I like to jokingly refer to Daria as Ghost World: The Animated Series. Both the graphic novel and film versions of Ghost World came out during Daria‘s five season run, focusing on two misanthropic teenage girls who love sarcasm, kitschy pop culture, and generally being an outcast. However, Daria is more of a savage satire of high school life, including students, parents, and teachers, and no one is exempt from the hilarious probing of the show’s creators, Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis.
Daria and Jane are the two lead characters, and the friendship is the show’s beating heart, even though there is strain in later seasons when Daria starts dating Jane’s ex-boyfriend, Tom Sloane. They poke fun at the world around them, eat pizza, and watch Sick Sad World, which is basically like if the National Enquirer were a TV show. Daria has a pretty dysfunctional family, with her mother Helen being an oblivious workaholic, her slightly more lovable dad Jake having anger issues, and her shallow sister Quinn, who focuses more on looks than doing well at school. The show gets a lot of its pitch-black comedy from the girls’ messed up relationship dynamic, as well as the flaws of the people in the Morgendorffer family (and Daria herself isn’t exempt).
Some of the show’s most hilarious moments come from the outrageous people who teach and go to Lawndale High, becoming running jokes. For example, Self-Esteem/English teacher Mr. O’Neill is sensitive about feelings, but can’t remember any of his students’ names. History teacher Mr. DeMartino has a pretty dark past, and constantly puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable, while the principal, Ms. Li, is bureaucratic corruption at its finest and most understated. On the student front, Kevin and Brittany are the epitome of “peaked in high school,” and they all are just a few of the colorful characters that make Daria worth revisiting.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Daria was a shining beacon of snark and quick-witted humor in an animated sitcom format, standing in direct opposition to the substance-less programming of the TRL-era MTV. Watching it again 20 years later, it is nice to see Daria’s hopeful side come out beneath her disdain for everyone around her, and her bond with Jane was easily one of the best female friendships on TV.
Here are nine episodes of Daria (and one TV movie) in chronological order that represent the best this sardonic animated show had to offer.
10. “The Invitation” – Season 1, Episode 2 (Originally aired on March 10, 1997; Written by Anne D. Bernstein)
Some of the best episodes of Daria are where the writers throw characters from different backgrounds into a closed space and just let them sit back, relax, and occasionally fight over Daria’s little sister, Quinn. In “The Invitation,” Daria gets invited to a party by queen bee Brittany because she helped her learn one-point perspective in art class using a one-day sale at the mall as an illustration. This leads to a rift between Quinn and Daria, as Quinn is embarrassed that she is related to a “brain.” One of the episode’s funniest moments is when Daria tells Quinn’s airheaded potential boyfriends/hangers-on (Jeffy, Joey, and Jamie) awkward stories about her sister, like when she peed in a soda can on a family road trip.
This episode really nails the awkwardness of going to a social gathering where you’re probably unwanted, but Jane and Daria still have a fun time critiquing Brittany’s spread (two kinds of chips!) and pretending to be security guards of the gated subdivision where she lives. While Quinn is dealing with basically being stalked by three clingy teenage boys, Daria and Jane are roasting the upper middle class. Writer Anne D. Bernstein does add some depth to Quinn in this episode when she’s overcome by the pressure to choose between the forgettable suitors. They have nothing really in common for a relationship – Quinn just likes manipulating them, and enjoys when they fight over her. It’s cool to see her have some agency and not pair off so early in the show.
Along with the three Js, “The Invitation” introduces viewers to some of the secondary and tertiary characters of Daria. Mack is a high-achieving, African-American football player who hates being called “Mack Daddy” by Kevin, and makes some killer dad jokes. He and his kind-of-boring girlfriend, Jodie, are the token black characters on Daria. Then there’s Upchuck, who is knowledgeable about period architecture, but a total creep, with the catchphrase “Feisty” every time Daria and Jane tell him to back off. He’s less misogynistic in this episode than later appearances, and yet another source of oddball comedy.
Overall the moral of this episode (and probably the show) is that as long as you as you have the right partner in snark and distracting creepy security guards with life drawing sketches, even the vapidest party can be fun. Also, kudos to director Karen Disher for her rapid cuts from offensive popular person behavior to Daria eyebrow raises.
Best one-liner: [to a couple of guys hitting on her and Jane] “We were born in this room, we grew up in this room, and we thought we would die here alone. But now you’ve arrived, and our lives can truly begin.”- Daria
9. “Malled” – Season 1, Episode 5 (Originally aired on March 31, 1997; Written by Neena Beber)
In “Malled,” writer Neena Beber savagely satirizes American consumerism as Daria unintentionally comes up with the idea for a field trip to the Mall of Millennium in the middle of a boring economics class. The trip is a total disaster, which equals a very entertaining episode filled with choice snark from Jane, some troubles in paradise between Kevin and Brittany, and even a spoof of a focus group where middle-aged white men try to figure out what is “in” with the kids. The episode also has a very late-1990s/pre-Great Recession vibe back when malls were vibrant, and novelty stores like Doo-Dads and Things could pull a profit.
