A Quip Above the Rest

By: Guy Wheatley

Looking back retrospectively on the tastes that we cull and cultivate over time often produces a heady sensation of nostalgia and embarrassment. I know for myself personally that with American network television, it's always been slim-pickings, even in my more tolerant years. I've usually taken the Winston Smith approach of eschewing whatever oozes from the telescreen of our household, and intend to maintain that status quo, at least until National Enquirer TV and The X-Files cross over into one program and I can mimic the watching habits of our animated heroines. In my sophomore year of high school when I was a not-quite-as-evolved Guy Wheatley, I cheerfully indulged in the trivial histrionics of the nation's most infamous thirtysomething crowd, Seinfeld, which I thought celebrated those idiosyncratic endearments that we love each other for, called our "human faults." Needless to say, I soon had my fill of the malaise of that sitcom, and in my senior year of high school, as a rather-more-evolved Guy Wheatley, I moved yonder into Frasier domain, the droll and high-brow antics of the psychiatric Crane brothers fitting my palate better; it certainly seemed to me to fit the slogan of "the smartest show on TV" at the time. But eventually that comedy too wore on my nerves, as I had my limits of endurance of the fastidious hypocrisy of these overgrown bachelors who might as well have taken cues from the life and times of British novelist Henry James. Today, as a fully-evolved and Y2K compliant Guy Wheatley, I suddenly find myself a sophomore again, and am now head over heels with the cynical and deadpan ubermensch Daria and the wry send-ups of high school existence that her animated existence delivers, experiences that I thought were, at least chronologically, behind me. It's an odd little cycle, if one thinks of it: From thirtysomething to fortysomething and now snapped back to teen-dom.

Have I come full circle? I know something has happened, that much was apparent in all its Pavlovian glory when I had first witnessed Daria all of two times of late October this year during the last twilight days of the daily dose era, and then that weekend was standing in a video store and literally salivating over the prospect of two Daria videos shelved inconspicuously in the "TV Series" section, wondering if I should damn the torpedoes of reservation and take the plunge. But even as I was gripping the shrink-wrapped video cassette, gazing upon folded, green-sleeved arms of that uncompromisingly wry girl, I knew that I was going straight over, surely as the hapless river-rafter coming upon the waterfall around the bend. Much as the saying applies to Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis first pitching the concept of Daria to MTV Networks, the rest is history.

In the two months since then, I've rapidly fetishized my discovery of Daria, and have become as accomplished a scholar on the show as the rest of you. I've seen every episode, either through television airings or filtered via Real Audio courtesy of the excellent "Depths of Shallowness" and "Sounds of Cynicism" web-sites. I've meticulously overseen the recording of said episodes into my video collection and suffered and slings and arrows of outrageous MTV scheduling following the end of Autumn's Daily Dose in order to secure those tapings (with still ten to go at the time of this writing). I've read a myriad of fan-fics and have sampled just about every reputable author featured on "Outpost Daria". Like a sponge I've absorbed and filed obscure facts about character backgrounds, Lawndale locales, running puns and media-consciousness of the show, and trampled all over the Daria trivia on MTV's webpage like a drunken St. Patrick's Day parade thoroughfare. Besides the Season One Daria videos, I've also bought the Daria Diaries and the Simon and Schuster Interactive product Drama's Sick Sad Life Planner, unpolished features and all, and load it up daily if nothing else but to learn "what made this day sick and sad." I've endured one pugnacious blow-out about the show's merits with one friend, while I've proceeded to convert another into its grip for our own Daria-themed get-togethers around the VCR (he also happens to be an artist and a runner, making the rewards all the more sweeter when the art has imitated the life). And naturally, I've lurked on the Outpost Daria and Paperpusher message boards in circulation, leading that oddly vigilant and soft-spoken life of the lurker who, despite his immense interest in the community, somehow feels disinclined to interrupt with his own amateurish contributions.

