Daria’s musical episode comes off like a dare—but does it hit the right notes?

Daria’s musical episode comes off like a dare—but does it hit the right notes?

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The next seven installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

Daria, “Daria!” (season three, episode one; originally aired 2/17/1999)

In which a bright, shiny morning in the ’burbs gives way to a tempest… of SONG!

Genevieve Koski: A Daria musical makes no sense. Sure, music played a fairly big part of the beloved millennial series—to the point where licensing issues surrounding the show’s background music held up the DVD release for years—but during its original run, it always came across more as an extension of the show’s home on MTV, with popular pop and rock acts of the era soundtracking nearly every scene. (That’s long gone on the DVD releases, which sub in generic sound-alikes.) Original music popped up occasionally, usually via Trent’s band, Mystik Spiral—and I use the term “music” loosely in that case—but for the most part, Daria is a jukebox show.

More significantly, Daria is a down-to-earth show. Most series that opt to do a full-on musical episode—Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, take your pick—have some element of the surreal or fantastic, or at least a generally heightened or meta sensibility that allows for such a break from the status quo. But Daria is a character- and conversation-driven show grounded firmly in reality. Yes, that reality has a few outsized characters and quirks, but for the most part, Daria’s appeal lies in its hilariously cynical reflection of everyday teenage life, which rarely includes bursting into song and choreographed dancing. (Well, except for the drama-club kids.)

Even more significantly, “Daria!”, the series’ third-season musical episode, is a pure musical, meaning it doesn’t offer any sort of framing device to account for the gimmick. This isn’t a dream sequence, or a curse, or some sort of group hallucination that only one character is immune from so he can comment on it; there’s no explanation or justification for this sudden, startling break from form. It’s so straightforward, from the introductory orchestra-tuning to the choreography to the reprises, that it almost seems like a dare.

I remember “Daria!” being controversial when it first aired in 1999—at least in the Daria-loving AOL chat rooms and message boards I may or may not have frequented at the time—and when I acquired the DVDs a few years back, I approached “Daria!” with trepidation. The only strong memory I had of the episode was the song “Gah-Gah-Dammit”—which I still sing in moments of frustration to this day—while the rest of the episode had dissolved into a vague recollection of off-key singing, something about a hurricane, and a general feeling of “WTF?”

So I was pleased to discover upon re-watching that “Daria!” has an appealing scrappiness that I may not have fully appreciated back when it first aired. Sure, it’s a little stilted at times—the show’s talking-head animation style doesn’t lend itself particularly well to high spectacle—and the songs are more notable for their one-liners than their overall composition or catchiness. And the quality of singing on display is… variable, to put it mildly. (Though Wendy Hoopes, who does triple duty as Daria’s best friend Jane, her sister Quinn, and her mom Helen, does admirable work throughout.) But it all sort of works as an isolated “what if?” exercise. Possibly no one was clamoring for a Daria musical, but it’s hard to imagine a more Daria-esque embodiment of the musical form. 

As with most Daria episodes, the plot is minimal, though the stakes are somewhat higher in “Daria!” than usual: The Morgendorffer clan wakes up singing “Morning In The Burbs,” too busy extolling—or in Daria’s case, ruing—the dawn of another day in Lawndale to take note of the hurricane heading toward the town. After arriving at school, Daria and Jane avoid the big pep rally by heading up to the roof, where they end up trapped with the collective 40 IQ points of the school’s most popular, horniest couple, Kevin and Brittany, after the rest of the school is sent home ahead of the hurricane. The four of them hunker down in a well-placed shed while the rest of the Morgendorffers, along with Jane’s brother Trent, emerge from their own existential crises—or in Trent’s case, his nap—long enough to search for the missing teens. But then faster than you can sing “The Big Wet Rainstorm’s Over,” the hurricane blows over and everyone returns to the status quo following a reprise of “Morning In The Burbs.”