“Malled” succeeds as a great piece of satire combined with character-driven comedy from Daria interacting with Quinn, who has skipped school to go 100 miles away to the Mall of the Millennium to investigate the latest styles with the Fashion Club. The super-confusing layout of the mall is a running joke with characters trying to reach different colored sections like “Mauve,” “Moss,” and “Cranberry,” and there’s an “educational” meeting with mall execs that is actually a not-so-stealthily unpaid focus group, as Jane reveals the one-way mirror in the room (the students’ rage against capitalist exploitation is easily cured by twenty dollar coupons, however. It’s that post-grunge era reminder than anyone will set out for the right amount of money).
Speaking of money, the Daria/Quinn blackmail wars continue when Jane and Daria take a break from monitoring the “traffic pattern of the food court” to dig into some French Fries, then spot Quinn, the Fashion Club, and some random guy they hired to drive them to the mall. The episode is about to launch into an All That spoof, with Quinn giving an “uncool girl” a mall makeover, but it turns into a verbal sparring session when the girl is revealed to be Daria. Daria and Quinn negotiate like warring nations, with Daria using all her leverage (and the knowledge of Quinn’s low GPA) to get a free ride home from a random creeper, as well as a month off from chores. The Morgendorffers’ parents are completely oblivious to Daria and Quinn’s cloak and dagger games, which makes them even more hilarious. Jake is utterly clueless about his daughters’ lives, which is kind of sad (and also darkly funny), as it’s taken him five episodes to realize Quinn is in the fashion club, and almost a lifetime to get Daria’s sarcastic sense of humor. The ineptitude of Daria‘s supporting cast, including Jake and Kevin, who won’t stop humming “100 Bottles of Beer” even when making out with his girlfriend, continues to be its best source of comedy.
Best One-liner: It’s not a quote, but Daria’s look of horror at getting her picture taken as the 10,000th customer of Doo-Dads and Things will be etched in my brain forever and is a perfect choice for this episode’s final shot.
8. “Road Worrier” – Season 1, Episode 11 (Originally aired on July 7, 1997; Written by Anne D. Bernstein)
To help out with gas money, Daria begrudgingly joins Jane, her older brother Trent, and his bandmate Jesse in a suitably awkward road trip episode, as they head for Alternapalooza. The other characters in the show decide to go to the festival as well, including Quinn and the Fashion Club, and Kevin and Brittany (they get sidelined by outlet mall shopping and don’t make any gigs though). This is the first episode of Daria I remember watching, and it sets up her kryptonite: Trent. Sure, Daria makes snarky comments (either in her head or out loud.) about his lack of having a real job, as well as the fact that Mystik Spiral sounds like the name of a bad Doors cover band, but she also thinks he is cute, and feels self-conscious around him.
The trip to Alternapalooza is physical and mental torture for Daria, except for the parts where she gets to sling sarcastic barbs with a diner waitress, or have a heart to heart with Trent towards the end of the episode. Writer Anne D. Bernstein doesn’t go the surreal route, but instead peppers the trip with everyday annoyances like bumping your head, bug bites, broken glasses, having to go to the bathroom on the side of the road, and finally the van breaking down. Compound this with her feelings about Trent, and Daria feels like a teenager for once, with Jane shouldering most of the snarky load. Also, Trent does like her one-liners, which is kind of adorable.
Most of “Road Worrier” is just a road trip/buddy comedy set in the rural areas past suburbia, but Bernstein also skewers the co-opting of “alternative” culture by big business. The phrase “it’s alternative” is used in more and more ridiculous situations, like Jane’s response to Daria getting a peanut butter sandwich on her butt, or the Fashion Club suddenly rocking dark earth tones and ankh necklaces like they’re Death from Sandman. Instead of just using “Road Worrier” to set up “those damn kids and their piercing and songs with drop-D tuning” joke, Bernstein makes fun of previous situations, including a really clever joke about Daria’s dad getting a refund from the free Altamont Festival.
“Alternative” music and culture really takes a beating in “Road Worrier,” as it’s essentially an adjective that does a sucky job of describing things.
