By G.J. Donnelly
I admit it. I have a crush on Daria.
Granted, I'm a thirtysomething man and she's a teenage cartoon character. To the casual observer my admission may seem, well, strange. But hear me out.
Daria Morgendorffer is exactly the sort of girl I used to dream about in school. Shy and repressed, yeah, but also highly intelligent with a formidable BS detector.
Her resistance to the idiocy that surrounds her almost daily - from adults and peers alike - is the ongoing conflict here, one that Daria has endured since she first appeared on Beavis and Butthead. Tellingly, Daria never smiles (well, almost never), stoically coping with the kind of chronic aggravation that would drive most of us to the nearest shrink to beg for Prozac.
At home, the irritations come from her well-meaning but interfering parents: ambitious Helen and hyper Jake. Actually, Helen's a bit more sensitive than she lets on, but mainly she pushes the teen into situations Daria would normally shun like root canal (like volunteering at a day camp for "sensitive" kids). Daria also has to deal with her image-obsessed younger sister Quinn, whose squeaky voice suggests she's been inhaling helium since birth.
At Lawndale High, she's presented with another set of annoyances, including star quarterback Kevin and his cheerleader girlfriend Brittany, a couple whose relationship is based more on status than true affection. Their brainless union rivals Newhart's Michael and Stephanie for sheer inanity. The lunacy of the student body mirrors that of Lawndale's faculty - a group of teachers that range from the insane to the incompetent. Daria's only calm in this storm is the laid-back Jane, an aspiring artist whose common-sense approach to life makes her an ideal sidekick. It's no accident that the gals' favorite TV program is the Jerry Springeresque Sick Sad World.
Daria reminds me of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's surreal adventure series about a secret agent imprisoned in an eerily symbolic seaside "Village." While McGoohan's No.6 shields himself in an armor of snorting indignation, Daria uses her sardonic wit to keep the dwellers of this bewildering world from getting too close. She's not a number, but she's not exactly a free woman, either. Tonight, she kicks off her fifth season as an inmate of Lawndale High, and I'm beginning to wonder if she's ever going to graduate.
This wonderfully droll cartoon series should be viewed in the same way as The Simpsons. The characters never grow older, many never grow wiser, and all of them are at the mercy of fiendishly clever writers who delight in putting them in some decidedly awkward positions.
Over the summer, we saw Daria make a quantum leap emotionally in the 2000 MTV movie Is It Fall Yet?, where she reluctantly embarked on a relationship with attractive, rich and easy-going Tom Sloane. Sounds perfect, right? Alas, this "catch" had a catch - he was Jane's ex. Although Daria's insecurity almost torpedoed the romance before it began, she eventually overcame her fear (and guilt) and gave Tom a chance. It was nice to see.
In tonight's episode, Daria further matures when she rebels against the commercialization of her education after Principal Li strikes a lucrative deal to market soft drinks within Lawndale's walls. Our heroine balks at complaining directly to the Superintendent of Schools until Tom urges her to take matters into her own hands. Typically, she expresses her idealism in a deadpan voice that is almost totally devoid of passion. It is a moment of clumsy earnestness that teens of all ages can relate to.
In short, Daria is a subtle, insidiously satirical view of teenage life that manages to be consistently amusing and insightful. It's exaggerated, sure, but let's face it - with teenagers, almost everything is.