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Daria: The Complete Animated Series
What Janeane Garofalo's High School Life Must Have Been Like
Loves: Animation, Daria, Sick, Sad World
Likes: Old MTV animated series
Dislikes: The need for music replacement
Hates: The current MTV
The Story So Far
Introduced in Beavis and Butthead to offer the two neanderthals a smart, female foe to do "mental" combat with, Daria Morgendorffer was then spun off into her own series, where she struggled through the annoyances of everyday high-school life and her own family, giving intelligent young people a heroine who spoke for them. The show ran for five seasons on MTV, with two additional movies, in the days before the network decided to become the harbinger of the cultural apocalypse. DVDs of the two movies were released way back in 2002, and DVDTalk has reviews of both discs.
One of the things I love about having so much television programming released on DVD is the opportunity to revisit shows I haven't seen in many years. Sometimes it results in the enforcement of fond memories, but often it just proves that nostalgia is a powerful form of self-delusion. Then there's Daria. While I remember watching the show and enjoying it when it was on TV, it seems I stopped at some point before the series ended, because there's a Daria on these DVDs that was unfamiliar to me.
At the beginning, and for much of its five seasons, the show was a story of teen alienation, as the titular Daria Morgendorffer went through her high-school life, suffering the fools around her with bemused detachment, be they the idiots and social climbers at school or her distracted and somewhat self-absorbed family. At her side through the lows and slightly lowers, and mostly while watching Sick Sad World on TV, is her artistic pal Jane, a fellow outcast with a slightly sunnier disposition and more of a willingness to be a part of general society. Their adventures shone a light on the hypocritical, illogical and simply dumb elements of modern life, especially in youth culture. In essence, it was an indictment of everything MTV now embraces.
In this form, the show was hilarious, in some ways like Glee without all the singing. Happy endings weren't required as Daria's acerbic wit was reward in and of itself, verbally cutting down moronic jocks, ambition-blinded high-achievers and soulless school administrators alike, right to their faces. But with her deadpan style, frequently her point was lost upon her targets, and sometimes her barbs were taken as compliments. Though a bit more guarded in her attacks when it came to her family, with the exception of her shallow, fashion-focused sister Quinn, she has plenty to say about them as well. Fortunately, though Daria attacks from her morally-superior, self-assured perch, she is not immune from the shrapnel, and her own hypocrisy and/or lack of resolve is often pointed out by Jane, or Jodie and Michael, two of the more aware students who attend Lawndale High with Daria.
Giving that kind of treatment to the star character is one of the things that's most enjoyable about this series. Though it is a cartoon, both in the obvious literal way and the manner in which it depicts its characters, like Kevin, the stupid football player who wears his shoulder pads at all times, and Brittany, his blond (read: bimbo) cheerleader girlfriend, or Quinn's snobbish friends in the Fashion Club, it's rather realistic in how the characters interact. Though Daria and Jane are best friends, they can easily get into a vicious fight about unimportant things, and they aren't always the nicest to each other, especially when Daria ends up stealing Jane's boyfriend. Though Jodie is a good person and a good student, she only does the things she does because she knows they'll keep her parents happy. And though Daria and Quinn, as sisters a few years apart, are mortal enemies, they let small bits of kindness toward each other sneak through.
Part of what makes it such a realistic cartoon, is the way people change throughout the show's run. They may not change their clothes, but they are not static characters, which is rare for an animated series (or any sitcom for that matter.) Though Daria starts the series as stand-off-ish and cynical, through her experiences, she starts to open up to friends and family, and becomes a far more real person. The same goes for Jane and Quinn. Quinn's growth is especially interesting, because it happens very subtly (which makes sense as she matures from the freshman she is at the beginning) and because it puts her role in jeopardy. She is essentially a stereotype, focused purely on looks and clothes, and though she doesn't stray far from those roots, she gains a bit of depth as she struggles with the expectations people have for her.
This realism took a small dip in the show's third season, as reality was left behind for some rather unusual trips of fantasy. In "Depth Takes a Holiday," personifications of holidays visit Lawndale and form a band with Jane's slacker brother Trent, while "Daria!" features several musical numbers. Though these episodes feel a bit like they're filler grabbing for straws, like the urban legend collection in season four's "Legends of the Mall" or the insane anti-commercialism creed "Fizz Aid" in the final season, the show got back on track by actually changing tracks. The all-out comedy of the earlier seasons eventually starts to be scaled back, especially in the middle of season four, as the show takes on more of an on-going story, including some actual drama. Though I expected to dislike the show less as it aimed less for laughs, I found myself more engaged with the characters and more interested in the show.
