Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been marathoning Daria on Paramount Plus and really enjoying it. For those unaware, Daria — based on the character of the same name from MTV’s monster hit Beavis And Butthead — was an animated series that aired on MTV in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It has since developed a cult fanbase which due to its dry humor and unique characters which, as this article will explain, I am officially a member of.
The show stars Daria Morgendorffer, a teenage girl going to Lawndale Highschool who is notable for her intelligence, her dry wit, and her unwillingness to sacrifice her principles or put up with other people’s bullshit. She has to deal with her sister named Quinn, who’s President of the school’s Fashion Club and who’s vapid, stupid, and everything Daria hates rolled up into one giant package. She also has two parents, a workaholic mother named Heather and a slightly less dedicated father named Jake, who’s a bit on the stupid side. At school, she has to deal with the likes of her wacky teachers, idiot students, and everything in between, only finding an alliance with an equally sarcastic and anti-social girl named Jane, although Jane is not as book-smart as Daria and instead prefers to spend her time doing art.
At the start of Mr. Enter’s video on BoJack Horseman, he makes note that the show gets better as it builds on top of itself, constantly finding new ways to improve on its base. Daria is rather similar, in that this is one of the shows that only gets better the more you watch and the more you learn about all the characters. (Side note: It’s quite a shame Mr. Enter stopped doing Admirable Animations, because this is one of the shows that certainly should have gotten its time to shine on that series.)
I should warn you that from this point forward I’ll be discussing whatever episodes I want without any fear of spoilers. If you want to watch the series blind, stop reading now and go and watch it. You should already be able to tell my opinion on the series from the title of this article, but if you can’t, this is one of my new favorite cartoons of all time — I’m not joking.
The best place to start regarding why I like Daria is with the main character herself, Daria. As established above, Daria is not one to put up with the bullshit of others, and that makes her a character that everyone wants to be. Daria is what many outcasts and teenagers who didn’t quite fit in would have been like had they had a little more courage, someone who will openly go up to the popular kids and make fun of them in ways they don’t even understand.
It helps that Daria herself is also incredibly funny, with a quick wit and a large reference pool to pull from when she needs it. The show can almost be described as “if Christopher Hitchens was put in High School,” which is an idea I can certainly get behind. If you enjoy watching a good takedown, Daria is a show that I can already tell would be right up your alley.
Daria herself is always kept likable; the writers are very aware that this character done even slightly wrong can turn into a stuck up “not like other girls” style bitch, and so they have two tricks up their sleeves to make sure Daria never becomes this:
- They always make sure the audience finds whatever Daria is making fun of just as, if not more stupid than she does.
- Daria always makes it clear that the issue is not the fact that her peers have different interests or ways of thinking than her, but that they’re utter morons. Daria has allies on the Football team, such as Michael “Mack” MacKenzie (whose also the only black character on the show), and is at least on good terms with Kevin and Brittany — the Quarter Back and his cheerleader girlfriend — but despises them because they’re both utter idiots. When Daria (along with Tom, her boyfriend) does cross the line and starts making fun of a man obsessed with the 1940s because of his interest, Jane is quick to call her out on it.
Throughout the series, it has been shown that both Daria and Jane could become popular if they truly wanted to, but both remain asocial outcasts by choice. When Jane tries to be conventional due to a project from their new-age hippy English teacher (who also taught the self-esteem class where Daria and Jane first met), she succeeds and even nearly joins the cheerleading squad, in spite of the fact that the assignment was to do something you thought you’d fail at. When Daria tries to act like Quinn in order to stop Quinn from acting like her, we see that Daria could fit the role of Quinn if she truly wanted to. (We also see in the series finale that Daria has spent her life preferring to be isolated from others, going back to at least Elementary School.) Both of our main characters choose not to because, to put it simply, that is not who they are. The message of the series is not that it’s not okay to be popular, nor is it not okay to desire popularity, but that it is never okay to be stupid.
That is how I would describe Daria in one sentence: It’s a show about being who you are. In one episode, tragedy hits Lawndale High after the school’s quarterback dies. As a result, everyone flocks to Daria, thinking she knows how to deal with tragedy because she’s miserable all the time. But Daria has an objection to this hypothesis, she is not miserable all the time. As she says later in that episode:
Okay, but you know what I’ve been hearing? “You know how I feel, Daria. You’re gloomy. I knew I can talk to you, Daria. You’re always miserable.” Tragedy hits the school and everyone thinks of me. A popular guy died, and now I’m popular because I’m the misery chick. But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.
Throughout the series, Daria has three love interests. She has a crush on Jane’s brother Trent, a lovable slacker with a 1960s look who belongs to a rock band called Mystic Spiral, for the first three seasons. She almost gets together with a man named Ted, a formally homeschooled student who she meets doing yearbook and who is dorky, sheltered, and rather strong due to his love of woodshop and building things (again, one cannot deny he is himself). Lastly, she actually has a boyfriend for the final season named Tom, who originally started off as Jane’s boyfriend during season four but who broke it off with Jane and started dating Daria later on. Tom could best be described as a male version of Daria, albeit he’s much more social than Daria is, and they bounce off of each other in a hilarious manner. However, it’s worth noting that all three of these men are attractive to Daria for the same reason, they are not like the other men she has met throughout her life and they have no fear of standing out from the crowd.
In fact, besides stupidity, one could make a case the biggest sin in Daria is being a sell-out. In one episode, Principal Li attempts to raise money for Lawndale High by getting Ultra Cola to sponsor the school, allowing them to put machines containing the drink everywhere and forcing all the teachers to incorporate it into their lessons. The entire episode is basically watching this deal fall apart, not just because of the objections from Daria, but also because the student body simply refuses to go along with this utter nonsense.
In another episode, Daria, a friend of hers named Jodie, and the always weird and somewhat creepy Upchuck are competing over who can get $10,000 in scholarship money. When all three become finalists and get a chance to be interviewed, both Jodie and especially Upchuck spend their entire time sucking up to the corporation, while Daria lampoons them. Although none of them get the scholarship, it’s clear we’re supposed to find Daria the most likable character of the three because, although she loses the scholarship, she at least loses it on her terms. Meanwhile, Jodie and Upchuck lost it on their terms, with Upchuck even starting his own website and providing the interviewer his favorite candy in hopes of getting the money.
There’s also an overarching theme of questioning authority. In a season one episode, Daria goes to babysit two children named Tad and Tricia who can only be described as Stepford children. Their obedience to adults is so great that when Daria asks them “what if two adults say exactly opposite things?” Tad runs away crying because he simply doesn’t know what else to do. Daria and Jane, through the corrupting influence of sarcaism, teach the children that independent thought is possible. Near the end of the episode, we get this little exchange between Daria and one of the children:
Tricia — Daria? Jane? How do we know that what you tell us is the truth?
Daria — You don’t. And that’s the greatest lesson of all.
The show lampoons power, rather it be those in direct positions of authority or those with influence over others, and shows them to be no better than the average person — and in many ways, much worse.
There is no intelligent authority in Daria, Lawndale High is led by the psychopathic Ms. Li, who is more interested in punishing students, increasing the school's funding, and making the school look better to the media instead of actually running a decent school. Other authority figures include Mr. O’Neill, the English teacher who always has his head in the clouds, and Mr. DeMartino, who always looks like he’s a couple of seconds away from decking his students in the face.
It’s a little hard to explain why I love this show so much outside of “it’s funny and has a good message,” but if that’s not enough to interest you, then the most I can tell you is to simply watch a couple of episodes for yourself. The show combines wit with likable characters in a way I have not seen in a long time, and because of that, I can easily consider myself a fan.