While the plot is pretty bare-bones, it’s fleshed out by what was always the real meat of Daria: caustic, deadpan wit. From Daria’s contribution to the uplifting “today’s the day!” opening song—“Oh me oh my, a lovely day is dawning / Oh what a joy, I didn’t wake up dead”—every song is sprinkled with a cutting remark or four. While the quip hit-to-miss ratio is perhaps a little lower than in the average Daria episode, due to the constraints of rhythm and rhyme scheme, the ones that do hit, hit harder by virtue of being couched in the unusually heightened, intrinsically upbeat musical atmosphere. (My favorite number is probably “They Must Be Worried” for the way it contrasts Daria’s resolutely disaffected nature with the dire situation she’s in, and her resolutely monotone voice with Brittany’s piercing squeak on the chorus.) But it’s comforting to see that even in a setting as left-field as the traditional musical—complete with choreography!—Daria is still Daria and Daria is still Daria, jazz hands and all.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’m going to be the grumpy guy who doesn’t get it on this one. I remember not being crazy about Daria when it was on the air, and as its reputation has only grown in the decade since it ended its run, I’ve struggled to remember why I had a problem with it. I remember now. The show was a spinoff of Beavis And Butt-Head, though Mike Judge didn’t have anything to do with it, and it premièred around the same time as Judge’s King Of The Hill. But where Judge used that show to broaden his range, allowing viewers to develop some emotional involvement with his characters, Daria always seemed to me like a self-conscious attempt by MTV to counteract the bad publicity B&B earned for its supposed role in the dumbing-down of America by providing a good role model for hip, alienated youth. Daria is a “rebel” adults can be proud of. 

I’ve read articles that describe the show as being about high-school outcasts and misfits, but I’m not sure you can be cast out of something you never wanted to be part of in the first place. Daria is like a successful, former high-school misfit’s fantasy of her past self: She’s always known that the people who aren’t cut out for the high-school popularity sweepstakes are the ones who become winners in real life (or so it often seems, and never more so at the time the show was being produced), so she’s just waiting out the nightmare years, staying cool and detached while honing her wisecracks. But I don’t ever find the character as funny as she was on Beavis And Butt-Head, where she really served as a counterpoint to something. Compared to the worlds of more-or-less contemporaneous shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks And Geeks and Buffy—not to mention the world we grew up in—her high-school life seems relatively painless; the stupid-head characters aren’t particularly mean, her suburban home life and the school administration aren’t especially stifling, and her biggest sorrow, while she stands there expressionlessly waiting to get the hell out of there, is that there are only one or two people around who are smart enough to get her jokes. And I can only take the sterile, cookie-cutter look of the animation for minutes at a time. Beavis And Butt-Head looked as if was scribbled in study hall by a kid with pimples and protective headgear, and whether or not you found this a delight to the eye, it was a style. This show looks like a placemat.

When the series ended, Emily Nussbaum wrote a piece extolling it for the episodes in which the writers turned their knives on Daria herself, causing her to reflect on the limits of her own hipper-than-thou attitude, and celebrating the deeper qualities of the characters who she took to be morons. That sounds interesting, and I might like to check out a few of those, and would welcome a few recommendations from people who’ve made a trip or two through the complete series. For now, the one scene here that made me laugh was the “Gah-Gah-Dammit!” number, which is really saying something, since looking at Daria’s father’s face usually just chills my shit. Tellingly, it’s the most Beavis And Butt-Head-esque thing here.

Noel Murray: I’m sympathetic to your point of view, Phil—I never could get into Daria because I found its stereotypes of the various high-school cliques too conventional and one-dimensional—but I think you’re being way too hard on the heroine, who to me never seemed like an embodiment of “outsiderdom” so much as a typical teen, baffled by institutional ignorance and the unavoidable pangs of adolescence. And I always appreciated that the “typical teen” in this case was someone who valued intelligence, even if she could be kind of a snot about it. (In that way, the current show Daria most reminds me of is Suburgatory, which I like very much.)

Anyway, I’m glad Genevieve picked this episode, because it gives me a chance to talk about something that fascinates me about the whole musical-episode phenomenon: It’s actually really hard to write a credible musical. Most TV shows that try—Daria included—tend to forget such niceties as melody, structure, changes, and whatnot. Instead, the composers just kind of vamp, creating something that sounds in the ballpark of Broadway and then spending the rest of their time concocting clever, character-specific rhymes. (And if you’re not already familiar with the characters, those rhymes don’t have as much meaning.) That’s why I’m always impressed by TV shows that come up with decent-to-excellent original songs. That’s perhaps the lone selling point of Smash, for example, aside from a few stray performances. And you know what ongoing series is surprisingly really good at music? Phineas And Ferb. Whenever I watch an episode of that with the kids, I’m frequently still humming the songs to myself for days afterward.

While I don’t think “Daria!” is particularly good as a musical—aside from “Gah-Gah-Dammit!”, which I couldn’t fully enjoy because I was constantly worried that my youngsters were going to walk into the room in the middle of it—I do appreciate the effort. As I wrote last week about Frasier and musicals in general, I love it when I get the sense that entertainers are doing more than they have to, trying to wow an audience. In that context, the flat singing and unexceptional songwriting of “Daria!” are kind of sweet, and even moving. These are just people with no particular musical talent, giving it a go.

