Discovering Daria on MTV in the late ’90s was like finding a library in the middle of an amusement park. It didn’t just not belong; it seemed like the wry, placid cartoon was silently mocking everything around it. Debuting 20 years ago today, Daria was actually on-trend: Female protest became a dominant force during the Clinton years as angry young women found their voices in pretty much every corner of pop culture, from Alanis Morissette to Bikini Kill, Darlene Conner to Buffy Summers, Margaret Cho to Janeane Garofalo, Thelma and Louise to 10 Things I Hate About You. Against the dictate of popularity, carried out daily by TRL, stood the affectless, enthusiasm-free Daria Morgendorffer (voiced by Tracy Grandstaff). Like pretty much every Gen X character of her time, Daria made alienation cool — and the only reasonable reaction to a world that wasn’t quite sick or sad but did forever disappoint.
It was a gift to go to high school at the same time as Daria. The show helped me — and probably millions of others — get through four years of existential hell. My racially diverse college-prep program in Los Angeles was a world away from the affluent, nearly all-white suburbia full of dummies and dingbats that is Daria’s Lawndale. But being stuck, day in and day out, with a bunch of hostile strangers who found me “weird” and had no interest in talking to me was simultaneously brain-numbing and ever-painful — and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. Daria also articulated the confusing discomfort I felt about so many things, via ruthless dissections of subjects as varied as advertising, guardian angels, magazines for teen girls, and nostalgia for the “good old days.” The series even helped me understand some of my classmates better. I was initially taken aback, then overcome with a sense of connection, when I once overheard a girl who seemed to have figured out her social life but wasn't exactly fitting in talk about how much she related to Daria. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stand being at school, even if I never had the courage to start a conversation with her.
Intolerable as Lawndale High was for Daria and her best friend Jane (voiced by Wendy Hoopes), revisiting it from the vantage of 2017 made me realize that the school is a utopia of sorts. The “freaking friends” always got the last word — the boys, especially, are too slow to snipe back — and the worst thing that can happen is perpetual irritation. Culturally (if not chronologically), it’s teen life before cell phones, cyberbullying, and school shootings. Even squeaky-voiced cheerleader Brittany (Janie Mertz) heads to college after graduation. While all manner of calamities befell the rich kids on Beverly Hills, 90210, Daria saw the “anarchic death spiral of Western civilization” in the homecoming parade.
(Sidebar: Daria holds up pretty well as a broad sitcom, but it’s undoubtedly a product of its era. Its 10 most late-’90s/early-2000s details: Waif magazine, the Boys Are Guys band, lifecasting, black vests on guys, yellow-smiley-face t-shirts on girls, goth chicks, “world wide web,” the musical episode, teens vegging out in front of the TV all day, a perpetual anxiety about “selling out.”)
For the show’s first three years, Daria and Jane mostly hung back, watching their classmates like zoo visitors dismayed by nature’s pettiness. (It was awful to witness, but there was no reason to take it personally.) And then, to borrow from another MTV icon, Daria stopped being (just) impolite … and started getting real. The series went from good to classic in its final two seasons by making Daria less of, well, a cartoon. It challenged her to do something other than complain — by respecting her sister Quinn’s (Hoopes) spiritual beliefs, by formally protesting a soda contract that warps the administration’s priorities, and by forcing her to apologize for stealing Tom (Russell Hankin), Jane’s then-boyfriend. The best individual installment of Daria is the first TV movie, Is It Fall Yet?, which pushes both Morgendorffer sisters to confront the fact that the cynicism and the superficiality they’ve respectively embraced are masks that keep others from knowing their true selves. The intrusion of Tom between Daria and Jane was a controversial story line when it aired, but the series’s emotionally rich final year greatly benefits from the ways in which their friendship is repeatedly tested and in which Daria is asked to open up emotionally. It was the only time I wished the relatively crude animation was more facially expressive.
Daria could cut down anyone and anything in less than 20 seconds, as she does the commodification of youth culture by a parasitic editor here. But, as the saying goes, a virtue never tested is no virtue at all — which is why idealistic adolescents like Daria sometimes miss the harshness or impracticality of their ethical purity. It was always much more compelling when Daria had to face how she’d failed to live up to her own principles, as when she started guiltily ditching her glasses after getting so many compliments when she left them at home, or had to admit to herself — and then to Tom — how much she wanted him to care about their six-month anniversary despite that kind of performative romance usually being Quinn’s girly domain.
Daria’s friendship with Jane is the stuff of gal-pal legend. But rewatching the series, I remembered how much I always adored the mother-daughter relationship between Daria and her workaholic corporate-lawyer mom, Helen (Hoopes), who understood the sullen teen’s rejection of typical teen life but encouraged her — and, in at least one case, bribed her — to keep trying new things. Daria depends on her mother’s advice more than ever in Season 5, as the lost adolescent deals with the fallout of her betrayal of her friendship with Jane and, for the first time, doesn’t know how to communicate with someone who matters a whole lot to her.
It’s little wonder that the series finale is a love letter to Helen and Jake (Julian Rebolledo) Morgendorffer, with Daria realizing that her own antisocial behavior may have helped her get through the years, but it was rough on her parents, even straining their marriage close to the breaking point. Daria’s final epiphany in the show proper is that her adolescent unhappiness, even if it couldn’t be helped, hurt others. It’s an enormously poignant scene that reminds us that maturation means looking beyond our own hidden pain to consider others’ — and that’s a process we should never outgrow. Even if Daria didn’t know it, the show was always aware that she could do a lot more with her intelligence and observational skills than find faults.
Inkoo as Daria on Halloween
All five seasons of Daria, as well as the two TV movies, can be viewed on Amazon through a Fullscreen subscription.