While many throwback MTV programs will be brought back to the air thanks to MTV Classic, most of them can be put on the backburner. Because the most important aspect of this new development is that MTV Classic will show Daria—the best program ever put on by MTV. While it began life as a Beavis and Butt-Head spinoff, it’s always been a very different show, much smarter and textually richer. The show followed Daria Morgendorffer, the supremely cynical and sarcastic teenager, in her life at school and at home. She joined up with fellow outcast Jane Lane to deal with shallow and stupid classmates, ineffectual teachers and Daria’ parents Jake and Helen, who are in equal parts absent and overbearing.
Daria’s also one of the best shows ever created about teenagers, and teenaged life. It’s true that it took a little while to get going—the first season is a bit rough around the edges. Eventually, though, it would emerge as a funny, biting show worthy of being honored with a top 10 list such as this one. Unfortunately, you can’t watch many of these with the original music anymore, but all the humor, and the occasional fits of heart, are still there.
Even if you only watched Daria casually, you probably remember the musical episode. It’s mostly successful, in part because it’s always going to be funny to listen to Daria sing. The episode isn’t perfect in its execution, but the idea is fun, and “Daria!” gets big points for ambition and general weirdness. Now, that episode where Daria meets the manifestations of various holidays is an example of a similar weirdness not working. So it probably shouldn’t be discussed any further in this top 10 list.
While Daria is mostly about, well, Daria and other teenagers, her parents are by no means afterthoughts. Both characters have substance to them, and get their own hilarious plotlines, and they are arguably at the center of this episode. Jake and Helen used to be hippies. Now Helen is a workaholic and Jake is one minor setback away from losing his mind at any given moment. So, when their old hippie friends come by to stay with them (while Daria is off with Jane, helping Trent sell records), they try and reconnect to their old lives. Of course, it goes poorly, and it turns out Jake (who angrily kicked the Pentagon back in the day) was never laidback anyway.
Daria always cast a jaundiced eye toward certain aspects of consumerism, and toward authority figures as well. “Fizz Ed” plays into both of these strengths, as Ms. Li, in her ruthless quest to bring recognition and riches to Lawndale High, signs a sponsorship deal with a cola company. It doesn’t take long for the soda company to overtake the school, as Ms. Li desperately tries to hock their sugary wares. Daria is, of course, off on the sidelines, cracking wise at the insanity, but she becomes more than just a passive viewer, actually trying to stop the madness. In spite of her reputation as a quipping observer, she was always willing to step in, even if begrudgingly so, and try to make a difference when necessary.
Jake is one of the greatest TV characters of all time, because Jake is a high strung nightmare who is always, always yelling. However, it all catches up with him in this episode, as he ends up having an actual heart attack. There are laughs here, but there’s also some pathos, because a man did have a heart attack, after all—not to mention the emotional baggage he and his mother both have to deal with. Meanwhile, two moron radio DJs show up at Lawndale, in a sharp parody of morning show blather. It’s an absolute delight when Daria finally puts them in their place.
Some of the best Daria episodes show Daria struggling with her ideals and her conflicted feelings inherent to being a teenager. For her driving test, Daria gets contacts. Her big, thick glasses have always been a key part of her look. When the contacts don’t work for her, she is reticent about going back to her glasses, and even spends a whole day without wearing either. Why? Because she, Daria, is actually thinking about her looks and her appearance. And for Daria, being image conscious is anathema to the very aura she puts out in the world. It’s a small, but interesting and relatable story that allows our hero some real complexity.
The art of writing figures into a handful of plots on the show, but “Write Where It Hurts” is the best of the bunch. Daria has to write a story using people from her real life. She repeatedly fails to find an idea she likes, but we get to see snippets of her stories play out, which is really fun. In the end, she writes something less fantastical, and more truthful, about her family in the future—and it makes her mother cry. It’s a rare, sweet moment, earned especially after Daria also writes a story that involves her sister being hit by a truck.
The fourth season of Daria, which chronicles the rise and fall of Jane’s relationship with her boyfriend Tom, and the ensuing beginning of Daria’s relationship with Tom, is the best season of the show. “I Loathe a Parade” is a major turning point for Tom and Daria, but it’s also just a really funny episode, mainly because Daria finds herself stuck at Lawndale’s homecoming parade. It is, obviously, the last place she would ever want to be, so hilarity ensues.
A lot has just been written about Daria’s fourth season, and the Jane/Tom/Daria situation, and “Dye! Dye! My Darling” marks a major turning point for all involved. It’s the fourth season finale, and the episode where Jane and Tom break up, and Tom and Daria kiss. Also, Jane dyes her hair! This is a real event episode, one that’s well-plotted and also takes the characters’ emotions seriously, which is something that not all sitcoms manage successfully. It’s not a laugh-a-minute riot, but in the end, the story makes for great television.
“Antisocial Climbers” is of the “a school event goes awry” genre. This time, the Lawndale gang head off into the wilderness. There’s a blizzard, and t’s an epic disaster… with lots of memorable moments. Mr. DeMartino, Jake, and Helen play charades. Daria and Jane, faced with the possibility of dying alone in the woods in a blizzard, make their peace and say their final apologies. Jane’s last lament is that they added those ugly blue M&M’s. This is one of the finest examples of the particular kind of humor that made this show so great, and made “Antisocial Climbers” the funniest episode of Daria.
“Boxing Daria” is, technically, the last episode of Daria. The movie, Is It College Yet?, comes later, but in terms of proper episodes, it’s the final farewell. To be honest, it’s not even especially funny. Instead, it’s profoundly beautiful. And it’s incredible to consider that a show that began as a Beavis and Butt-Head spinoff made an episode this emotionally affecting and wonderful. There’s a lot of flashback, and it plays almost like a Daria origin story. Who would have thought an episode like this—where the inciting incident is Daria finding a refrigerator box—could be so powerful?
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.