In the course of this fanatic consummation, that has been advancing at warp speed compared to the dilatory pace of other long-time fans who have actually had to wait years for screenings of seasons two and three and have seen sites, people, and interest come and go, I'm forced to ask if I've gone mad. I haven't fallen for a show quite this hard, paraphernalia and all, since I first saw Doctor Who in middle school. I, Guy Wheatley, who had recently been touting that he no longer indulged in wicked little obsessions, but instead settled for the more diplomatic moderated passion. I set the neat silver dining set of this declaration on the tablecloth to see it effortlessly yanked out from under me. What's even more peculiar about this gem is that it's the offspring of television's ultimate set-piece of the adolescent male imbecile, Beavis and Butt-head, and furthermore makes its home on the most shamelessly philistine network in existence, which never deters from regular screenings of such asinine fare as The Real World, Undressed, and Say What? Karokee. How would Daria react to this? Perhaps revealing it as ongoing cosmic payback for being too ironic. Maybe MTV's programming department requires at least one show on its bill to skewer the pop culture it represents.

However, the question still remains about how Daria has reeled me in so. After all, the satiric comedy and dialogue isn't necessarily more clever or poignant than similar fare in Futurama and Dilbert, shows that I don't venerate nearly as much. When we as fans are confronted about our love for the show, I'm certain we all have our autopilot stock answers that we deliver, about the ironic and dry disposition of our heroine and how relevant it is to our culture, how much we identify with Daria, the self-conscious stereotypes that the show uses to as a vehicle for parody, etc, etc, ad infinitum. However, as I've been descrying for myself, Daria's many parts are more than the sum of this simple whole.

Daria's characterizations definitely go beyond what is represented in most prime-time fare, and certainly in its cartoon cohorts. And in some cases, it is the lack of characterizations, paradoxically, that also feeds its fire. The best example is the title character's duchess of droll, Daria. The deceptively sarcastic and trenchant commentary that she responds to everything with can be interpreted in a wide spectrum, everything from the defense mechanisms of a pseudo-intellectual smart-ass drifting through life and trying to shoot down as many people as possible along the way to counter her own insecurities, to the reactions of a brilliantly witty and deadpan modern cynic whose criticism cuts to the root of our disaffected nature, with a soul two sizes too old for its body.

Naturally, I'm more inclined to the latter, considering that her bookish tastes range from Brooks Hansen to Jean-Paul Sartre to Allen Ginsberg, and all the way into the ultra-metafictional realm of (much to my approval) David Foster Wallace in C. E. Foreman fanatic, a literary diet destined to forge an earnestly alienated, jaded soul. We are also allowed into more vulnerable moments of Daria's psyche from time to time to controvert any idea that she's entirely callow or self-absorbed, moments that are sought after because of how inscrutably cynic Daria comes across. Helen summed it up succinctly in "Write Where it Hurts" when she commented on how difficult it was for Daria to honestly acknowledge what she wanted in life: "What's hard for you is being honest about your wishes. About the way you think things should be, not the way they are. You gloss over it with a cynical joke and nobody finds out what you really believe in." Daria's heart-to-heart with Jodie at Grove Hills in "Gifted" is perhaps the most revealing scene in which we are privy to the whys of Daria's behavior. Other good examples of more sentimental or sympathetic behavior in Daria would be her willingness to elaborate on single-point perspective long enough for Brittany to understand ("The Invitation"), assuage Quinn's image-centric fears about her cuteness, however reluctantly ("Too Cute"), deciding to make amends to what she believed was too brusque a brush-off of the good intentions of a young man ("The New Kid"), restraint from humiliating Quinn in a documentary ("Monster"), instances where she feels the fabric of her identity threatened by temptations of vanity ("Through a Lens Darkly") or shadowing by Quinn ("Quinn the Brain"), a moral obligation to volunteer work ("The Old and the Beautiful"), and even moments when she allows a little insidious closeness to creep in 'twix Daria and her parents, whom she usually keeps at arm's length ("Ill," "Write Where It Hurts"). And the entire shipper tension in the Daria cannon ("Road Worrier," "Pierce Me," "Lane Miserables") is a whirlwind of Achilles' Heel exploration in itself, considering how asexual Daria comes across.

