Shameless Nostalgia: “Daria”

Written by Television

Daria, the show that best captures the tone of American culture in the ’90s.

daria

Shhh… wait, what’s that? Do you hear that? It’s… it’s… yes! We’re finally here! The moment when cultural nostalgia for the 1980s is no longer really a thing!

Oh, okay, so that hasn’t really happened yet. Movie studios are still making adaptations of beloved ’80s properties, pop music is still dipping into ’80s influences like U2 and the brief but powerful impact of New Wave, people are still buying ironic lunchboxes on eBay. The ’80s ain’t going away, but that doesn’t mean the 1990s can’t be culturally ascendant. That, more or less, is what this column is about. Those of us who enjoyed/endured our adolescence in the ’90s are now in a position to generate meaningful critical analyses of the era’s culture and that’s exactly what I intend to do. Today, I’d like to kick things off with Daria, MTV’s spin-off of Beavis and Butt-head that, perhaps more than any other show of the decade, captures the tone of American culture in the ’90s.

The 1990s were stellar years for both mainstream and underground animation, and MTV was at the front of the line. This was back in the glory days of the network when it was big enough to be a force of nature but it still had some integrity vis. youth culture. As much as the ’80s nostalgia hounds love to talk about MTV’s early years of experimentation, I’ve always found the network’s ’90s output to be more interesting. It was an era when MTV used its huge bank account and endless cultural cache to influence not just how young people spent their money but how culture developed as a whole. It was hardly rare for MTV to lift a band, director or animator from artistically valid obscurity and make that artist a star. That’s what MTV did with Mike Judge when it featured his work first on the late-night goldmine of underground animation, Liquid Television, then during primetime with the long (and now revived) run of Beavis and Butt-head.

It was also no small matter to lift an incredibly minor character from B&B and build a whole show around her. Daria Morgendorffer was seen rarely and spoke even more rarely in her original incarnation as one of a world full of people who suffered Judge’s titular idiots. Transplanting her into the role of the simultaneous voice of one half of MTV’s audience and the vocal satirist of the other half was genius, but also damn risky. Without mincing words, it’s the kind of move modern-day MTV would never, ever make.

For the uninitiated, Daria is a half-hour cartoon show about a teenage girl whose intelligence, impatience with authority and love of irony constantly put her at odds with the people in her life. It’s characterized by Daria’s constant sarcasm just below the register of the very serious, very self-involved denizens of fictional, vaguely East Coast suburb Lawndale. The show ran for five seasons between 1997 and 2002 with two late-series movies.

Daria is a sneaky show. Its monotone protagonist cuts down her shallow, materialistic world with a vocabulary that numbers higher than the total brain cell count on The Jersey Shore but the aesthetics of the music and animation are bright and flat. Compared to MTV’s other animated properties, which were all some form of stark, gritty or cold, Daria is a downright pop confection. The show trends optimistic, giving its bitter heroine a cool best friend, love interests and several glimpses into a happy, prosperous future despite never being happy with her present. It’s upbeat while it pretends to be down on everything, and that’s about as ’90s as things get.

If there’s one thing that characterizes American culture in the 1990s, it’s misguided optimism. It was the prosperous time between the Cold War and the War on Terror, the time when the Gen-X crowd was starting to grow up and get rich in a booming economy fueled by bubbles in housing, banking and technology. We could pretend to be angry at our deficit-erasing, AIDS-awareness-raising, aisle-crossing president for his personal peccadilloes, so why shouldn’t the mascot of the era’s middle class teens pretend to be angry about the minor absurdities of her endlessly comfortable life?

For Daria and the time in which it aired, being snarky and smarter than everyone else was good enough. It was class-aware but it wasn’t outraged about the inherent disparities between classes (perhaps because its protagonist was an upper-middle class kid who butted heads with overtly rich people, not a poor kid who butted heads with everyone). It was anti-establishment insofar as it disagreed with the most annoying parts of the soft liberalism that dominated the ’90s. If Daria was a teen today, she wouldn’t be idly giving lip to clueless teachers and ditsy cheerleaders, she’d be camping out with Occupy protesters and facing legislation that removes contraception from the sex ed classes at Lawndale High.

This, ultimately, is the tone of ’90s nostalgia. Whereas reminiscing about the ’80s comes with the smugness of being less destructive than the ’70s and less naive than the ’90s, nostalgia for the ’90s comes with a very dark expiration date. The cultural force of the 1980s ended with grunge music and sex-driven sitcoms whereas the candy-colored optimism of the 1990s ended with war and widespread poverty. Watching Daria from its debut in 1997, I don’t just miss baby T’s and alternative rock, I miss the blissful ignorance of believing things couldn’t possibly get worse than The Spice Girls.