Erik Adams: For me, where “Daria!” succeeds and fails all comes down to tone. As good as Daria was at being an equal-opportunity satire, it’s still the girl in the olive-green coat and black-frame glasses whose smirk introduces every episode, and it’s her POV and attitude that the show reflects. It wasn’t like the show or the character to lower their defenses this early in the series, so while Tracy Grandstaff’s admittedly tone-deaf, sprechgesang readings of Daria’s lines stay true to Lawndale’s favorite misanthrope, they tend to undercut the commitment of everything around them. As Noel notes, the musicians and the vocal cast are going above and beyond their natural talents, but the animators deserve a pat on the back for doing so as well—Daria is one of those cartoons that arguably doesn’t have to be cartoons, but the animation staff cut loose for “Daria!” My biggest laughs from this re-watch stem from the little upstage march-and-punch Trent and Jake do during the chorus of “Manly”—a gesture so unlike what I expect from Daria that I couldn’t help but chuckle each time it occurred. 

Phil, you may find Mr. Morgendorffer’s rictus mug unsettling, but the roiling emotions so feebly concealed by that square-jawed visage make Jake perfectly suited to this episode’s musical mischief. It’s no wonder “Gah-Gah-Dammit” is the number everyone seems to be seizing upon: With the exception of the yin-yang faculty pairing of Mr. O’Neill and Mr. DeMartino (Daria’s answer to Beavis And Butt-Head’s Mr. Van Driessen and Coach Buzzcut, respectively), no character on the show ever emoted as loudly or as frequently as Daria’s father. If what appears onscreen is any indication, he must’ve been the easiest/most fun character to write songs for, since the punchline of any Jake plot is the point where his internal thermometer bursts and he unleashes a symphony of profanity. This time, there’s an invisible orchestra backing him up.

Donna Bowman: I know absolutely nothing about Daria, so watching an entire episode for perhaps the first time, I’m struck by how different the art style is from what I had assumed. I used to like the thick lines and smooth curves of the title character, an attractive yet distinctive aesthetic that is echoed by her mother and her best friend. But it’s shocking to me how ugly the other characters are in their design. The horror of Mr. Morgendorffer’s face is matched by the stiff rectangular design of his body, and almost all the other characters have a tentativeness, a busyness, or both, that makes them difficult to watch. It’s not just that they’re awkwardly, cheaply animated; it’s that they don’t seem to be part of any particular world. I don’t mind ugly characters and bad animation if there’s a clear design point of view (as in Beavis And Butt-Head, or King Of The Hill), but here, the football player, the sister, and the teacher with the bulging eye don’t seem to come from the same hand, or even the same committee.

Despite that obstacle, this little musical grew on me as it progressed. Until about the halfway point, the music is so relentlessly old-fashioned that I wondered whether the creative team was aware that musical history didn’t stop with Rodgers and Hammerstein. But starting with the Jim Steinman-eseque bluster of “Gah-Gah-Dammit,” the musical world expands just enough to let me know that the folks behind the show decided to use more than half their ass. I was particularly impressed with “They Must Be Worried,” with its little nod to Phantom Of The Opera-style staging and rhythms, as Daria steps into the spotlight for her solo. It’s fascinating to see this through Genevieve’s eyes and to think how this must have played to an MTV audience who knew the show was, commercially speaking, nothing but a vehicle for its soundtrack, but who saw something of their own attitudes and struggles reflected in the smart, ironic, detached way its heroine navigated a world she never made.

Ryan McGee: I have a soft spot for any musical in which those attempting to perform it struggle mightily to achieve greatness. Maybe that’s because I sympathize/empathize with this attempt due to my own background in musical theater, spent largely (okay, entirely) as part of the technical crew of dozens of musicals. But there’s something about the lack of technical crispness here that lends an aura of warmth to the proceedings. Sure, “warmth” isn’t a word often associated with Daria, but I think it’s applicable here. Genevieve refers to the episode as a kind of dare, and the dare here is for the show to be unafraid to fall flat on its face.