Then on the other side of the coin, someone with as dry and intelligent an outlook as Daria certainly can't refrain from exploiting it with interactions of people around her. She charges inept college students for writing their papers ("College Bored") and does the same with Quinn, both with school and indulging in her set-ups or schemes ("Quinn the Brain," "The Pinch Sitter," "The New Kid"). She even compromises with Helen ("The Invitation") and takes advantage of Jake's well-intentioned naiveté in rewarding Quinn with money ("Quinn the Brain"). Even with her back against the wall she twists her duties into quite unorthodox results ("Cafe Disaffecto"). Then of course there are the infinitely numerous instances where she uses her deadpan wit to make an ironic statement or cut people down to size, prose tactics that are the staples for the majority of comedy during the show, examples of this at its zenith are Daria's disdainful deconstruction of Val's happy-go-lucky mindset of teen contrivances and pop-culture sponsorships, ("The Lost Girls") and when pressed, her equally scathing critique of the annoying presence of Lawndale High's visiting radio DJs ("Jake of Hearts"). This juxtaposition of the two sides of Daria is a balanced one, and we are allowed glances long enough into her softer side to be reminded of her humanity while not portraying her character as meek or unnecessarily angst-ridden, while the rest of the time her cynical heroism is upheld and always tastefully done.

Speaking of character developments, Daria may be at the top of the pyramid, but she's merely the tip of the iceberg as far as interest in the cast goes. Just about every member of the Lawndale entourage has his/her place, history, and moments in the sun, even down to the odious Upchuck ("The Invitation"), the catatonic yes-woman Tiffany ("It Happened One Nut"), and the oft unheard Andrea ("Cafe Disaffecto"). There is of course Jane, the Thelma to Daria's Louise and partner in crime, who complements Daria's ironic and sarcastic front with her own wry, artsy style, while having several unique traits of her own to set her apart from her friend, most apparent being her willingness to engage in school activities when the price is right ("Daria Dance Party"), the price is academic ("Jane's Addition"), or the price is personal pride ("See Jane Run"). Then there is Daria's sibling polar opposite, Quinn, and her continuing struggle of be Queen-of-the-Hill in popularity, fashion sense, and keeping guys yapping at her heels, who yet from time to time has the Morgendorffer gene interrupt her usual routine of shallow self-absorption and instill moments of depth or sensitivity (for Quinn), i.e. Sisterly concern when duty falls on Daria to bail her friends out ("Speedtrapped"), concern that she's turning into something of a "phony" when she affects an intellectual persona ("Quinn the Brain"), and a rare moment of humility admitting about the frivolity of her nature, though it's what she does best ("Monster"). Next up is the inner psyche of the ultimate starving slacker musician Trent, the poster child for the inner bit of disaffected Gen-Xer in all us, who nonetheless manages to be fleshed out beyond his first few cameos ("The Invitation," "This Year's Model,") in the classic "Road Worrier," and beyond, proving that despite his ultra laid-back rock-and-roll lifestyle he's not the poseur musician that we might have first assumed. And this analysis of the show's main characters wouldn't be complete without mentioning our vaudeville parenting duo Helen and Jake. In Helen we see her tireless efforts episode in, episode out to be the perfect working wife and mother to her children, husband, and career (after all, she sings out those intentions to us in "Daria!"). A few times she's even able to break down those generation barriers 'twix she and Daria and act as consul (most notably in "Write Where it Hurts" and "Through a Lens Darkly"). And practically every on-screen moment with Jake is an exercise in hilarity, whether he's trying to be hip ("College Bored"), parent conscientiously ("Ill"), act heroic, ("Daria!"), or engage in male-bonding ("The Lab Brat," "Lane Miserables").

Even the more minor characters manage to pique us. I've always found Sandi Griffin's sanctimonious righteousness about making the Fashion Club both a moral and a physical standard to be an absolute riot, because she actually believes it to be so ("Road Worrier," "The New Kid," "The Old and the Beautiful"), as well as her cool, faux-polite obeisant interchange with Quinn in her absurdly deep female baritone. Jodie seemed to be a cut-and-dry model of the the perfect extra-curricular and academic student before she was first really explored as an individual in "Gifted." Anthony DeMartino's bilesome temper, eye-bulging enunciations, and scathing derision of his students and his lot in life always gave me (whilst steadily grinning) the impression of watching a bomb about to go off, and yet there is even room for exploration of his character and his faults ("Cafe Disaffecto," "The Daria Hunter," "Just Add Water"). Even apparently cardboard characters like Brittany and Stacy have moments of lucidity (Brittany's advice to Daria in "Through a Lens Darkly" and her battle tactics in "The Daria Hunter") and empathy (Stacy wailing her heart out to Daria and Jane in "Fair Enough" and attempting to stand up for Quinn in "Daria Dance Party"), making the viewer wonder if there is more of the like to come. The wide variety of character appeal in Daria explains the celebration of these personalities that abounds in fandom, with such oddities as the Brittany-Stacy Supporters Society, essays on Fashion Club dynamics, Jane\Jesse debacles in fanfic, and Daria websites themed around Quinn, Jane, and Trent. Several episodes in fact treat the usual Daria/Jane dynamic as more a subplot on the sidelines compared to the antics of the more minor characters ("Too Cute," "The Daria Hunter," "Fair Enough," "Just Add Water"). When I catch the odd episode of The Simpsons these days, mostly it's to amuse myself with the folly of oblivious, dreamy doe-boy Homer Simpson. In Daria, I get that, and more, out of Jake Morgendorffer. One show's star attraction for me is merely icing on the cake in Daria.

