Judge Victor Valdivia is a grown man with adult responsibilities, but inside he'll always be an alienated monotone teenager.
What she lacks in enthusiasm she makes up for in sarcasm.
Daria Morgendorffer originally began as a supporting character on MTV's classic Beavis and Butt-head. The sardonic brainy girl who took ironic pleasure in watching the titular idiots abuse themselves and each other, Daria became so popular in her own right that, in 1997, as Beavis and Butt-Head was winding down, she was spun off into her own series. Daria would become the last popular animated series on MTV and run for five years before creator/producer Glenn Eichler (who later became an Emmy-winning writer/producer for The Colbert Report) decided to end it in 2002 lest it wear out its welcome. Fans were saddened, even more so when, for various reasons, the show was pulled out of reruns and wasn't issued on DVD (except for a couple of movies). Finally, after a long wait, the complete series is finally out on DVD, and while the Daria: The Complete Animated Series package isn't as outstanding as the show deserves, Daria itself is an enduring classic for teenage outcasts of all ages and genders.
Facts of the Case
Daria (Tracy Grandstaff) is a smart, articulate, and incisive teenager in Lawndale High, your average suburban high school. In other words, she's in hell. Though she takes refuge with her equally acerbic best friend, aspiring artist Jane Lane (Wendy Hoopes, LAX), she is forced to deal with her driven lawyer mom Helen (Hoopes), her high-strung yet clueless consultant father Jake (Julián Rebolledo), and worst of all her younger yet prettier and more popular sister Quinn (Hoopes). She struggles through get through the days where she is tormented by her family, her mostly insufferable schoolmates, and the alternately inept and tyrannical faculty, taking comfort in the hope that someday, Lawndale will become a shattered post-apocalyptic wasteland. A girl can dream, right?
Daria: The Complete Animated Series compiles all 65 episodes and two-feature-length TV-movies, Is It Fall Yet?, which aired between the fourth and fifth seasons, and Is It College Yet?, which aired as the series finale.
MTV had never aired a show quite like Daria before. It's even sadder that they've never aired one since. At a time when the network was flooding the airwaves with the latest pap from Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, it was also airing the one show that was, in every way, the exact opposite. Daria provided teenage girls with a positive role model that was badly needed then and isn't any less so now. Here was a teenage girl who was important because of her brains and her humor but who wasn't so irritatingly perfect as to be inaccessible. Daria was the teenager that everyone who wasn't popular in high school wished they could be or could have been, and it's a tribute to the show's quality that she hasn't dated one iota. Daria still one of the most bracingly honest and scathingly funny depictions of the agony (and occasional ecstasy) that is adolescence ever created.
The brilliance of Daria's characterization isn't just that she was smart and fearless—that's easy for TV. The catch is that for all her intellect and creativity, she is still, at heart, a typical teenage girl who loves junk food, bad TV, and cute guys. Sure, she reads George Orwell and can easily understand the frightening similarities between his stories and the ridiculously restrictive nightmare that is her school. She also makes clear that she has no interest in being popular if being popular means that she has to endlessly spew meaningless drivel about clothes and dating like Quinn does. Nonetheless, she isn't a chest-thumping anti-materialist vegan either. She can still take time to enjoy a nice greasy pizza with Jane, to sit and watch a marathon of Sick, Sad World, the ludicrous tabloid TV show she finds amusing, and to become speechless and tongue-tied around Jane's intriguing older brother, aspiring grunge rocker Trent (Alvaro J. Gonzalez). She could also be occasionally self-righteous or judgmental, flaws she (after some prodding by family and friends) could grudgingly admit. This complex portrayal made Daria a much more endearing and empathetic character than she might have been in lesser hands. Viewers could be dazzled by her quick wit and intellect but could also relate to her emotionally because she wasn't cloying or superior. In many ways, she was a far more well-rounded character than many of the live-action superstars that have clogged up MTV since.
It would have been easy to surround Daria with a group of cardboard cutouts that acted as straw men for her to knock down. Instead, Daria's supporting characters were almost as well-developed as she was. Consider Jodie (Jessica Cydnee Jackson), the school valedictorian. As one of only two black students in the lily white suburb of Lawndale, she's under enormous pressure to excel and provide a positive example. She accepts her role with grace but there are times when even she needs to vent about her unwanted role to Daria, the only student who could possibly understand. This is an unusual story; TV shows have rarely, if ever, addressed how it feels to be the only minority in any organization. Similarly, Jane is more than Daria's sidekick and sounding board. She may be an academic slacker but she does have a passion for running that leads her, in the episode "See Jane Run," to deliberately shed her outsider persona and join the track team. This episode is one of the best because it demonstrates the contradictions that Daria herself faces. She may value the role of outsider, but at some level she also realizes that losing Jane would mean being truly alone. It's their friendship that's the linchpin of the series and it wouldn't be convincing if Jane wasn't as well-defined as Daria.
