Top Episodes is a recurring feature in which we handpick the definitive best episodes of a groundbreaking, beloved, or otherwise awesome television series. This time we revisit Lawndale and the sick, sad world of Daria Morgendorffer.
If all was right in the world and as it should be, animator and satirist Mike Judge would be a household name. Since the mid-’90s, Judge has pointed a high-resolution lens — both scathing and sympathetic — at many of the institutions and absurdities firmly embedded in American culture. He’s made us laugh, cry, and reconsider through unlikely characters like Beavis and Butt-Head, Hank Hill, cubicled caricatures like Milton and Bill Lumbergh, and even President Camacho, who, compared to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office, seems like a tactful and seasoned diplomat. And out on the peripheries of Judge’s universe frowns Daria Morgendorffer — outfitted in her staple green jacket, black army boots, and thick-rimmed glasses — watching the latest episode of Sick, Sad World in her padded bedroom, armed with an acerbic wit and monotone tongue capable of annihilating any dumb jock, shallow fashionista, or hypocritical adult who crosses her well-insulated path. She’s hardly traditional leading-lady material, but on lease from Beavis and Butt-Head’s Highland stomping grounds, creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis turned the character into the reluctant star of the 1990’s sharpest commentary on suburban American teenage life.
Daria’s superior intelligence is both her super power and her kryptonite, a trait that makes her an outcast in any social situation. At school, she tolerates dunderheaded athletes and bimbo cheerleaders; daydreams through classes taught by bleeding hearts, rage-aholics, and man-haters; and acts as a one-person watchdog organization dedicated to keeping Lawndale High’s crooked administration honest. Her lasagna-stuffed home life offers no respite or reason to curb her cynicism. Her father, Jake, a quick-tempered, dim-witted man-child, and mother, Helen, a career woman torn between home and the office, are both well-meaning but oblivious about how to connect with their eldest daughter, and cute and superficial sister Quinn, Daria’s opposite in every conceivable way, leaves you certain that someone had to be adopted. Fellow outcast Jane Lane serves as Daria’s lone life raft in Lawndale, the one person around whom she can power down her bullshit and hypocrisy detectors and recharge for a bit.
It’s not an original premise by any means. Television shows long ago started dropping sane people into loony bins of all shapes and sizes to watch the comedy unfold. However, if Daria had merely been a weekly 20-minute cartoon about a smart-ass bookworm with a sarcastic put-down for every fool she meets, we wouldn’t still be talking about the show today. As much as Daria has the world figured out and sees all the angles, she suffers from the same problem that teens of all intelligences face: figuring out where she fits into the whole mess. All the wit and brain cells in the world can’t simplify the basic need to be accepted, the dilemmas that come with being a good friend, or the wanton desires of the teenage heart. As much fun as the antics, barbs, and Mystik Spiral (they’re still thinking of changing the name) songwriting sessions still are, Daria remains indelible due to the honesty with which its creators, writers, and actors treated the teenage experience. As long as being a teen remains a gut-wrenching tragicomic experience, Daria will remain a character who resonates with anyone who marches through adolescence, whether it be in army boots, football cleats, or like totally cute pumps.
Now, excuse me. You’re standing on my neck.