With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
It’s hard to imagine that a Beavis And Butt-Head spin-off would yield one of TV’s most complex teen heroines, but that’s precisely what MTV delivered with Daria. The bespectacled teen made her first appearance as a wry observer to the moronic shenanigans of that titular duo, but creator Mike Judge had no involvement in the development of the series. Instead, MTV tapped his Beavis And Butt-Head staffers Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis as executive producers, who produced this unaired pilot.
Although it was just a rough draft, that animated short introduced the whole Morgendorffer clan as well as some of the popular kids who would make life difficult and/or amusing for our protagonist. It also featured Daria’s best friend, Jane Lane, a laid-back artist with a killer angled bob and an older brother whom Daria would crush on for years. But there was no mention of the Burger World employees, a tradition that the series would maintain over its five-year run, though the premiere did reference the Morgendorffers’ hometown of Highland.
Daria got a fresh start with the series premiere on March 3, 1997, which saw the lead character and her sister, Quinn, on their first day in a new high school. Quinn is accepted, even beckoned, on sight, while Daria keeps her distance. That aversion turns out to be mutual, as most of her fellow students don’t know what to make of the girl who seems to have sprung from a Cake song. Daria was clever and outspoken and not very interested in most of the usual high-school activities. Things weren’t much better among the faculty, who were clueless or bitter, and led by a corrupt administrator.
The acerbic teen preferred to quip from a vantage point with Jane, but she usually found herself roped into interacting with her classmates and teachers, who let her down most of the time. She wasn’t the only one who was being judged—the jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, and educators were all held up to Daria’s exacting standards, and usually found wanting. The illusion that the character is a misanthrope persists to this day, but while Daria was certainly principled and even downright judgmental, she was also invested in her life in Lawndale. She found her soul mate in Jane, a boyfriend in Tom (who was also Jane’s ex-boyfriend), and, over time, a confidante in her sister. And though she couldn’t be bothered to care about a homecoming game or dance, she did have real goals for her life. Daria was never in any danger of becoming a Pollyanna, obviously, but the best episodes saw her briefly letting down her defenses and getting involved in what was going on around her. When she failed to wriggle out of a family gathering or a school paintball outing, she found not only fodder for insults but also another reason to not give up on humanity just yet.
This isn’t to say that Daria didn’t have a reason to be distant. She was, after all, labeled a “brain,” an epithet that was intended to dismiss her. That was slightly less insulting than “The Misery Chick,” which is how she was briefly known in the season one finale. That moniker was inspired by her unsmiling visage just as much as her confounding wit. Her classmates couldn’t understand her words, so they put a lot of stock into her face, which didn’t look as “happy” as theirs. But, as Daria so astutely puts it near the episode’s end, that’s really just the burden of knowledge. Besides, everyone knows you can’t trust someone who smiles all the time.
Daria felt like an outsider to her family life as well, because she wouldn’t just fall in line alongside her perky sister or her workaholic mother. (Presumably everyone agreed early on that it was best she didn’t take after her father.) Helen and Jake certainly struggled to understand their daughter, but, as they revealed near series end, the challenge was ultimately rewarding. Again, there was also a lesson for Daria to learn, namely, that she should cut her family some slack, too.
That was the key to the show’s success, that (mostly) everyone grew with Daria. Her commentary would have lost some of its sting if it had remained directed at her stunted peers and oblivious adults, which is why even Kevin the quarterback matured a bit. Jane and Daria’s relationship was far more complicated in the final season after Tom drove a wedge between them. And rather than maintain the detente on the home front, the writers fleshed out Quinn, who realized there was more to life than fashion and popularity and eventually found common ground with her sister. Naturally, Daria matured as well, as evinced by her moving, albeit brief, graduation speech.
Here are 10 episodes of Daria that prove “misanthrope” was just as limiting a label for the character as “brain.”
Lawndale High’s class structure was laid out in the premiere, with all the usual divisions: the jocks, the overachievers, and of course, the outcasts. But “The Invitation” reveals just how delicate that balance is—even Daria budges a bit from her antisocial stance. Being smart (and kind) gets Daria invited to a party hosted by the head cheerleader, who’s worried that the lack of a Jacuzzi in her family’s “mock late Tudor-style” mansion will see her exiled by her peppy peers. Jane tags along and hits it off with someone she wouldn’t normally eat lunch with, but their relationship doesn’t go beyond the laundry room. The story unfolds like a John Hughes film, but at a much more efficient 22 minutes.
Daria’s feelings for Trent, Jane’s older brother, were never really resolved on the show. She certainly had moments of clarity about how unsuited they were for each other, but the torch she carried for him was never fully extinguished at any point. Her crush is in full bloom here, prompting her to brave an outdoor concert and a road trip. They share some alone time and a few jokes as well as this great exchange. But there are no overtures, and it’s obvious that this charming slacker will never be able to keep up with her. The pair might have its ’shippers, but Daria was already more mature than Trent was, and his apathy would wear thin, especially once she started allowing herself to show how much she really does care about things.
Helen and Jake Morgendorffer appeared to be the kind of upwardly mobile people Daria would ordinarily mock, but they were once just as idealistic as their daughter. Their hippie roots were hinted at in “Road Worrier,” whose original airing showed them freaking out around the house to some Jefferson Airplane while the girls are away. We get more of their flower-powered backstory when their old friends come to visit, bringing hacky sacks and their anticonsumerist beliefs with them. Helen might be a workaholic, but breaking the glass ceiling has long been one of her goals. And Jake, well—he’s either more or less tense than he used to be, depending on who you ask. It’s just too bad that Daria and Quinn are more interested in getting dirt on their parents, because they could really learn something about compromising. (But Daria substituting “Trekkies” for “hippies” is pure gold.)
