Who could have guessed from its initial seasons that Beavis & Butt-head, a comedy about two self-absorbed, sexist idiots clinging to a love of decreasingly relevant heavy metal, could produce one of the most intelligent and biting female characters in the medium's history? Daria Morgendorffer began as a sarcastic but helpful supporting character who dug through the two characters' rough exteriors and saw glimmers of the same spark that existed in here, albeit in an endothermic form.
Daria existed as a foil for the two grunting boys, so the decision to give the character her own show represented a real risk (remember when MTV used to take those? Because I'm too damn young to have memories of such times.) Character creator Glenn Eichler and Beavis staffer Susie Lewis Lynn expanded the character and stuck to the same economic animation style of the show's predecessor.
Freed of the responsibility of playing second banana to other characters, Daria morphs into one of the most savage wits to ever grace the small screen. Decked out in alt.rock fashion but somehow standing outside even the broadest clique definitions of "geek" or "misfit," Daria arrives in her spinoff's pilot as insular rage incarnate. Her quiet, dry demeanor mistaken for low self-esteem by the sort of supportive people who have buried a mean opinion of her looks under a sunny disposition and misplaced concern, Daria dispels such notions quickly. "I don't have low self-esteem," she drawls in her trademark monotone. "I have low esteem for others."
That may as well be the series' mantra, as Daria lives the life of someone too advanced for her age group, forced to suffer her dumb, reductive classmates and the neo-hippie revival of late-'90s liberalism, the kind that mixed the same naïveté that marred the original movement with the Reaganomic self-absorption that eventually became the love generation's lifestyle as they subconsciously regretted their sellout in middle age and tried vainly to correct the course. Each day, Daria must deal with various headaches, including her delusional, upbeat counselor; her feckless father, prone to sudden outbursts of inchoate rage; her Valley Girl sister, Quinn, so ashamed of her dorky sister that she calls Daria her cousin around friends; and her mother, as bright as Daria and about as disinterested with life even though she tries to stay chipper.
Whatever these people throw at Daria, she hits back tenfold with scabrous remarks so unstoppable and pure they might as well have been forged by Hephaestus. Daria deals with the mundanity of high school life, all the awful pep rallies, the cliques and the sinking horror that accompanies all those wistful statements from adults that the years spent in those off-white halls is as good as it ever gets. When sent to talk to a guidance counselor, Daria speaks for everyone who's had to sit in a room and discuss his or her future before fully grasping the present: "My goal is not to wake up at age 40 with the bitter realization that I have wasted my life on a job I hate because I was forced to decide on a career in my teens," she spits in the face of the clueless, bubbling career planner.
The lone bright spot in Daria's life comes from her best (and only) friend, Jane Lane, an equally sarcastic outcast whose artistic talents give her a more visible ambition than the existentially aloof heroine. Yet Jane is just as content to sit back and criticize the world; when everything around you is awful, what can you do but laugh? Together, Daria and Jane make the first two seasons of Daria into some of the most scathing television committed to the screen: every episode locks quickly into some aspect of prosaic adolescence before pulling back as the two characters lob verbal mortars at anything that passes within range. The two hit with such frequency and precision that they quickly establish themselves as a Statler and Waldorf for Generation X, only they run the show instead of sitting up in the balcony as others move the story.
But what makes Daria so memorable is its evolutionary path, not immediately apparent but significant. The third season breaks from the almost nihilistic realism of the preceding two seasons with fanciful episodes, such as "The Lawndale File," concerning suspicions of alien invasion, and "Jake of Hearts," which pushes the anger issues of Daria's father to their breaking point. This altered the tone of the rest of the series, allowing for a "Treehouse of Horror"-esque anthology episode in Season 4 titled "Legends of the Mall." Such a shift could have robbed the series of its appeal, but the occasional dips into such material do not compromise the relevance of the rest of the episodes.
Furthermore, Season 4 marks an incredible step forward when the show finally adds an emotional arc to what had previously been a series of blistering one-liners, incredibly funny as they were. Jane begins dating a young lad named Tom, causing feelings of resentment between her and Daria, who feels that Jane is abandoning her. Too, she exhibits feelings for Tom as well, driving the wedge between the two friends even deeper. Where Daria existed before as a repository for all feelings of disillusionment over youth from those who hadn't yet escaped it, now she became an actual person, as flawed and confused deep down as all her peers whom she constantly mocked. She never loses her gift for withering sarcasm, and that sarcasm is not cheaply made to be the result of feelings of insecurity; Daria simply fleshes out, growing in ways that never contradict her established character.
Even the supporting cast grows. Quinn is still as airheaded and vain as ever, but she and Daria share a few important breakthroughs. Kevin and Brittany, the jock/cheerleader combo that made Quinn look like Einstein, always had a certain level of mutual disgust buried beneath their bubbly puppy love, but the writers stretch and prod the two characters to liven up characters who settled too neatly into stereotypes: a motorcycle accident shakes Kevin's confidence, leading to bad performances on the football field and a complete loss of self-identity. Each of these characters ultimately remains the same people we met in the pilot, but the finer detail manages to give an emotional context to Daria that enhances the comedy despite the decreased amount of one-liners.
In the years since Daria went off the air, the protagonist has become a modern feminist icon, though her appeal is even broader. "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute," she says, not denying that she's an independently minded woman but not placing herself into any box, no matter how large. Daria speaks as much to men as she does women, and the more youths recognize adult life as nothing more than an extension of high school, the more she becomes a figure of lifelong relevance, a Greek chorus that snarks instead of elaborates. Not even the stripping of nearly all the original music that aired with the show originally in order to put out DVD sets costing less than an arm and a leg can affect the show. That's fitting: where other MTV series like The State lose something with the removal of all those unlicensed tunes, Daria hits just as hard, a work as of-its-time as it is timeless, with a character too strong to be judged on gender grounds alone.