You can catch every original episode of “Daria,” the landmark MTV series that turned a “Beavis & Butthead” character into a nuanced, wittily cynical spokesperson for the “Real World” generation, on Hulu. This is a gift. Please enjoy this gift.
Though “Daria” aired its last episode almost a decade and a half ago, I remain impressed by how even its most archetypal characters had breakthrough moments of coolness. Though Daria's mother Helen was a treadmill-dominating careerist, she also proved on multiple occasions that she understood Daria well — even if she often found herself sputtering when trying to level with her. Remember their sex talk? “When you're ready, please feel free to come to me,” Helen said. “Not that there's any hurry, nor should that statement be interpreted as some kind of encouragement.”
Daria's dad Jake was similarly strange. He was often histrionic and clueless, but sometimes he piped in with words of encouragement or, on funnier occasions, sheer desperation. “Soon, you're wearing a suit and tie every day like all the other faceless saps, living in a boring little house in a bland little town, and doing so well you're in debt up to your disappearing hair! That's where that trail leads, Daria!” he once warned her.
It's to Daria's credit that she found a number of sane peers: Her best pal Jane Lane was nothing less than a perfect confidante. Student council superstar Jodie Landon was the most mature character of the series and often the most incisive. (“At home, I'm Jodie – I can say and do whatever feels right. But at school I'm The Queen of the Negros, the perfect African-American teen, the role-model for all the other African-American teens at Lawndale. Oops! Where'd they go?”) Daria's eventual boyfriend Tom had his understanding moments too, even if his self-congratulatory, down-to-Earth attitude could sometimes grate.
For my money, the coolest non-title character in “Daria” is her Aunt Amy. Amy only appeared in three episodes, but she achieved something no other character could: She improved upon Daria's cynical humor by adding a dose of adult levity. For that reason, she was also the most hopeful character in Daria's life, since she seemed like a well-adjusted, happily grownup version of Daria herself. Even if Amy's sense of humor was as chillingly dry as our heroine's, she was self-owned.
In her second appearance, she encourages Daria to try contact lenses even though she's nervous about seeming vain. “It wouldn't change your personality. It wouldn't change your values,” Amy says, “And it would set your parents back a couple hundred bucks.”
One of the most liberating parts of adolescence is believing in one or two adults who understand your experience. “Daria” establishes this without a hint of preciousness, which is a major feat. Of course, Amy's radness was a treat in and of itself: After Daria made a joke about a deceased skydiver landing on a cow in the episode “I Don't,” Amy offered up a single line that feels like an essential Daria mantra:
“Hey, what's the point of a senseless tragedy if you can't find a little humor in it?”
Senselessness — like wacky parents or zanily archetypal peers — is only senseless until hilarious perspective comes in. After more than a decade with “Daria” off the air, this is the sentiment that makes me want to re-watch and endorse the entire series again.