One of the things about this set that's likely to split fans in regards to this set is the issue of music replacement. As series creator Glenn Eichler notes in a letter included with this set, 99 percent of the music has been replaced from the soundtrack aired on TV, with the exception of the excellent theme song and a select few songs where the words were spoken by characters (like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Whoomp! There It Is".) To be honest, I've never been a stickler for music replacement unless the music is intrinsic to the feel of the material, and I rarely notice it when it comes to TV shows (since you're talking about multiplying the cuts times many, many episodes.) Here, since the show was on MTV, they used tons of popular songs as transitional themes and background cues, but the generic tunes used on these DVDs would have made fine first choices, setting the aural mood quite well, especially during the fifth season episodes.
The complete run of Daria is spread over eight DVDs, which are held in a double-width black keepcase, with four double-sided trays for the discs (which, with the exception of the first two discs, feature pairs of the shows' characterson the label art), and an insert letter from series creator Glenn Eichler. The DVDs feature full-frame animated menus, with options to play all or select episodes. There are no audio options and no subtitles, though closed captioning is included.
The art style for Daria is beautifully simplistic, using bold solid colors and thick black outlines, both of which are captured beautifully on these full-frame transfers. There's an obvious improvement in video quality as the seasons progress, seen mainly in the vividness of the color and a decrease in obvious dirt, to the point where the last two seasons look basically pristine. There are no issues with digital artifacts.
The audio is just what you'd expect from a late-'90s basic-cable cartoon, which means simple, balanced Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks that offer nothing dynamic. The only thing really worth noting is the bumper music after the "commercial breaks" which comes back over the dialogue in places. Considering much of these pieces are replacements, this seems like a screw-up.
If you're like me, you'll likely use the Play-All option on the discs, to plow through the show in marathon viewing, you'll miss out on one of the extras. The intros done for the Daria Day marathons are included as optional parts of the respective episodes, but only if you select to play those individually (at which point a menu listing the Daria Day intro appears.) There really should have been a play-all option with intros.
The rest of the extras are held on the eighth and final disc, starting with the two biggest extras, the two 90-minute movies, Is it Fall Yet? and Is it College Yet? It's always a danger to stretch a show several times it's natural running time, and here, the episodes are over four times as long. Despite such inflation, they are terrific episodes, mainly because they have genuine storylines, with Fall examining the maturing relationships of the characters as they spend a summer apart, while College has them looking at moving into adulthood. Despite all the drama, and there is plenty, there are a lot of the usual Daria laughs as well. The problem here, with Fall at least, is the placement in the set. Both movies are part of the series' continuity, bookending the final season, so if you watch the discs in order, you watch Fall out of order, and it doesn't make lot of sense.
The character profiles are the usual short text bios for the main players, 11 in all, but these come with the nice bonus of sketches for several of the parts, including looks at their original incarnations from 1995, which were much different than the finished product. Where this clips came from is a curious question though, as they look rather dated. There's a bit more familiar early look at the show in the roughly-animated five-minute pilot, "Sealed with a Kick." The voices and personalities are a bit off, but the characters are on-model. That said, whoever watched the pilot and saw a future for it, must have had one heck of a crystal ball.
The only new content included in this set are the six minutes of cast and crew interviews, which let them talk about the genesis of the show and their thoughts about the characters and stories. The interviews are played over plenty of concept art from the series, which is a gift for fans of the series, especially animation buffs. The most interesting part of it all may be seeing the people behind the voices, which often don't match the characters in any way.
The show's musical side makes up the final two DVD extras, with a music video for Trent's band Mystik Spiral's "Freaking Friends" and a Top 10 Countdown of animated videos, hosted by Daria and Jane. Naturally, the videos aren't included. The final extra can be accessed in a DVD-ROM drive, where you can check out a PDF script for the pilot of a Mystik Spiral spin-off that never got off the ground. It might have been a pretty decent show, reading like something of an updated, animated version of The Monkees.
The Bottom Line
It had been a long time since I had seen an episode of Daria, but the show holds up incredibly well, much more so than many of its fellow MTV series. The hilarious skewering of youth culture served up by this series is really a perfect example of what's gone wrong with MTV, as it makes fun of everything that's now the status quo at the former Music Television. The DVDs look and sound very solid, and offer a good, if limited collection of extras for the fans waiting forever for this set to arrive. If you have fond memories of the show (that weren't centered on the music,) you owe it to yourself to check out this release, and if you've ever felt alienated as a young person, and the social system just seemed unfair, you really should check this series out.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.