Waxing Episodic: ‘Daria’ grows up in ‘Boxing Daria’

MTV's “Daria” was supposed to be nothing more than a spinoff of the smash cartoon “Beavis and Butthead” that reveled in drollness more than insanity. After just a couple seasons, it became something else: a “Wonder Years” for adolescents of the late '90s who were too sardonic, self-deprecating, and secretly well-adjusted enough to riot over teen spirit. In “Daria” that demo found a witty protagonist who was amused by the absurdity of her family, teachers, and leering acquaintances named Upchuck. Her murmured rejoinders were packed with a sly confidence, and if everyone else mistook her for a hopeless pariah, that amused her too.

“I don't have low self-esteem,” Daria quipped in the premiere. “I have low esteem for everyone else.” 

From 1997 to 2002 on MTV, Daria Morgendorffer strolled through Lawndale High's endless mania with the help of her arty pal Jane Lane. She rolled her eyes at her popular younger sister Quinn's vanity, her parents' alarmist reactions, and the hilariously belittling ways teachers tried to “help” Daria adopt a peppier disposition. It was a teenage, animated “Exile in Guyville” where the boorish establishment in question was public school, not Chicago indie rock.

By its last season, Daria had endured quite a few hallmarks of the teen experience, including tested friendships, her first relationship, and a controversial attempt at poetry (“She knows she's a winner / She couldn't be thinner / Now she goes to the bathroom and vomits up dinner”). But by the time the last regular episode of “Daria” rolled around, we'd underestimated how little the show had mined the foundations of her standoffish rapport with her mother and father. In “Boxing Daria,” the show confronted that once and for all.

Daria's parents Jake and Helen are two of the most well-realized characters on the show. Jake, like Lawndale faculty member Mr. DeMartino, spends most of his time hyperventilating over nothing, even when he's happy. (“Cheeseless pizza! What a great idea!”) Helen is a tough-talking capitalist whose sly intuitive streak makes her more of a kindred to Daria than is immediately apparent. Together they're a wild but well-meaning pair, and in “Boxing Daria” our heroine struggles with a question that can define adolescence: How much of a burden does being yourself put on your parents?

The episode begins with salty dialogue between Daria and Jane at school, as usual. Then Mr. O'Neill, the hopelessly perky teacher who has a new-age axiom for every occasion, arrives to recruit Daria to help show middle-schoolers around Lawndale. 

“I don't think I can bring myself to say anything encouraging about a place that strip-searches for Cheez-Its,” she replies.

That sets Mr. O'Neill off. 

“Darn it, Daria! This is an opportunity to polish up those people skills! I promised myself I'd get you to do this!” he clamors. Like most of the orbital characters on “Daria,” Mr. O'Neill presents his version of a socially acceptable face even when his true frustrations threaten to billow forth. Here he's insulting, noting that Daria's supposed to appreciate being his charity case. She brushes him off with a typical reply: “You need to work on your callousness skills.” It's a nice setup for the parental reckoning to come, and it's also an interesting trick: There are almost no more jokes in this episode. 

Daria returns home and discovers a discarded refrigerator box in her yard. Her mom is unbothered by its presence, but it triggers some memories for Daria: “Did we have one of those when I was a kid? A refrigerator box? I seem to remember spending a lot of time playing in one when I was a kid.” Helen laughs: “Oh, I doubt that, Daria. I don't remember you doing much playing at all.” Quinn also doesn't remember a box: “I'm not in the mood for a stroll down memory road!” she grouses.

After some pondering, Daria recalls an argument her parents had when she was a kid. She was in her room and could overhear them screaming about her lack of social interactions at school.

“She's a child! She doesn't know better!” Helen is heard telling Jake.

“That's what she wants you to believe!” he retorts with outsize anger.

In this flashback, we see a young Daria cringing at her parents' argument. It's clear she feels guilty, but it's also clear that her dad is overreacting. It's probably the first time we ever see Daria not quite able to shrug off the imbecilic absurdity of those around her. Yes, she's six years old, but it's a revealing moment about a character who has seemed preternaturally disengaged for five seasons.

She remembers more of the fight in spurts as the episode progresses — and after she realizes she finds a sincere comfort in crawling into the refrigerator box and hiding. 

“She doesn't WANT to fit in, dammit! Why can't you admit that?” Daria recalls Jake screaming.

In a very pre-Don Draper age, this felt like one of the more realistic origin stories on TV. Daria's upset by the specter of a bad fight and her relation to it, but she can't quite piece the details together. Soon she confronts her parents about the memory, and her mother admits they did argue about her social skills. Fortunately, she adds, it wasn't Daria's fault. Mounting tensions about work preceded that dispute.

“You were the topic [of the fight], not the cause.” 

That actually upsets Daria more, which is surprising given her penchant for dismissiveness. She flees to visit her boyfriend Tom at his snooty parents' vacation home, but she gets into a car accident on the highway and is forced to cancel. Jane meets up with her at a diner on the road, and Daria greets her with a shocking gesture — a hug. It is so excellent that although Daria and Jane have been inseparable best friends since episode one, it still weirds out Jane to be embraced. This, to me, is a major part of the genius of “Daria”: Daria's relationship with Jane feels both universal (in its chilled-out, pizza-centric concord) and completely specific (with its shaky boundaries about closeness and occasional tensions about each other's apathy). 

After Daria remembers all the times she hid in a refrigerator box as a child, it's her dad who finally says the right thing: “[Being called into school] was part of the deal. It was the other side to you being so smart and perceptive.” 

Her mom adds, “Daria, you can't have a child with your kind of intelligence and expect her to fit in easily with other kids.”

It's then that Daria resumes the quick, perceptive intelligence we're familiar with and uses it to make an emotional judgment: “It occurs to me that maybe I wasn't the easiest child in the world to raise, and, um, perhaps I'm quite lucky to have you for parents.” This kind of make-good conclusion would feel so unearned on most sitcoms, but with “Daria,” we know the incredible stakes of self-realization. Daria has used her confidence to insult hypocrites and announce her self-acceptance before, but here she acknowledges and embraces the fact that she's been understood the whole time. It's the official moment of her jump from adult-acting teenager to actual adult.

It's a charming sentiment: Solitude is always a box you can choose when camaraderie seems impossible. But you can't live in a box — “not until they can install high-speed internet,” Daria explains, assuring us she's aware of her insecurities, yet isn't devastated by or humorless about them. And that's easily the most adult reconciliation of all.