Geekade Top Ten: Daria Episodes

If you watched TV in the 90s, you probably remember Daria, and if you are anything like me, the series had a hand in getting you through high school in one piece. (In my defense, if my high school principal had ever seen Ms. Li in action, she promptly would have surrounded the school with guard towers and razor wire in a heartbeat.) Years later, I was pleased to discover that everything from the storylines to the acting to the soundtrack* has stood up over time. And that’s why, 21 years after it premiered on MTV, I give you my Top 10 Episodes of Daria.**

*Due to copyright issues, the official DVD release had to replace much of the show’s original soundtrack.

**Although they include some of my favorite character development and storylines, Is It Fall Yet? and Is It College Yet? did not make this list. As much as I love them, it seemed unfair to compare half-hour episodes to movie-length specials.

  1. The Daria Hunter

Field trips, in theory: Breaks from the unending scream of being trapped in a building with a bunch of mismatched teens and jaded adults. Field trips, in practice: New opportunities for said mismatched teens and jaded adults to terrorize each other. Lawndale High meets Apocalypse Now in the paintballing misadventure that showcases ineffectual chaperoning (Helen and Jake), killer instinct (Ms. Li and Mr. DeMartino), fatal attractions (Ms. Barch and Mr. O’Neill), and power struggles (the Fashion Club). This episode nails the strangeness of seeing teachers outside what you think of as their native habitat and the madness of bringing high schoolers outside of theirs. Not even a detour to a roadside attraction can redeem this trip for Daria and Jane, but at least one storyline started here pays dividends as the series continues.

  1. Jane’s Addition

Jane hits it off with a dude she meets at one of Trent’s shows. Daria does not respond well. Jane’s new boyfriend always seems to be infringing on what Daria had previously thought of as her time, cracking wise, offering Jane rides home in his rustbucket, and otherwise making Daria more acutely aware of her oddity and loneliness. Hurt and unable to articulate why, Daria rebuffs this dude’s attempts at conversation and snipes at Jane for apparently choosing him over her. I’m always impressed when a show is willing to let its titular hero behave in less than heroic ways, and Daria delivers. Daria has to grow into “letting” her friend have a boyfriend and understanding that Jane being friends with her and dating Tom are not mutually exclusive. In addition to earning its conclusion, this episode also begins the most controversial arc of the series, setting up an unlikely and eventually problematic rapport between Daria and Tom.

  1. Fizz Ed

How do schools continue to function in the wake of tax cuts? Options include budget cuts, fundraisers, and – for Lawndale High’s mercenary principal Ms. Li – contracting with a soft drink company without reading the fine print. Daria protests what is effectively a sale of the student body to a beverage conglomerate, only to be dismissed with the accusation that the protest is to pad out her college applications. Although the new (mainly athletic) equipment that starts pouring in initially seems like a good deal, Ms. Li finds she’s bitten off more than she can chew when ever-higher sales targets threaten the success of the teams they were supposed to fund. (There are health and education consequences too, but who’s counting?) Only after the situation (and Ms. Li) spirals out of control does the school board intervene to rewrite the deal. This razor-sharp classic hits home for me: I grew up in a town where the senior citizens turned out in force every election to ensure as few of their tax dollars as possible were wasted on educating their grandkids. Want school supplies? Greatest Generation or GTFO.

  1. See Jane Run

Although it’s often remembered for its snappy one-liners and satirical character types, Daria was at its best when it engaged thorny ethical and personal conundrums. In this early example, Jane joins the track team to spite a noxious phys ed teacher. After she leads the team to several victories, Jane – and peripherally Daria – begin to enjoy the benefits high schools everywhere slip their successful athletes. See Jane Run digs into the venality of institutions ostensibly dedicated to educating children, perverting their stated mission in pursuit of athletic glory. It’s a cautionary tale against allowing yourself to be seduced by the hypocrisy or resentful of it. And it’s one of the first tests of Daria and Jane’s friendship, one which prefigures how poorly Daria will react when, a season later, Jane takes up with a witty prep-schooler named Tom.

  1. Partner’s Complaint

When tensions between Kevin and Britney, Jodie and Mack, and Daria and Jane coincide with an economics project, Daria winds up pairing off with Jodie, Mack has to team up with Kevin, and Jane gets stuck with Britney. While Daria and Jodie try to get a business loan, the other two pairs set out to purchase a car, and everyone’s negotiating skills get put to the test. While Kevin and Britney provide subplot comic relief, Daria and Jane grapple with what should qualify as acceptable tactics for navigating Real Adult Problems. This episode is interesting as much for its redrawing of the usual pairings at Lawndale High as for its exploration of adolescent encounters with ageism, sexism, racism, and the unsatisfying (if effective) compromises adulthood requires.