Lawndale’s brightest (next to Jodie) is used to providing bemused commentary on the harebrained actions of her classmates, but her observations are put to the test when she must write some moral fiction about the people in her life. Given the opportunity to imagine life just as she’d like it, the idealistic teen struggles with the assignment, scrapping story ideas inspired by The Graduate and a comedy of manners. Things just get worse when she turns to her mother, who can’t keep her daughters straight in that moment. Daria’s mostly proud of their differences, but here she’s just made painfully aware of them. She lashes out at an oblivious Quinn in her writing, but after being nudged in the right direction, produces a surprisingly heartwarming tale. Everyone, including Quinn, gets a fair shake in this prospective future—this time, it’s Daria who’s learned a lesson.
The season-three premiere showed Daria being just as hard on herself as she is on everyone else. Although she didn’t seem to invest much time or thought in it, Daria’s appearance was definitely a part of her identity. She took pains to ensure she looked like someone who doesn’t care about fitting in. But all of that careful indifference crumbles when she tries on contact lenses for the first time. Daria’s taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response, but she obviously also likes the way she looks without her trademark glasses, because she wears the contacts even when she’s not driving. Her vanity shocks her, because even though she’s also guilty of cultivating an image, she’s always felt it was the “right” one. Her specs return by the end of the episode, but not before she sees just how much she has in common with other teenage girls.
Daria and Jane lent each other much wry support at school, but “Lane Miserables” reveals just how the latter relied on her antisocial friend outside of the classroom. Jane and Trent’s unconventional home life was established early on, with the brother and sister mostly left to their own devices. So when all the Lanes return to the nest—including their errant photographer father—they’re not exactly thrilled to have so much company. The same fickleness runs through their older siblings’ lives, who have multiple marriages and affairs among them. Even though Jane and Trent have been mostly unsupervised, they’ve found some stability together and with Daria, whose home they both run to after they’ve been chased away by squawking parrots and role-playing.
It was Jane’s turn to have an identity crisis in this season four episode. The leggy artist wasn’t quite as rigid or principled as Daria, but she didn’t think she could lose her outré status so easily either. Jane’s doubts arise after a Mr. O’Neill assignment, one that tasks the students with setting themselves up for failure in order to learn not to fear it. Daria tries to multitask by completing the assignment and getting her sister grounded, while overachieving Jodie asks her equally driven parents for some time off. Brittany and Kevin are surprisingly successful at becoming the bizarro versions of themselves—one unpopular, the other, unathletic—but it’s Jane’s transformation that proves the most troublesome. She begins to believe a simple wardrobe change is all it takes for her to become “conventional,” especially after she’s invited to join the cheerleading squad. But just as Daria had placed too much value on the external, Jane soon realizes there’s nothing peppy—or ordinary—about her.
Sparks fly between soft-spoken Tom and Daria as they spend an afternoon trying to reunite 1) a family at the Lawndale homecoming parade, and 2) Tom with Jane. The show already had enough angst that the Jane-Tom-Daria love triangle should have felt more contrived. But, to the writers’ credit, the feelings between Daria and Tom flourished rather organically, so it was hard to deny them their eventual pairing. Although they each viewed the other as the third wheel initially, their attempts to get along for Jane’s sake led to the realization of how much they had in common. Given their ages and similar personalities, it makes sense that Daria would fall for someone Jane likes, too. All three teens were bright and witty, but where Jane was prepared to shrug off most of life’s foibles, Tom and Daria couldn’t just let those things go by unnoticed.
Being Quinn’s sister meant Daria was living with one of the popular kids, i.e., the enemy. Early on in the show, the fight was one-sided, with Quinn serving as the embodiment of all the things that teens should oppose instead of embrace. But the character developed over time and began to question the very ideals she once upheld. It’s that more conscientious, sympathetic Quinn who sticks up for Daria in “Lucky Strike,” and finally does away with one of the biggest misconceptions about Lawndale’s most notorious misfit. The teachers go on strike after Principal Li denies them a raise, and even though they’d rather stay out of the debacle, all of the central teens get roped into the action. Trent composes a brilliant strike anthem; Jane decorates posters; and Daria is left to teach Quinn’s English class after the Humbert Humbert-like substitute is rightly booted. Daria urges Quinn to think for herself and acknowledge that she’s not really like the rest of the Fashion Club. Quinn challenges herself to ace the exam as well as announce that Daria is her sister. The scene is made all the more poignant by the fact that Quinn is the one who disavowed Daria on their first day at the new school.
A telemovie would wrap up most loose ends, so this series finale went back to the beginning. Graduation’s looming, but Daria finds herself regressing to childhood, even camping out in an old refrigerator box. She resists one last extracurricular activity, then is overcome with guilt when she remembers a fight her parents had years ago that culminated in Jake walking out. The precocious teen tagged her parents out of raising her long ago, so she didn’t really consider how hard it must be for them to watch from the bench. She reveals just how frustrated she is about her history of not playing well with others: “Why do I have to be pegged as the misfit?” But her parents reassure her that the inconvenience of parent-teacher conferences is just the flip side of her perspicacity. Their acceptance and her self-awareness are the perfect notes on which to end the series.