Best one-liner: “Why didn’t I just stay home where it’s nice and quiet and nothing ever happens?”-Daria
7. “Fair Enough” – Season 2, Episode 10 (Originally aired on July 13, 1998; Written by Peggy Nicoll)
The whole Daria ensemble of teachers, students, and parents gets together in “Fair Enough,” as Lawndale High throws a medieval fair because the corrupt principal Ms. Li used the funds meant to repair the library roof to instead purchase a polygraph machine. The episode is one of the funniest of the series, and is filled with outlandish scenes like Mr. DeMartino taking out his anger towards his students as the Black Knight, Jake giving Quinn an anti-motivational speech about how he failed at being Guildenstern in college, and random little kids running around yelling “Crusades” and “Inquisition” for no apparent reason.
Daria and Jane take more of a backseat in “Fair Enough,” and are content with quipping from the sidelines and abusing their power as Information Booth volunteers to tell impressionable young people lurid tales about the Middle Ages, like about Robin Hood being King Edward II’s gay lover. The main plot is about the Medieval Fair’s dinner theater version of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (or the “Cadbury Tales,” as Brittany calls it), directed by the always-earnest Mr. O’Neil, and starring Quinn and Kevin as the main couple.
Just like the farce that is the reason for the medieval fair (which probably cost a pretty penny with a full Ferris Wheel), “The Knight’s Tale” is a total hack job. Quinn’s “friend” Sandy in the Fashion Club wanted the part and pokes fun at her vocal inflection, while Brittany forgets to turn into the school because she’s jealous that Kevin is doing a kissing scene with another girl. Her constant gaslighting of Kevin about how the school is just a block away is this episode’s best running gag.
A schmaltzier show would have Quinn channel her passion for acting, and one of the J’s do an okay job as Kevin’s understudy, but this is Daria. The play ends with a turkey leg (the “dinner” part of dinner theatre) thrown and a crying mess, with a touch of comic relief when Jeffy reads a very inappropriate line from “The Pardoner’s Tale” that would’ve gotten the FCC on the show’s ass. Throwing the Daria cast into the so-called Dark Ages definitely ups the show’s absurdist level, and there are tons of great little jokes along the way, like Jake rocking a Robin Hood hat, Upchuck’s strange obsession with madrigals, or Mack getting beaten up by little kids while wearing a Barney – er, dragon costume.
Best one-liner: “Volunteers are desperately needed. Those who refuse to volunteer must voluntarily purchase a ticket for ten dollars or voluntarily face suspension. Have a nice day.”-Ms. Li
6. “Write Where It Hurts” – Season 2, Episode 13 (Originally aired on August 3, 1998; Written by Glenn Eichler)
“Write Where It Hurts” goes from genre spoof to heartfelt emotion in the space of 25-minutes in this episode from Daria co-creator Glenn Eichler. The framing narrative is that Daria has been given a “special assignment” from Mr. O’Neil Yeah (being smart sucks sometimes), and you can definitely feel the anger in her eyebrows. It begins as a broad comedy with a hilarious story about Jane running away with Kevin after he forgets to say “Yes” at his wedding to Brittany, but Daria isn’t into those ideas, and crumples them away in her trash bin along with a surreal tale where Jake and Helen play the roles of a knight and hag in a fairy tale. You can tell this episode is veering into some dramatic territory.
Eichler pierces beneath Daria’s sarcastic veneer in this episode, and you can see her frustration mount around this assignment. Helen offers to help her with the story (and ends up giving her some damn good advice) but immediately derails her project by taking non-stop work calls and comparing Daria to Quinn. As the final story reveals, Daria wants to be loved for her own merits, and even wants the same for Quinn, though they spar and blackmail each other all the time. It’s more comedic, but there is also the extremely unhelpful advice from Mr. O’Neil, who complicates his non-existent grading rubric for the project by making Daria include a card game in her story for some random reason. At least he got her name right this time.
“Write Where It Hurts” goes full tear-jerking in its final scene, which is a vision of the Morgendorffers as a normal, well-adjusted family. Helen has mellowed out, Jake is enjoying life after a triple bypass surgery, Daria is a professor and columnist, and Quinn is a happy mother of four. They have polite conversations over coffee, and Jake talks about how proud he is of his daughters. It’s pure wish fulfillment, as Daria’s snarky outsider jabs have become award-winning, truth-telling articles, and for one of the first times in the show, we get to see the young woman beneath the jokes and glasses.
The best Daria episodes poked fun at the foibles of its frankly strange cast of characters, but “Write Where It Hurts” showed that it could hit emotional beats too. The inclusion of little vignettes, combined with a realistic frame of a story, gives it a nice, classic American short story feel.
Best one-liner: “Nobody talked to me again today. I wasn’t invited to any parties. So, all in all, a very good day.”-Daria
Come back for part two featuring musicals, romance, and more…