  1. Road Worrier

In this Season 1 classic, Lawndale’s recently licensed hit the road to attend an alternative musical festival (appropriately named Alternapalooza). While the more popular kids’ trips take comic turns, Daria slogs it out in a rickety van with Jane, Trent (on whom Daria still harbors a secret crush), and the rest of Mystik Spiral. The day unfolds in a series of minor but mortifying accidents that dial up Daria’s physical and psychic discomfort to unbearable levels. Even though they never make it to the festival, it still feels like our characters get somewhere. I dig the ways every character gets derailed from their planned geographical and emotional routes, I dig the rural diner’s jaded waitress, I even dig the nod to the near-death experience of being in a vehicle operated by somebody who clearly has no business having a license (arguably every teenager who has ever been given a driver’s license). But what I dig most about Road Worrier is its metaphor for adolescence: an endless horrifying journey to a festival you’ll never reach relieved only occasionally by unexpected moments of connection.

  1. Dye! Dye! My Darling

Where to begin for this most emotional roller coaster? The unacknowledged attraction between Daria and Tom finally comes to a head just after Daria successfully reassures Jane – and herself – that there is nothing there. The episode begins with a botched dye job, for which Jane blames Daria before eventually admitting that Daria was right to protest her conscription in the project. But just when they seem to have reconciled, Tom initiates a parley with Daria that ends in an unexpected kiss. After spending several episodes determined not to steal her best friend’s boyfriend, Daria does just that. I’ve always thought the most interesting part of Daria’s relationship with Tom was how it affected her friendship with Jane, and the series does not pull any punches on the hot mess that is a high school love triangle. When it first aired, I hated this episode for being awkward and painful and for leaving some big questions unresolved, but there’s a lot to be said for stories that force characters, shows, and viewers to grow.

  1. I Don’t

Before The Venture Bros., this episode was the most succinct animated exploration of fucked up family dynamics I had ever seen. When the Morgendorffers receive an invitation to a cousin’s wedding, Daria must endure fittings for a hideous bridesmaid’s dress, the tedium of clueless relatives, and the final humiliation of being compared to Quinn at every turn – all in the service of her mother’s attempts to make a point. If your parents are only children, or if they managed to conceal the resentment of years of bad blood from you until you were safely into adulthood, this episode can seem hyperbolic and broadly comic. However, if your parents harbor sibling animus deep enough to make it inadvisable for them to be in the same state, this episode is real and raw and hilarious and cathartic. Helen and her sister Rita resent the hell out of each other so deeply that not even raising their own children has given them the perspective to let go of lifelong grievances. I have been to at least one family wedding in which a grown-ass adult drunkenly declaims about a sibling while their spouse tries ineffectually to remove them from the proceedings. This episode is real, and it is spectacular.

  1. Arts n’Crass

Daria and Jane produce a beautiful but brutal piece for a “voluntary” art project: Jane paints a pretty girl looking in the mirror, and Daria captions her with a cutting limerick on the price of paring oneself down to be perceived as conventionally attractive. Anxious for the “glory” she could accrue by entering the poster in a local art contest, Ms. Li tries to bully the girls into changing or removing the poem to increase Lawndale’s chances of winning (and incidentally proving their point that people like things to be attractive without giving much thought to how they got that way). Daria and Jane refuse, arguing that capitulating would only reinforce the unhealthy beauty standards they were challenging in the first place. The resolution – in which the girls vandalize the work and an enraged Helen threatens Ms. Li with a civil rights lawsuit – is straight up adolescent revenge fantasy, but a girl can dream, right?

  1. Boxing Daria

In this episode, Daria climbs into a discarded refrigerator box and refuses to come out. She feels strangely safe in there and can’t remember why. The story unfolds in piecemeal flashbacks, beginning with an escalating spat between Helen and Jake and ending with young Daria taking refuge from the yelling in a playhouse improvised from a refrigerator box. Surprisingly, it’s Quinn who validates Daria’s memories and unravels the mystery of the box’s appeal. The thought that she has been a burden to her parents drives her out of the house and into a minor car accident. The episode ends on a well-earned heartfelt moment, in which every member of the Morgendorffer family expresses uncharacteristic but sincere affection. This is a nuanced take on the tricky business of coming to terms with yourself and how you fit (or don’t) into the weird fabric of your family. It strikes a note that is both pragmatic and hopeful without being saccharine, a fitting finale to Daria’s final season.

Trish Reyes

The cake is a lie, but I haven't let that stop me yet.

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