As such, the lack of expert singing, the stilted animation, and the often less-than-inspired rhyme scheme (Sondheim, this ain’t) actually endear me to the episode more than if it had been a polished routine. There’s a place for polish, and I sense that later installments of this particular phase of the TV Roundtable will address those types of episode. Just as I admire Nathan Fillion’s “Oh fuck it, I’ll sing—why not?” approach in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I appreciate the lack of pretension on display here. If the show were aiming for the heights of the Great White Way, this episode would fail miserably. But as a ramshackle experiment thrown in just to see if it were possible in the first place, it’s a great deal of fun. I didn’t laugh out loud (except at that brilliant line about shoes referenced below), but it did make me fondly remember all the musicals I watched from the wings in my teens and early 20s. There’s something special about the attempt that far exceeds the execution. I don’t have many videos of those performances, and to be honest, I’m really glad I don’t. What I remember is far rosier.

Todd VanDerWerff: I’m generally favorably disposed to Daria, which I haven’t seen a lot of, but which I generally liked when I came across it on cable during high school and college. (My wife loves it, so that also makes me think I’d probably like it.) But this episode annoyed the shit out of me, to the degree where I’m not sure what to say about it beyond that. I think it’s just that the particular voices here aren’t well-chosen for singing, and while I kind of enjoyed, say, Daria talk-singing, there were a lot of other occasions where the music was so tuneless and the singing voices so hard to take that I tuned it out. Admittedly, this is the problem of a cartoon that decides to do an episode like this. Voices that are perfectly fine as exaggerated speaking voices (like Brittany’s) can become awful in song. And I get that that’s the joke, but it’s not a joke I enjoy very much. 

So much of the show’s usual wit was tied up in the songs, ultimately, that I longed for the moments between songs, when a few of the usual quips popped up. (One nobody else has mentioned is Jane and Daria ribbing Brittany about how Kevin made a rainbow. What can’t that popular boy do?) I’m all for experimentation, but sometimes, experiments just don’t work, and I think this is one of those cases.

Stray observations:

GK: Sadly, the Fashion Club makes a minimal contribution to “Daria!,” but at least we get Tiffany fretting “Oh no. Wind. Hair.”

TV: Hey, that’s TV’s Sarah Drew (later of Everwood and Grey’s Anatomy) as one of the Fashion Club! She’s the one I can’t remember the name of, I’m pretty sure.

NM: I didn’t laugh at much in this episode, but I did like Daria’s joke about the headline if she were to die in a hurricane with Kevin: “Quarterback And Others Perish.”

GK: I appreciate the effort the show went through to include Broadway-style choreography, but as Daria tells Jane in the intro from MTV’s “Daria Day” marathon—which is included on the DVDs—“Jane, you know we can’t dance. That would require animation.”

DB: Like Noel, I couldn’t help hearing Suburgatory echoes throughout. Throw Daria Morgendorffer and Tessa Altman in an academic blender, see what other cynical brainy high-school girls complement the flavor, and you’ve got yourself a master’s thesis.

EA: Is it possible that Quinn responds so poorly to her choice of raincoat because it so closely resembles her sister’s preferred outerwear?

GK: Favorite sung line of this episode: “It’s really hard to guess exactly what Quinn’s thinking, though my instinct says it’s probably about her shoes.”

RM: If Daria did nothing else but make Katy Perry seem incredibly cool and hip for five minutes, then it did its cultural job.

GK: “Doesn’t anybody in this town wear pants anymore?”

NM: You know what the music in most musical TV episodes reminds me of? Martin Short’s super-prolific songwriter character, Irving Cohen, who just extemporizes lyrics over “a bouncy C.”

TV: Seeing this episode, which is roughly contemporaneous to my own high school experience, just makes me realize how many stock TV plots (in this case, the characters getting stuck somewhere they should not be) have been disrupted by the cell phone. And we had cell phones in 1999!

EA: The score for the episode is credited to Elias Associates (now Elias Arts), the music and advertising firm responsible for the droning interstellar terror of the original Alien trailer, that Spanish-language version of “We Are Young” from Taco Bell’s 2013 Super Bowl commercial, and, fittingly for the topic at hand, the power-chord crunch of MTV’s classic “Moon Landing” bumper.

TV: I remembered this show’s commentary on race and class being vaguely cutting and incisive. In this episode, it seems super-obvious. This could just be a function of me being 14 years older. It could also be a function of the musical format.

EA: I’m beginning to think Noel picked this theme expressly to prompt confessions about our musical-theater pasts. Sincerely, Erik Adams, International Thespian Society inductee, class of 2003.

Next week: Phil Dyess-Nugent invites us all to get weepy with a Joni Mitchell-covering Robert Downey Jr. on Ally McBeal’s “’Tis The Season.” Then: Todd VanDerWerff tells us 7th Heaven’s musical episode, “Red Socks,” must be seen to be believed. We’ll see it, but will we believe it? (The former is available from Netflix and Hulu. The latter is on Amazon.)

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