Daria herself is definitely a twisted little cruller, as Jane puts it, which is undoubtedly why we are proud to be her fans. There is enough enigma about the constructs of her character to continue to be explored fruitfully in future episodes whilst giving us a good idea of what makes her tick, and thus relate too. Daria has mass appeal; anyone who has felt the least bit like an island unto him/herself, at odds with society, or over-qualified for life's turns will recognize this with the show, which certainly catches the zeitgeist of our modern alienation. The fact that it's set in high school makes it all the more ubiquitous, being a compulsory experience that one will be hard pressed to find lost on someone, as opposed if the show's background was a law firm, a hospital, the editorial offices of a magazine, or other workplace. There are a multitude of reasons why we watch this show and keep coming back for more: Some fans are concerned primarily with shipper developments, others for bouts of character growth vis-a-vis Daria and Jane, some for the shenanigans of the minor characters, i.e. Waiting for Jodie and Mack to break out of their background roles, some for the satiric plotlines, others merely because Daria always has a incisive witticism on the tip of her tongue, or a buffet of all of the above.

Daria's animated status, far from creating less of a serious impression or coming off as an ineffectual show, actually enhances it. These days, my postmodern, jaundiced eye is nary able to tolerate more than several minutes of typical American network fare, drama or sit-com, before the personal gaffe of the actors starts to get to me. In other words, a program's cast is personified by actors that you know have been hired outside the studio, speaking with their inflections and their idiosyncrasies, who may in fact ham it up. All an uncompromising situation. With animation, the cast are excused from the demons of bad acting (Kevin's daft and dumb antics are certainly easier to digest in this format then by the portrayed imbecility of an actor) or the rigid typecasting of an actor filling the roll, distancing we-the-viewer from identifying with the character if the actor/actress wasn't quite what we envisioned for the roll (a formidable problem in creating movies based off of books). To get an idea of the most abysmal sort of example if we were to personify Daria's likeness in the flesh-and-blood, check out the wickedly parodic Unofficial Daria Movie Rumor Page maintained by Aaron Solomon (there is a link at the Paperpusher's site). The caricatures of everything in animation, from the people to the places depicted, allow a direct and effective medium in depicting emotions and stances from the cast by a slight rearrangement of a line or two, as well as ability to utilize more hyperbolic elements, such as Mr. DeMartino's bulging right eye, Daria blushing, flurries of paint-balls, and dream sequences. I've long believed that animation was fast becoming a modern mythology for our lives; The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-head proved that a cartoon could break out of its saturday-morning superhero and loony tune mold into something with a little more depth. It has inspired and spawned a number of successful successors, including King of the Hill, Dilbert, Futurama, and of course our beloved Daria. Along the wayside there have also been a few other well-conceived attempts, The Critic, Family Guy, and MTV's Downtown that have now unfortunately joined the mists of time and fallen programs. Animation as a whole has gone from being a gimmicky phenomenon to accepted genre, and the satiric vehicle of choice. I doubt that animation will ever entirely overthrow its real-life counterparts, however it's definitely here to stay. Even the popularity of the comparatively base Celebrity Deathmatch, which uses clay animation, a close cousin to classic animation, is worth noting as indication of the collective public's changing and adaptive palate.

