Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Daria

I have been putting off doing this particular review for absolutely no real reason. I watched the DVD release of Daria shortly after it came out (A collection that took eight years to materialize) so I’ve been sitting on a possible review for four months or so. The sad thing is that this isn’t the only review I’ve neglected to commit to paper. Anyway Daria is an animated series produced by MTV from 1997 to 2002, a spin-off of the popular Beavis and Butt-head. Honestly though the two shows couldn’t be more different in tone and writing style and if someone didn’t tell you one was spun-off from the other you would likely never guess it on your own. The title character was a supporting cast member on the original show but I guess her time there was particularly traumatic and caused her to block most of it out because she hardly ever referenced anything about it and never once mentions either Beavis or Butt-head. Daria shockingly lasted five seasons, a rare feat for a cartoon, along with two TV movies Is It Fall Yet? and Is It College Yet? The show maintains a vicious vocal fanbase to this day.
Daria Morgendorffer is a cynical and sarcastic sixteen year old girl, who is smarter than almost everyone she knows and painfully aware of it. Her family has just moved to the suburban wasteland of Lawndale. Labeled as a “Brain” (And sometimes as a “Misery Chick”) by her peers Daria does her best to get through High School in one piece but she’s hampered by well meaning yet somewhat ineffectual parents, a fashion/popularity obsessed sister, mentally unhinged teachers, a corrupt principal, and a parade of moronic classmates represented by your standard High School archetypes. Along with her friend Jane Lane Daria has many mundane adventures over the course of the show.
She is, at best, apathetic to you
This show was considered a primetime sitcom much like The Simpsons (In fact it floated around during that late-90s/early 2000s animated sitcom boom that also spawned South Park, Family Guy and Futurama) and therefore is able to escape the “cartoons are just for kids” stigma that has dogged animation for decades. The show is intelligent and doesn’t talk down to the viewer which is a major plus. As a result Daria is a prime example of what Western Animation is capable of in terms of quality and proof that anime doesn’t hold a monopoly of incredibly good cartoons. The writing is always funny and the dialogue often snappy. It has to be; Daria has a sharp tongue, as do several in the cast, and the writers have to keep up with that. While snarky and sometimes preachy the writing is what will keep you coming back for more.
Pictured: Our Heroes
Not Pictured: Lesbians (Sorry shippers)
The overall theme of the series, as Daria herself explains in the series finale, is most likely the idea that life can suck but so long as you have a good friend (And pizza) you will escape unscathed. It seems like a somewhat cynical viewpoint until you remember that the show takes place in High School: that’s downright cheery for that setting. Really the proper translation is that the show is really about friendship. Daria is our titled protagonist but truthfully the series is about her relationship with Jane. It ends up working in almost the same way Gurren Lagann worked. Such a great friendship being pit against a cruel and unfeeling world makes for great drama, despite this being a comedy. I should also remark that the series has some damn touching episodes. While the quality of the average episode ranges from “good” to “great” (With a few stinkers here and there) there are several ones I found amazing and even had trouble keeping a dry eye through them. Some highpoints for me that causally come to mind were the episodes “Write Where it Hurts”, “Lucky Strike” and “Boxing Daria”.
Daria's Soapbox, the secondary lead of the series
Speaking of characters Daria may be one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. She’s a poster child for adolescent isolation and is what most of us “outcasts” (Surprisingly I was considered “un-cool” in High School. Don’t let the shock give you a stroke) were too afraid to be: themselves. Daria, despite it causing her no end of grief, stays true to herself, damn what everyone else thinks. She also possess high moral standards that, if challenged, will cause her to stand up for what she perceives as being the right thing to do…you know, if she’s not feeling too lazy (Spoiler Alert: She usually is too lazy). That said she’s a teenage girl who is prone to the same impulses and poor decisions that any teenager may suffer from. She’s stand-offish and is often prone to giving holier-than-thou speeches if sufficiently annoyed. She’s flawed which only makes her more appealing as a lead character. Daria is a three-dimensional character that all creators should check out before making their own protagonist.
