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MTV's Daria Turns 25

TV's ultimate sardonic teen got her own show... just in time for pop culture to turn on her.
  • Photo: MTV
    Photo: MTV

    It's the '90s, and everything sucks.

    This isn't a sentiment that resonates in the 2020s, when things suck so hard and we're all wishing we could turn the clock back to a time before COVID and Trump and Putin and Facebook. Surely things were better then: the world was so simple! Also, we were all 25 years younger, which is surely just a coincidence. Which isn't to say that things in 1997 weren't actually better; this was the year that Titanic steamed its way into theaters, No Doubt topped the charts with "Don't Speak," and The Real World: Boston let children drink wine. But at the time it was incredibly of the moment to take a look around at the state of society and popular culture, roll your eyes, and declare yourself well and truly over it.

    And so on March 3, 1997, we got the premiere of MTV's Daria, a show that commemorated the spirit of principled disaffectation that had taken hold in the 1990s… and which was mere moments away from going out of style.

    We can't talk about Daria without first talking about Beavis and Butthead, which in turn means remembering just how huge that show was when it came to defining MTV in the mid '90s. Birthed on the MTV animated shorts anthology Liquid Television, Beavis and Butthead debuted as a show in its own right in 1993 and quickly became one of MTV's most popular and visible series. The show, about two dim-bulb metalheads who sit around and watching (and commenting on) music videos all day, was accidentally a pretty apt show to transition MTV out of its all-music-video first decade and into an era where non-music programming — including The Real World, which had recently debuted — would take over more and more.

    Daria Morgendorfer was a classmate of Beavis and Butthead, and while she was often a foil for their dumbassery, she never lost her cool in the face of their antics like so many of the show's other characters. When the idea came to spin Daria off into her own show, Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge didn't have anything to do with it, as he was busy working on King of the Hill at the time. Even when Beavis and Butthead was briefly revived on MTV in 2011, she wasn't part of the show, and in interviews Judge seemed vaguely hostile to the idea.

    The 1997 debut of Daria kicked off with Daria and her family having just moved to Lawndale, severing the tie with Beavis and Butthead pretty cleanly, never mentioning or even alluding to the pair again. We'd never seen anything of Daria's home life before, so the show's creators, Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, were able to start with a blank canvas. With her pronounced monotone now perfected (Tracy Grandstaff voiced the character throughout the series, though that didn't stop persistent rumors that Daria was voiced by another of pop culture's definitional Gen X slackers, Janeane Garofalo), Daria dealt with every aspect of her life with a detached but withering derision.

    The opening credits gave us everything we needed to know about the show: Daria sitting stone-faced at the movies while the gathered masses laugh at the screen; Daria in gym class refusing to participate in volleyball; Daria with her family at the football game, stone-faced while everybody cheers; Daria decidedly unmoved at a wedding where everybody else is emotional. Daria's personality, reaching to the absolute extreme of Gen X antisocial posturing, was the joke of the show, but the show was clearly more on Daria's side than anyone else's.

    The premiere episode, "Esteemsters," sees Daria and her sister, the easily popular and effortfully cute Quinn, starting at a new school. Complete polar opposites, the sisters can't stand each other, though not in a way that seems to particularly vex either one of them. To Daria, Quinn is the epitome of everything she despises: a shallow trend-chaser with the world constantly falling at her feet. To Quinn, Daria is a cranky malcontent and, worse yet, a social liability. By the end of the first day, Quinn has already ensconced herself in Fashion Club, while Daria gets diagnosed by the school psychologist with low self-esteem.

    Many of the Daria trademarks were there right off the bat. Daria being smarter than her teachers, for one. Daria's parents — her proto-Lean In mom and chipper yet perpetually overstressed dad — are also pretty much fully formed. While in remedial self-esteem class (the '90s were obsessed with self-esteem, truly don't ask), Daria meets and quickly befriends the iconic Jane Lane, who matches Daria's withering disdain for everything while also looking like the coolest Alternative Nation VJ imaginable.

    If Daria had been made today, its title character would have been discoursed to death with armchair diagnoses of everything from autism spectrum to post-traumatic stress disorder from having to move at such an impressionable age. In 1997, though, Daria was just a moody teen whose vibe tracked with a lot of what mid-'90s kids were picking up from the musicians and movies of the time.

    What's especially fascinating about Daria's 1997 premiere is that the show became a touchstone for a culture that was just about to cede its supremacy. Gen X slacker culture was on the precipice of giving way to Quinn-style pop. Two days before Daria premiered, the Spice Girls hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Wannabe." In less than three months, Hanson's "MMMBop" would do the same. One month later, the Backstreet Boys' "Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)" would debut on the charts. Daria would run for five seasons, finally ending in 2001, but while many remember it as a show that was emblematic of the cultural mood of its era, it served more as an elegy for it. Daria was the show that pop-averse post-grungers and alterna-teens clung onto while MTV was increasingly focused Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears — a couple whose good looks and easy popularity matched Lawndale golden couple and Daria nemeses Kevin and (ahem) Brittany. Daria was ultimately never defined by being the dominant culture but by being aggressed by it. She was a relic of a bygone era, even if that era was never further than 24 months in the past.

    All five seasons of the original Daria are available for streaming on Paramount+.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Daria, MTV, Beavis and Butt-Head