In the world of Daria Morgendorffer (Tracy Grandstaff), there are two kinds of people: those with functioning brains and those without. At least, that’s how this seminal MTV series began in its scathing, manifesto-like early seasons, in which the titular anti-heroin’s antisocial antics are viewed as the only sane recourse to being forced to endure year after year of mental subjugation by a society that thrives on double standards and the illogical. Lawndale High School (and the altogether average suburban community surrounding it) is the central setting for the series, but like its archetypal characters, the society of grade school functions here as both satirical fodder and as a micro example of the world at large. Animated on a minimal budget, Daria makes up for limited resources with a precision of animation rarely seen since early Disney, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Character conceptualization fuses with excellent voice performances to create a seamless whole across the diverse cast, while cinematic touches are used sparingly to great effect (there may be no funnier moment in the series—in the third season episode “It Happened One Nut”—than the practically braindead prep Tiffany doing counseling work for volunteer credit, proving anything but ready for her close-up). Every gesture and marginal inclusion is key, and while the presentation of the show’s world often emphasizes the broadest of strokes (shading is absent here, like make other fussy animation tactics), it’s the carefully doled out details—such as the naturalistic animation of the character’s hands, four fingers and all—that ensures that this world is seen as a deliberate parallel to the real one on which it not-insincerely riffs.
Emerging alongside Comedy Central’s South Park, and itself a spin-off of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria ranks near, if not at the top of recent serial animation, impressive in its expression through minimalism and even greater intricacies as a work of dual empathy and self-scrutiny. Daria herself is wise beyond her years but is not infallible, her high standards for moralistic behavior sometimes backfiring for being too rigid on both herself and others. An excellent student with little interest in social involvement (most of which is presented as pathetic groveling to the standards of others), she’s all too happy to isolate herself from the majority, which tends to require the selling out of one’s standards in any number of ways. This view of the world bears truth, but the greatest strengths of Daria involve the necessity of regular illumination and enlightenment, and so her perception is one routinely challenged. So critical of her fashionista sister (to say nothing of the rest of the population) for eating, sleeping, and breathing for little more than to ensure her own popularity among the proudly superficial (the high school’s “fashion club” is depicted as a ruthless gang that preys insatiably on the insecurities of its own members), Daria long fails to realize that her own mask-like exterior of withdrawn sarcasm is her own means of avoiding hurt.
The gradual, if incomplete, erosion of this shell stretches the length of the series, a trait that applies to the rest of the cast of characters to near-equal extents. Familiarity improves the series’ somewhat cold vantage point, a fact aided in part by Daria’s own mounting self-realizations, but the general empathy extended to even the most loathsome of characters is nothing to sneeze at. The idiot jock, the unmotivated artist, the bitter divorcée—these personas are presented as dynamic, not static, thanks in large part to the acknowledged presence of time as a series staple. The future looms over Daria, her best friend Jane Lane (Wendy Hoopes), and their classmates, while the past continues to bear daily influence on their parents and teachers, many of whom long for lost opportunities (the routine emotional breakdowns of the adult population strike a tone both amusing and somber, most notable in Mr. DeMartino, whose right eye bulges out of his skull every other sentence or so).
Daria speaks to a generation bitter at the world, but it is also a work of universal hope, best encapsulated by the endlessly creative alter-egos of the end credits, in which the many characters are humorously reinterpreted as everything from pop culture icons to a variety of animals sporting human heads. Bizarre, subversive, and transcendent, they suggest the opportunities always at our door, whether we hear them knocking or not. It may be a sick, sad world we live in, but it’s the only one we have. Apathy is not an option.
It's worth mentioning that the audio tracks of the episodes in this DVD package have been altered from their originally aired versions. Once peppered with transitional clips from popular songs of the day, copyright costs necessitated the replacement of these elements with a generic musical score. All the better to focus on Daria's quotidian brilliance, which is effectively reproduced here in a serviceable 1.33:1 full frame transfer. Some combing is noticeable throughout, as is the occasional bit of dirt or animated imperfection (it's difficult to tell if these are transfer flaws or elements of the original animation). Sound is equally middle-of-the-road pleasant, but Daria's lacerating wit comes through loud and clear.
In addition to all five seasons of Daria, this DVD package includes both cable movies, Is It Fall Yet?, which aired between seasons four and five, and Is It College Yet?, which functioned as a series finale. Fans old and new will appreciate the sharply written "Daria Day" intros scattered throughout the episodes at about a 1:5 ratio. The pilot episode, "Sealed with a Kick," is an amusing genesis, but more interesting is the newly released script, "Mystic Spiral," for an additional spin-off show that never came to fruition. Additional goodies include the music video "Freakin' Friends," about six minutes of cast interviews, character profiles, and the amusing anecdotes offered by Daria and Jane in a specially animated hosting sequence once used for an MTV music video countdown.
Do it for Daria. Do it for Jane. Do it for the ceaselessly entertaining alter egos, who tell us that anything is possible if we allow ourselves to believe it so.