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All photos © Paramount
Reviewed by Will Harris
here’s an undeniable irony in the fact that one of the smartest animated series in recent years was spun off from one of the most unabashedly stupid (albeit intentionally so), but such is the case with “Daria.” The character of Daria Morgendorffer first turned up as one of the classmates of Beavis and Butt-head, but when MTV decided that they needed a series to make women seem smarter in order to help even out the damage being done to the gender by the network’s Spring Break coverage, they decided to have her high-tail it out of Highland, moving the Morgandorffers to Lakeland. The subsequent series painted a picture of the teenage experience which, while admittedly exaggerated at times, nonetheless ranks right up there with “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” in its examination of an individual attempting to forge a unique existence among the mind-numbing cliques of high school.
As soon as we’re introduced to the rest of the Morgandorffers, we realize why Daria was always so tolerant of Beavis and Butthead’s antics: she’s spent her entire life around stupidity. Oh, okay, perhaps that’s too strong a word to describe her younger sister, Quinn, but no one is going to mistake the girl for a rocket scientist. In addition to their differences in intellect, the siblings sit on opposite ends of the school social circle, with Quinn a card-carrying member of the Fashion Club and a serial dater. Daria, meanwhile, prefers to either bask in her solitude or trade snarky quips with her best friend, the similarly misanthropic (but slightly more artsy) Jane Lane; together, they tend to either actively avoid or unabashedly mock fellow students like Brittany (the cheerleader), Kevin (the football player), Upchuck (the obnoxious flirt), and Quinn’s fellow Fashion Club members, Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany. And when she’s not in school, Daria is ensconced within the padded walls of her bedroom, venturing out only occasionally to interact with her mostly clueless parents, Helen and Jake.
This is how things were when “Daria” began, but over the course of the series’ five seasons, however, the characters evolved considerably. It didn’t take long for Daria to be provided with some semblance of a love interest, but her feelings toward Jane’s rocker brother, Trent, were presented in a manner which worked perfectly with Daria’s personality. Instead of falling back on her usual acerbic wit, she was prone to fits of silence while in his presence, often punctuated with periods of intense blushing. The whole Daria / Trent thing never really worked out, but she eventually found an actual boyfriend in the form of Tom Sloane, who, unfortunately, actually started out as Jane’s boyfriend. Whoops. By the way, it should be noted that Daria isn’t the only one who experiences growth on the series: Quinn never fully sheds her clique-centric ways, but she does eventually feel comfortable acknowledging Dara as her sister in public. (Trust me, this is a major breakthrough.)
The plots of “Daria” tend to touch on typical teenage stuff, including school projects, family weddings, first jobs, piercings and plastic surgery – you name it. When seen through Daria’s sardonic eyes, we’re presented with the ridiculousness of them, but the show often surprises with sentimentality, reminding us that some of the things that we might want to mock now may later provide fond memories. Granted, they might be fond because you remember how much fun you used to make of them, but that’s not really the point, now is it? The show also ventured outside the box on occasion, presenting a musical episode (“Daria!”), a horror anthology (“Legends of the Mall”), and, in “Depth Takes A Holiday,” a really odd trip - in a fantasy, naturally – to an island populated by the living embodiment of various holidays. Haaaaaaave you met Guy Fawkes Day?
The last we saw of Daria, she and Jane were preparing to start college. It’s a shame that there was never any attempt at continuing her adventures in a collegiate setting, but maybe it’s better that things wrapped up when they did. As it is, we can look back at “Daria” and see a funny, occasionally poignant series that took its heroine on the long, strange trip through high school, allowed her to grow as a person without sacrificing her distinctive outlook on life, and rarely took a false step in the process. You can’t maintain that kind of quality forever.
Special Features: The first and most important inclusion in the set is a letter from series creator Glenn Eichler, wherein he tackles fans’ concerns about the loss of 99 percent (his figure, though if it’s not precise, it’s probably pretty darned close) of the show’s original music. “The cost of licensing the many music bites we used would have made it impossible to release the collection,” he explains, adding that, indeed, that’s why it took as long as it did for the set to emerge. Fair enough: the number of laughs you get out of the set will almost certainly outweigh the number of late 1990s songs that you’ve lost.
Also included in the set are the two post-series movies (“Is It Fall Yet?” and “Is It College Yet?”), along with the original pilot episode, “Sealed with a Kiss” (it’s really more of an animatic, but it still shows you how the show evolved before it actually made it to air), Daria and Jane’s intros from a long-forgotten countdown of the top 10 greatest animated videos, the video for Mystik Spiral’s immortal “Freakin’ Friends,” and interviews with the cast and crew. For my money, though, the most intriguing inclusion is the heretofore-unseen script for a proposed Mystik Spiral spin-off. Ah, what might have been…