The only other really important characters to the show is Jane, Daria’s parents workaholic Helen and emotionally unstable Jake, her seemingly less-than-bright and popular sister Quinn, Jane’s loser brother Trent (Although his importance is really more theoretical than anything) and later addition Tom who is less a character and more of a plot device. Beside that there’s a wide cast of secondary characters most of whom are more or less based on typical stereotypes you’d find in just about any High School setting. While they are the standards they are colorful and pronounced and you’ll likely find a favorite among them. Beyond that there are the background characters, of which they are dozens. The most well known is, of course, gothic chick Andrea who got a few lines in over the course of the show and even had an honest to God conversation with Daria and Jane in season four. Aside from her there are a ton of people wandering in the background occupying the otherwise empty places in the world with as much detail in their designs as the average main character. As I mentioned in my Dojin Work review I prefer this style as it actually makes the world feel populated. The problem though is that sometimes certain characters got stuck in my brain and I became attached to them, even if they never spoke a line. One character in particular caught my eye and even now I’m horribly depressed that she wasn’t a real cast member. Though she has several nicknames the one I heard the most, after several days of creepy research, was “Burn-Out Girl”. A cool drinking game for Daria would be to pick two or three of these guys and take a shot whenever they show up.
I demand MTV remake the show with her as Daria's other best friend
A downside about the secondary character is that a lot of them don’t get a whole lot of attention. What I mean is that, while they’re there and they make funny noises, we don’t usually focus on them. So, despite several characters having a flash of a deeper personality we never fully explore it. For example I was especially fond of Fashion Club members Sandi, because evil is awesome, and Stacy, because being neurotic is funny, but they didn’t really do all that much for most of the series. The same could be said for most of the supporting cast. It’s a shame since based on how well the main characters are handled and how much character development happens with key cast members (Daria and Quinn being the most developed) you know that, if given the chance, great things could have been done for the supporting cast. They weren’t so it sucks to be us. It’s no wonder that the Daria fanbase writes so much fanficiton about these guys; the writers didn’t expand on them so they had to do it (Subjectively, of course).
The main issue I had with the characters was with Jodie London, the overachieving smart girl who happens to be African-American. Being black myself it might surprise you how often I wished she was killed in a fire. As one of the few black people at Lawndale High she subscribes to the philosophy of having to be “better than the best to best represent my race” which is an absolutely fine thing to do, but she is forced to participate in just about every activity in school and work several internships and as a result she is terribly, terribly miserable. She admits that she chooses to not be herself and a put up pretenses for others for the reason of not wanting to misrepresent her race, but she hates it so much that it left me wondering why she’s killing herself over it so badly. She has a similar personality to Daria under the surface but is too concerned with what others will think to voice her opinion. As this is a show celebrating Daria’s ability think for herself and be her own person I find it odd that the writers actually believe that Jodie can possibly be likable with her annoying “woe is me I can’t be who I am” attitude. Most likely she is meant to be a contrast to Daria, the road not traveled so to speak, but even so every time she opened her mouth I wanted to backhand her for being whinny.
Don't worry; she hates me as much as I hate her
Also her boyfriend Mac, also black, has no personality and does nothing during the show worth mentioning. Thanks for representing my race so well, assholes writers.
The artwork holds up well over due to its simplicity but it’s nothing that great and any cartoon with a good budget these days will make it look like amateur hour in comparison, especially the first season. I didn’t love the artwork exactly, but I didn’t mind it either. The character designs seem classic to me now but the show suffers from the old problem of the cast never changing clothes. This is especially noticeable when Quinn and the Fashion Club are involved. I think at least once they mentioned the sin of wearing the same thing twice which was insane considering that all of them with few exceptions wear the exact same outfits for four goddamn years. Also the music needs to be addressed. Reportedly one of the main reasons it took so long for this show to be released in Home Video format was because unlike most TV shows Daria features tons of licensed music in place of incidental music owned by the show itself. As a result 99% of the music featured in the series had to be replaced with somewhat generic tunes that may or may not be appropriate. The show is over ten years old now, however, so it might not be as missed as it sounds on paper. I barely noticed it when I watched it (Though later seasons’ credit rolls make this severely obvious). Plus if you’ve never seen the show before you probably won’t care either way.
I could explain the context but it's funnier this way
These are minor complaints that shouldn’t affect the enjoyment of this show and you may not even realize they’re there. The two protagonists are an awesome team, the main cast is funny and well developed, the writing is superb, and it actually has an ending in its finale that wraps up the show which is rare in with American cartoons. The show has aged gracefully and is still relevant. As it was before it is still a reminder of the why being different isn’t a bad thing despite everyone you know telling you differently. Daria is as close to a being a perfect as I believe is capable. If you’ve never seen this series run out and get the DVD . If you’ve seen it buy the DVD anyway because it’s as worthy on you shelf as anything you’ll ever own.
Daria gets 5 out of 5 Adorable Pandas (Eat it, Beavis and Butt-head!)
-Features one of the best protagonist you’ll ever find
-Great supporting cast
-Top notch writing
-Has a clear cut ending that makes sense
-A large chunk of the supporting cast is underdeveloped
-Jodie London can kiss my ass
-The DVD release missing most of its music

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