21 Years On, ‘Daria’ Remains a Show of its Time With Timeless Appeal
As part of their recent announcement of a network rebranding that will include repackaging of classic shows for streaming services, MTV revealed that they planned to reboot the counter-culture 90s classic cartoon, Daria. Tentatively titled Daria and Jodie, the series will bring back the sardonic teen for 2018 audiences, but her best friend Jane Lane will be replaced by Jodie Landon. Grace Edwards, a writer on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, will be in charge, while Tracy Grandstaff, the voice actress for Daria, has yet to confirm her involvement.
For those of us who came of age with Daria and her show, this news elicited extremely mixed feelings. How do you make a show so impeccably of its time for a 2018 audience? Does Daria’s voice, equal parts cutting and stubborn, have a place in a pop culture ecosystem where cynicism already permeates every pore? Are the episodes of Daria we have not relevant to the current time?
I hit my teens in 2003, by which time the series was already over, but we’d just gotten satellite TV and MTV 2 aired repeats at 4pm. That meant that, if my sister and I got home from school quickly enough, we could have a nightly double bill, and a new cartoon to watch in-between our endless repeats of The Simpsons and Futurama. Yet it was Daria that easily had the biggest influence on us both. As much as I had aspired to be like Lisa Simpson growing up, it was in Daria Morgendorffer that I found true ambition, mainly the ultimate dream to be completely impervious to what the world said about me. It was the adolescent experience I would have killed for: A quip for every occasion, a hefty collection of bleak literature, one loyal friend on the same wavelength, and the ability to utterly exclude oneself from the ravenous jungle of high school. She was like Teflon, and to a highly emotional teenage girl with few friends and the painful knowledge that yes, everyone was talking about her behind her back, that was enticing beyond words.
The thing about my love for Daria is that it shifted in ways I would never have predicted as a 13-year-old. I began to see the way Daria’s self-imposed exclusion affected not only her but those who cared about her. It became painfully obvious how not even the coolest girl I knew could be totally invulnerable to something as basic as being 16. Daria was never a true nihilist. She always cared too much about the world to become hopelessly jaded to it, even if she set standards that she herself struggled to reach most of the time. As little belief as she had in her fellow humans, especially at the high school level, she couldn’t write them off. Daria was smart, but she was still a teenage girl, after all.
She had the ultimate crush in Trent Lane, the slacker Rockstar who is the kind of guy girls like me would have torn pictures of them out of magazines to cello-tape to the inside of their notebooks. Of course, even Daria couldn’t hide her awkward giddy feelings for him: He had a band (but they were thinking of changing their name) and he took Daria’s own distaste for the world to the nth degree. One of the sharpest elements of Daria was how it showed the evolution of its protagonist’s crush on Trent. As much as she knew that such a relationship would never work in the short or long term, that didn’t make it any easier to ignore the fantasy. Then again, most of her fantasies around him were too self-aware to be truly fantastical. Therein lay the genius of Daria, a show that knew the thrill of a crush isn’t good enough to sustain genuine human interactions.
Perhaps that was why so many fans were disappointed when Daria finally got a boyfriend in the form of Tom, a character who just seemed way too neatly designed and not all that much fun. Tom was always far too mature and level-headed for a 17-year-old, and as much as Daria could have used a sharper foil throughout the series, he wasn’t the right fit. Really, Daria had the perfect foil in her mother, Helen, a workaholic with guilt issues over lack of time spent with her family, but also a fiercely devoted mother who knew exactly what made her daughter tick. Tom and Daria had some fun interactions, but on top of seeming uncomfortable together, Tom could veer into mansplaining territory with the drop of a hat.
And also, Daria stole him from Jane. A lot of fans had serious trouble getting over that story beat, and for good reason. I could accept it being uncharacteristic of Daria, a young woman who was always way more of a teenage girl than she liked to admit, but the series seemed too tentative in dealing with the fallout of such a nasty situation. In Is It Fall Yet? the first of two feature-length episodes, Jane mostly gets over the betrayal by the end of the running-time, and endorses Tom dating Daria, but they don’t have any real conversations about it. The moment is also sparked by Jane having a brief crisis of confidence over her sexuality when a woman hits on her, and that goes nowhere. Nowadays, that probably wouldn’t happen like that. It would have been a thrill for the series to have Jane be bisexual, a possibility they don’t even seem to understand is an option.
As the series progressed, the supporting characters came into their own and showed the ways that Daria’s world view couldn’t and shouldn’t apply to others. Daria could see through the bullshit of high school, but that didn’t mean everyone could sit out playing its ridiculous game. Quinn, Daria’s effortlessly popular younger sister, found that the shallowness of her social climbing offered little nourishment; cheerleader Brittany was a ditz but one with hidden depths - such as impeccable paintball skills - whose positive outlook on life could make even Daria see things differently; Kevin had no depth, but everyone needs a reminder that white male privilege can only carry you so far; and then there was Jodie.
It’s notable that the reboot series will allegedly focus on Jodie as much as Daria. As noted by Buzzfeed, Jodie was way ahead of her time, and arguably the true force of the series outside of its protagonist. As the most prominent African-American face at Lawndale High, Jodie was never able to forget the crushing role she played as both a role model and the token black girl. She was the valedictorian, the homecoming queen, the A+ student who did every extra-curricular activity with a strained smile because it was expected of her. Her parents, both highly successful business-people, pushed her beyond her limits but she kept going. Even as the smartest person in the room at any given time - yup, smarter than Daria - Jodie knew she couldn’t escape the assumptions that she only got where she was through affirmative action.
As much as I question the need to reboot a show I love so much, it’s completely sensible to do so with Jodie getting as much of the spotlight as Daria. The sardonic middle-class white girl who doesn’t fit in is one thing, but Jodie Landon is a voice our time could use more of. Daria could be a misanthrope, something Jodie may have coveted but knew was out of the question.
There’s a moment in the episode Write Where It Hurts where Daria’s obnoxiously earnest English teacher Mr. O’Neill says, ‘Sometimes boundaries can paradoxically provide us with freedom.’ He’s talking about a homework assignment, but I think about that line a lot as it pertains to the series itself. Daria found the niche that worked for her within the smothering constraints of high school, but those boundaries were also formed through situations and issues she had never been able to resolve. She was anxious, stubborn, had issues from childhood she’d never dealt with, and time didn’t move fast enough to allow her to stop being a teenage girl. In that sense, Daria is timeless, and maybe this new generation of confused teen girls could use a drop of that inspiration in their life. Of course, one cannot live on misanthropy alone, but maybe together, Daria and Jodie could show a path through modern bullshit.
What’s your favourite episode or moment from Daria? Let us know in the comments.