I'm foremost attracted to Daria as a satire, as undoubtedly most fans are. In fact, when I first started watching the show, it hearkened me back to my days of watching the BBC's Blackadder, which chronicled the antics of one Edmond Blackadder surrounded by the hapless in different parodic stages of British history, who, much as our heroine, used his dry wit and cunning in order to manipulate those around him and maintain his sanity. Daria strikes me as a more deadpan heir apparent to Blackadder, in female adolescent form in the American suburban heartland. However, Daria is a multi-leveled genre. More than a satire, is also has the talent to act as a drama. This is most evident in the now traditional season closer which deals with some personal tension 'twix Daria and those close to her; with "The Misery Chick" it was the purportedly "dark" psychological make-up of Daria that made her so callously impervious to the stark reality of death and how that in turn disconcerted Jane. "Write Where It Hurts" dealt with Daria's private feelings for her immediate family, which she had until then kept under wraps, before they were reified in a short story that indicated a secret desire for one day all of them to reconcile and co-exist with each other. Then the most recent "Jane's Addition" forced Daria, something of a green-eyed monster in a green jacket, to deal with her feelings of jealousy over her formerly uncontested rapport with Jane, now complicated by the oldest of conventions, a man. That also wasn't the only instance of a friendship on a rocky road, evidenced in "See Jane Run," which has competitive strife similar to "Jane's Addition" in how Jane explores new priorities and how Daria reacts to it. Daria is also one of the few TV characters I've come across who, despite her cynical and unembellished realistic outlook, also has integrity and values that she won't compromise, displayed in her stanch refusal to edit her contributions in the PTA art contest in "Arts N' Crass," and the lambasting she gives Jane when she uses her elevated athletic status to smooth over tests in "See Jane Run." If Daria feels she's in on the verge of hypocrisy, she wrestles with it internally instead of shrugging it off, evidenced in "Through a Lens Darkly" with questions of her identity wrapped up in public images. Basically, with Daria, there is a principle involved--if you need further enumeration of this fact, just watch Daria say it for herself as she tells off consumer researchers in "Malled." Daria also dabbles in the romantic realm somewhat, most prominently in the shipper classic of each season ("Road Worrier," "Pierce Me," "Lane Miserables"), without devolving into a soap opera. The show's writers even dabble in the realm of whimsical fantasy by the third season, with both clever ("Daria!") and sour ("When Depth Takes a Holiday") results.

However, 95% of the show's canon is still solidly grounded in reality (or what passes for reality in animation), which is one of the most important dividing points when Daria is compared to other toons. The plot is as important as the comedy in Daria, with a set beginning, middle, and end, with rising tension and resolutions apparent throughout the course of the episode. This collectively gives a more tactile sense of what we're watching and allows us to actually care about what's happening to the characters, and posit what may be in store for them in the future. So, as I mentioned earlier in this essay, the satiric wit of other efforts such as Futurama and Dilbert may be equal to that in Daria, but the fact that they exist more as a collage of clever scenes than a cohesive plot doesn't lend to it the same sense of far-reaching depth that Daria achieves. Which is why I believe such an active and faithful community of Daria-philes exists today, and a long arm of compiled fan fiction from numerous talents and degrees of homage, efforts tapping into everything from the unexplored nuances of Aunt Amy's relationship to Daria to bizarre crossovers with other television shows.

In summation, Daria is definitely something special (or as Daria herself might wryly put it, "A pearl in a bed of oysters"). I'm certainly glad that I fortuitously stumbled upon it when I did, and apparently not a moment too soon, since I'm sure I would have never located it amid the early-morning weekend marathons taking place these days. In a perfect world I would have discovered Daria on its inception when I was a Junior in high school back in March of '97, but I've been making up for lost time so I can wax with the best of the old-timers now. I know I'm certainly in this for the long haul, and even after Daria itself as a program one day reaches its natural expiration (unless Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis pitch the idea of Daria: The College Years to the MTV bigwigs; we fans can only hope) I can see the Daria community continuing to go on and flourish, finding new ways to engage themselves in the pathways of Daria history, much the same as the Doctor Who community spun on once BBC finally axed the venerable sci-fi program, and continues to, 10 long years after the last airing of the original series. I know that one day in the distant future if I'll be lying catatonic in a fetal position in my room, my clammy hands still gripping my copy of The Daria Diaries while my body is wrapped in the celluloid of my Daria tapes, I'll have preserved this point.

Now as I sit in hibernation this winter, laying in wait for Season Four's debut in February with the rest of ye, only one thing remains: To find an acceptable pizza place in my city for my own "Jane" and I to hang out our wee lives at...