A look back at Daria, an MTV animated hit from the 90s.

I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1996. In fact it was the summer of 1996. We had just moved across the country from Hastings, Nebraska to Twin Falls, Idaho. My family was living in an RV park while my parents looked for work and settled into an apartment for us to move into.

My sisters and I were making the most of living in an RV park. We spent most of our day wandering around the video arcade pumping as many quarters as we could get our hands on into different arcade machines. Between that we would play card games to pass the time. Since it was summer school was out. We didn’t have much money so we had to rely on keeping our developing minds occupied as much as possible. This included watching a lot of MTV. Fortunately my sister and I were close in age we both enjoyed MTV equally. Sure we disagreed over the music we enjoyed, she was more into country and pop I was more into alternative and hip-hop.

One day we turned on the TV and there was this cartoon airing on MTV. It was a new show we hadn’t seen before. Neither my sister or myself were that much into cartoons so we were tempted to change the channel. It was an episode with a girl going on a road trip in this run down rock n roll van on their way to something called “Alternapalooza.” Our older sister told us about her ‘palooza she went to recently so it was enough to capture our curiosity at the very least. There was that and my own fascination with alternative music as obviously a teen of the 90s would be.

There was something about this glasses-wearing outcast, dubbed a “brain” by the popular kids on the show that appealed to both of us. In the end we quickly became hooked. My sister enjoyed it as she had a lot of similarities to the two main characters, Daria and her best friend Jane. I enjoyed it for similar reasons while I also, admittedly looked up to Jane’s brother Trent. As stereotypical outcasts ourselves the show not only appealed to us as it gave a voice to the frustrations we were experiencing, but it also gave us ideas how to cope with it.

As the remainder of our own tumultuous youth progressed so did our interest in this satirical outlook of our own youth culture. It was an entertaining yet eye-opening experience. It wasn’t until recently that I watched the show with someone who had been one of the popular jocks who told me the show was very demeaning to athletes. I explained to him that was the point. It’s been a challenge getting people who were at the top of the social ladder to look back and see how their actions adversely affected those of us who were on lower rungs.

I watched the entire series recently as I was given the DVD set as a Christmas present. It started with a casual viewing of season 1 with my sisters kids. By the time I got through the first season I was flooded with a wave of nostalgia and other memories taking me back to my own difficult teenage years. It was a great opportunity to remember not only my own struggle, and subsequent survival of adolescence, it was also great to rewatch my beloved Daria Morgandorfer go through life. As the show progressed I was very glad to enjoy seeing her develop as a person. She went from being a loner with no friends to building a tight relationship with her soon-to-be best friend for life Jane Lane. By the end of the show she had expanded her social circle, overcome her social anxiety and developed her own sense of self esteem and self worth, circling back to the very first episode which centered on her entire lack of self esteem.

How a show ends can be as important as the ups and downs of the show’s run. A good ending can be impactful on the viewer while an underwhelming ending could leave the viewer resentful of the show creators.

This is one of those rare instances where I can say I never felt like the show was dragging on. It felt like it ended exactly when it was supposed to. Needless to say that finale episode filled my heart with a wide range of emotions, more so now 15 years later than it did that first time I viewed. Being slightly removed from the decade, and adolescence I was experiencing throughout, has given me some perspective on the show.

As I sit here at a desk working what is essentially my dream job I have this show to thank for the way it not only inspired me to keep trying, but also how it gave me a way to cope with the stuff I was seeing going on around me. I was one of those outcasts who viewed this show as a faithful follower because it felt good rooting for Daria even though the world kept kicking mud in her face, somehow she always shrugged it off.

As I watched the show I made a few observations. First, it was thoroughly satisfying seeing Daria overcome her social outcast status and become a regular kid, more or less. She made friends along the way and even her peers who initially looked down on her eventually began to afford her the respect she earned. I also noticed the Trent character was a lot deeper than I remembered. He often had some great insights that caught Daria off guard. Then the was the annoyance of the voice actors. In the show’s original run I knew it was small budget and likely recycled voice actors. However I was lying in bed falling asleep while the show played on. During my attempt to nap I noticed a whole scene played out where as I wasn’t looking at the TV it sounded like one person talking to himself despite three different characters being in the scene. There were subtle differences but it was far more noticable than when watching the show. I chalked this up to their voices not being that different thus the visual aid contributed to the ruse. It was especially noticeable that Quinn and her mother shared a voice actor because when I closed my eyes or looked away it became harder to decipher which character was doing the talking.

I was reminded of a lot of things I had put aside. For one, I got to the episode where Jane dates a guy stuck in the 40’s. As my sister was one who had a fondness for I Love Lucy and dressing like an old person I could related. As the episode progressed he kept referencing a khaki commercial. It suddenly dawned on me towards the end of the episode what he was referring to. It was, I believe, a Gap or Old Navy commercial that played for a period in the 90s. It was one of those things that, at the time, stood out and influenced our youth culture albeit briefly. Yet as I look back I realized it wasn’t the type of thing that stuck with me as I had completely forgotten it until that moment.

There was also the memories of the shopping mall, which was a place I spent more than my share of my teen years. I also had some fuzzy memories of the retro PC and internet culture that was casually referenced on occasion. The rising internet culture was often alluded to but never fully explored. If only the show runners knew their bleak outlook of the future would be somewhat accurate.

Then there was the episode where Daria writes a short story. Even when I was a teenager watching the show I felt a stirring about how surreal it was predicting a very possible future that was based on her realistic expectations.

By the end of the show I was impressed with the number of relationships Daria ended up fostering. It ended up being far more than I had remembered. Not just friends or casual acquaintances but there was also the bond she ultimately formed that blossomed into a sisterly lover for Quinn. It was subtle but very obvious by the end of the series the two sisters were indeed going to be there for each other till the end of time. I have since formed a fairly tight bond with the sister I spent much of my youth watching the show with.

Overall it’s been a very good experience taking a stroll down memory lane. I often get nostalgic for things like Roseanne or Home Improvement while I overlook Daria most of the time. While I can get the warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia watching some Boy Meets World, Daria always grounds me back in reality. The decade wasn’t all that bad. Now if only can I could get that theme tune out of my head. La, la, la, la, la.