have in a long while. And even the ending here is less melodramatic, and somewhat more realistic, then a lot of the Daria/Tom plots have been. “Dye! Dye! My Darling” would work better, except for the fact that what ends up being the catalyst for everything else is just so damned stupid. Hair dye? Are they starting with the titles now, and working from there? That might explain some of the weak plots and episodes they're churning out.

Consider it carefully - how many things do you really remember from season four? Forget about the four or five episodes that have really sparked a controversy (#401, #405, #406, #412, #413), what about the other eight? I don’t remember a whole lot, to tell you the truth, at least not regarding our two main characters. “Murder, She Snored” and “Legends of the Mall” were, quite frankly, complete wastes of time, as was “A Tree Grows in Lawndale.” And most of the others (notable non-controversy episode - “Mart of Darkness,” which was fun in the old style more or less) have been somewhat less than memorable. More and more, I find myself remembering the little subplots rather then the main plots. Or an isolated scene here or there, but never the whole thing. The Jane-Cam in “Psycho Therapy.” Brian Taylor’s brief appearance in “Groped By an Angel,” as well as the Mystik Spiral song “Every Dog Has His Day.” DeMartino going over the cliff and ending up with Helen and Jake in “Antisocial Climbers.” But never the full episodes. I know I saw “Of Human Bonding,” but I don’t even remember it. Not a good sign.  On the other hand, a lot of fan fictions I have read that take place during the fourth season have been very memorable, funny, and a lot more interesting and (dare I say it) on-character then the show itself has been. I would have loved to see them try out Yui Daoren’s “Consequences of a Parade” instead of, say, “Dye! Dye! My Darling,” because the evolutions explored within are somewhat more convincing (despite being a lot more controversial and bizarre as far as subject matter) - for some reason - then the route they eventually took. Forget about the fact that the episode would spark a huge amount of fallout from a lot of people, who'd find it heretical in a lot of ways. I'm not going to spoil it for you; just read it and find out for yourself.

As far as “Is It Fall Yet?” goes, it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been. There are some good scenes here - the van ride scene, the increased knowledge of Tom and his family, the pieces with Dotson, and the Quinn/David sections which brings out a previously-alluded to side of Quinn for good. Otherwise, it seemed like a stitched-together melange of ideas as opposed to an actual episode. I have a hard time visualizing Jane as a lesbian, for one. Not because it would offend me, but because it wouldn’t quite meld with what we really know of Jane as a character (which is, as I said before, not much). Daria’s behavior again is bordering on the truly annoying at times, and is at complete odds even with the Daria we should be getting used to by now. Link - what can I say except that I think the character was ill-advised (much as I happen to approve of his attitude towards O’Neill and the O.K.-To-Cry Corral), and the sort of thing that may well never come up again in regards to Daria’s personality. I view it as Daria trying to alleviate the guilt she feels over the Tom incident, not as anything else.

Frankly, this lack of memorable episodes scares me. Most of these seem quickly tossed together, and those that weren’t were either (A) too melodramatic to be funny, or (B) fell flat on their faces when it came to the humor level. Maybe it’s just me, but I can still look back at episodes like “It Happened One Nut,” or “The Road Worrier,” or “The Daria Hunter,” (or, especially, “Lane Miserables” and “The Lawndale File”) and laugh at what I see. I can’t do that with a lot of these new ones, despite the fact that the series is still supposed to be a comedy.  So where will season five lead us? I’d like to hope that things will begin the process of returning to a more humorous, less overly melodramatic style. I’d still advocate turning to some of the high-tier fan fiction out there for ideas - let’s face it, people like Peter Guerin, Canadibrit, and C.E. Forman have a lot of rather high-quality ideas that could be adapted into great season five episodes (a modified “No Nudes is Good Nudes” would be fantastic, but fat chance of that). Lew Richardson, too, could write one hell of a humorous episode that would really make a lot of people smile (and probably go ballistic with laughter... go read “Heroes” now for proof that this man is the master of knee-slapper humor!). Or, should they desire to continue to maintain dramatic elements in the show, Kara Wild’s stories tend to be among the highest quality in terms of both plotting and characterization. Never mind the fact that they are (as the others above are) uniformly well-written, and in many cases ("That Thing You Say," "An Uneasy Marriage," pretty much every other one) better then a lot of the episodes that get made. But, thanks to that whole copyright thing, it won’t happen. Instead, what we’ll end up with is another chain of melodramatic episodes in which Daria gradually loosens up (thus becoming even more removed from her original self, but at least this time things will hopefully seem natural, not forced), and Lawndale begins to look more and more like Daria’s Creek until the inevitable breakup episode. That, too, is another essay that will stem from one of the afore-mentioned debates.

--Brian Taylor, not a cheerleader's little brother.

Revised and Completed on 10/24/2000