Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Daria Overview: Season 01


Moving to a new town allows people the opportunity to change who they are, to become someone brand new without previous misconceptions getting in the way. For Quinn this means a chance to cultivate a persona for herself that will welcome popular friends, while Daria maintains that her identity is all she has, and to change that now would be disrespectful to what she believes. Daria is a girl that knows who she is through and through, and anyone that would have her question that is not someone that's worth spending time on.

The review for "the Misery Chick" can be read here.

Spun-off from "Beavis and Butt-head," Daria (Tracy Grandstaff,) as a character, was created to act as an intelligent female foil to the titular male duo, maintaining a certain dislike for them throughout her appearances alongside them. Daria had been designed as the straight man to a couple of off-the-wall creations, cementing the stories in some form of reality by providing a voice of reason while also giving the protagonists an ideal with which to challenge. Where "Beavis and Butt-head" had been about the insanity of the two leads while the rest of the world was self-aware, "Daria" is about the lone voice of reason in a world that's gone insane.

During an era where television role models were more focused on anti-bullying and finding the good in everyone, Daria offered an alternative that was very unique for the moment. Never holding back on her feelings, Daria voiced the point of view of those who were considered alternative, outcast from the societal norm for thinking outside the box and representing an image that is not necessarily socially acceptable. Through Daria the viewer is offered the opinion that it's okay to be an individual, that it isn't a bad thing to express yourself in ways that might offend other people, and in a glorious twist, those who are considered alternative in this series are presented as no different than those who adopt more conventional behaviors. Daria and her friends proved that the social outcasts were just as smart, just as talented, and just as beautiful as everyone else, showcasing the fact that even those with the darkest clothes and heaviest makeup could be some of the nicest people you could hope to meet. This series preaches an acceptance of those who are different and encourages a change from those who delight in cruelty. Daria is a show that makes no apologies for what it is, and it asks the viewer to consider whether or not they're happy with who they've chosen to be.

There is no attempt in this narrative to make an after-school-special, no desire to end every episode with a lesson on morality. The characters here learn from their experiences, growing as people and developing as individuals, but often they make the same mistakes time and again, much as people do in real life. Daria is a series that isn't afraid to delve into deeper topics and offer a myriad of opinions on them, but it also isn't willing to speak down to it's audience. The writers of this series assume that their viewership is clever enough to understand the jokes and references, making no apologies for comments that might go above their heads, instead encouraging them to inform themselves to cultivate a more enriching experience. Admittedly, the subject matter can sometimes be presented in a heavy-handed manner, but the truth of the matter is that the discussions at hand are important ones to have, and the way in which these characters handle them is largely fantastic.

Occasionally within this series the writers tend to confuse Daria's apathy toward life as a series of sociopathic tendencies. Daria can talk a big game about not caring for her sister's well-being, but when it comes down to it, she will always be there for Quinn (Wendy Hoopes) no matter how horribly the two have treated each other. The same can be said for many other people in Daria's life, using her quick wit and cutting remarks to put people in their place or to make a point, but rarely going out of her way to hurt feelings or lead them to poor decisions. As a person, Daria has a way to focus her negative thoughts into useful advice, harnessing her acerbic remarks to help those around her draw their own conclusions, proving that, even when she's most irritated by others, she still, in her own way, will help them. Then there are times when she acts so outwardly terrible, cracking jokes about a passed-out diabetic during the events of "Café Disaffecto" rather than calling an ambulance or making any attempt to help, and later, during "the Misery Chick" when she uses Sandi's (Janie Mertz) distress an an opportunity to extort money from her. Not being invested enough to offer anything beyond sarcasm is one thing, but to go out of her way to revel in the pain of others is something entirely separate, and the writers need to keep an eye on the distinction between the two, as the latter is most definitely not the Daria that people want to be watching.

This series has an enormous supporting cast, especially given the running time, and most of them appear in almost every episode, making their individual development somewhat problematic. While Daria transforms into a very well-rounded being by the end of the season, many of the other characters remain largely one-dimensional, and the series would be better served to forgo including each member of the cast in every story as it's detrimental to getting to know any of them. Even Jane (Hoopes,) Daria's best friend, is largely unexplored through the first half of the season when she should have the second most depth after Daria herself. Granted, much of the cast is meant to appear as an archetypal caricature, Kevin and Brittany (Marc Thompson and Mertz, respectively) representing the jock and cheerleader stereotypes, with most other characters also showcasing a single personality trait blown far out of proportion, but it would feel much more genuine had these people been given an individual spotlight wherein they were able to prove themselves as something more. As it is, there are so many people crammed into every story that no one is given enough screen time to do anything of importance, and the writers need to slow their roll and give these characters the attention they need.

At the opening of the series there is some inconsistency as the actors take time to sort out who their characters are, but, for the most part, they settle into their roles very well. Mertz does double-duty as both Brittany and Sandi, and while the tone of their voices is vastly differently, the intonation and cadence is very similar, whereas Hoopes, playing the three most important women in Daria's life (best friend Jane, sister Quinn, and mother Helen) creates three very distinct voices from one another, rarely letting on that it's the same woman behind all three characters. Grandstaff, of course, carries this series with Daria's trademark stoicism, and even in moments when emotion breaks through Daria's facade proves herself very capable of remaining in character.

As stated above, the main issue I have with the direction of this series involves the abundance of characters forced to share an incredibly small amount of screen time. The episodes are far too cluttered, with side stories that often lead nowhere, and there are often plots that are set up to have a great pay off that simply fizzle out in the end due to a lack of time. This series is at it's best when it focuses on a select few people, bringing out great depth in underused characters when given the proper focus, and it's at it's worst when everyone is involved in the story in some capacity, generally as a cameo appearance in order to appease those who are simply expecting to see them. The issue wouldn't be as noticeable were the characters given their own stories, but the intention is to have the plots all intertwine together, and it usually just doesn't gel in the way that the directors hope it will.

Some of the episode featured throughout this season are a little lackluster, as is the cast with almost every series that goes to air, sometimes getting side tracked by less important B-stories when the focus should remain on the main plot, but the message behind every episode, no matter how effectively conveyed, is worth some thought. The driving force behind an episode can be a little contrived from time to time, but the meat of the story lies within the observations provided by Daria and her friends, offering some kind of social commentary with every passing episode and willingly showing multiple sides of an issue. The diverse cast of characters here allows the writers to showcase a multitude of points of view without relying on a certain bias to make a point, instead playing out the discussions as they feel they would happen and seeing where the issue lands. This is a series that is both smart and funny without pandering to a certain demographic, aiming to appeal to those that would take the time to watch it and even those who don't enjoy it might appreciate what it's trying to accomplish.

The early episodes of the series falter from time to time as the show runners find their footing, but when they start their focus on real issues, providing insightful commentary on real life situations, the series really takes off. Daria is the voice of a generation of disillusioned teenagers, and her reactions to the world around her are generally a good framework example of how to deal with the difficulties of growing up.

The review for "Arts 'N Crass" will be posted on December 11th.


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