Daria's friendship with Jane faces its biggest test, however, in the controversial series of episodes in seasons four and five (as well as Is It Fall Yet?) in which she and Daria meet Tom (Russell Hankin), a preppy student at another school who develops feelings for both of them. Some fans bristled at this storyline, feeling it turned the show into a soap opera. It's a charge that seem rather farfetched in retrospect, given how tame this storyline is compared to the likes of Gossip Girl and The Hills. It's true that Tom, as a character, isn't as well-defined as he should be (though he does get some amusing lines) but the storyline gave Daria and Jane some of their most affecting moments. Daria has no shortage of great jokes, but these episodes pack such an emotional punch that they demonstrate just how well-defined the characters are.
The credit for the show's success is multifaceted. The animation, simple yet colorful, is fittingly minimalist but with enough visual flair to match the teenage setting. The voice acting is stellar. Grandstaff's voice seems initially like a monotone, but after a while, you realize that even though its range may seem narrow, it can actually convey a whole range of emotions. The real standout, though, is Hoopes. Playing three radically different characters, she endows each of them with unique characteristics that can fool you into thinking you're hearing different actresses, especially in scenes she has with herself. The combination of acting, writing, and animation make Daria as much of a pleasure to watch now as it was when it first aired.
Technically the set is solid. The full-screen transfer is sharp, much sharper than these episodes have looked in a long time. It's so clear, in fact, that you can sometimes spot glitches in the animation where colors are painted incorrectly. Daria was one of the last shows done in hand-drawn ink-and-cel animation style so you won't get the crispness of modern computer-based shows. That doesn't really matter, however, since Daria was always more about the characters and dialogue than dazzling animation. The stereo sound mix is fine, too, showcasing the dialogue perfectly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
MTV has billed this as The Complete Animated Series. Not so fast, MTV. True, these episodes are complete, instead of being severely chopped up and censored like the versions that briefly aired on the late and unlamented Noggin channel. However, the version of Is It College Yet? that's included is, just as on its previous stand-alone DVD release, the edited 66-minute version instead of the unedited 75-minute one that originally premiered. Apparently, the longer version is lost forever. Also missing is 99 percent of the original music that aired with each episode. The package includes a statement from Eichler in which he explains that licensing the original music (which encompassed virtually every artist ever played on MTV during Daria's run) would have been prohibitively expensive, but these changes do sometimes hurt the humor. For instance, the parody of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" video in the episode "Road Worrier" is much less amusing without the actual music.
The extras for this package are also disappointingly meager. The most anticipated are the interviews with Eichler and many of the show's voice actors (6:21) but these are way too short. This isn't even as comprehensive as the original behind-the-scenes program that aired on MTV back in 2000 before the series was over, which is, sadly, not included here. Also included is the original pilot "Sealed With A Kick" (5:24), which is a black-and-white animatic originally issued on the Daria VHS tape, some character profiles ported over from the Is It College Yet? DVD, the video for Trent's song "Freakin' Friends" (2:38) from the Is It Fall Yet? DVD, a script for a potential spinoff with Trent and his band Mystik Spiral, and some intros for a countdown of animated music videos hosted by Daria and Jane. Some episodes also come with brief intros by Daria and Jane originally aired before the series was over. That's it. Not included, in addition to the behind-the-scenes show, are the retrospective Look Back in Annoyance, various Daria appearances on other MTV specials such as the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997, and some alternate intros for the first season which aired in 1998. These omissions aren't necessarily fatal but they do typify just how badly MTV treated Daria over the years. The omission of the original music is at least understandable, but to not have much in the way of interviews and to include the chopped-up version of Is It College Yet? is simply indefensible. Fans deserve better than that.
You can argue that MTV has, as usual, not given Daria fans as much respect as they deserve (and that's true). You can argue that by not getting these episodes with all of their original music, you're not getting to see them as they were originally intended (and that's true). Still, give MTV some credit: for the first time in many, many, years, you'll finally be able to watch unedited episodes of Daria whenever you want to. That's no small achievement. MTV has devolved into irrelevance and trivia in recent years (the channel doesn't even play music videos anymore), but with this collection, you'll get to see one of the last great shows they were responsible for and one of the smartest, most underrated animated programs of all time. Sometimes even the alienated outcast gets her day to shine.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2010 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.