The first season of Daria is good, but not great. Many of the elements that would eventually establish the show as a touchstone for disaffected youth were already in place in these early installments. From the beginning, Daria showed off the deadpan snark that would make her famous; the rest of the Morgendorffer clan had their basic personalities sketched out, and the show was already devoted to shining a satirical light on the lumpier parts of high school and teenage life writ large.
But in the show’s early going, its bread-and-butter humor and critiques of life as a young adult are a little less sophisticated and a little more obvious. The satire isn’t as sharp or incisive as it would become later in the series, and the secondary characters are flatter and more stereotypical. Most of all, the series only gives glimpses of the depth and insight series creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn would eventually imbue into Daria and the show’s title character.
This all makes me sound far more negative on Season 1 than I mean to be. Even if Daria had never progressed past what it was able to accomplish in its first season– creating a fully formed protagonist who could wield witty barbs like a literate ninja, mustering a solid dose of knives-out fun directed at one-dimensional high school archetypes, and offering a fractured take on life as a teenager–it would still be an enjoyable series with a memorable hook.
But in “The Misery Chick”, an episode written by Eichler that served as the finale of the show’s first season, the folks behind Daria showed the series’s uncanny ability to address complicated, meaningful topics with a deft hand. What’s more, the episode served as something of a mission statement for Daria herself and also proved that the series could show empathy for its broader, less likeable secondary characters, revealing the hidden depths and humanity of the less-flatteringly-depicted residents of Lawndale. These are the elements that allowed Daria to transcend being a simple paean to teenage snark, and become one of the most incisive and hilarious looks at young adulthood ever on television.
“The Misery Chick” starts with a fairly standard Daria premise. Daria’s high school is honoring Tommy Sherman, a former Lawndale High quarterback, who led the school’s football team to the state championship. The school is commemorating that success by dedicating a special collapsible goal post to him because, as Jodie explains, he used to run into them while trying to wave to his girlfriend and score touchdowns at the same time.
Daria is, of course, incredulous that this dope is being officially congratulated by an institution nominally devoted to education, and her sense of outrage is only reinforced when the egotistical Sherman shows up on campus and propositions Brittany, insults Kevin and Mack, and eventually belittles Daria herself.
When the two meet, Daria will have none of Tommy’s self-aggrandizing nonsense, dressing him down with her usual monotone wit and sarcastically congratulating him for having worked so hard to become a “colossal jerk” in such a short time. It’s enough to convince Tommy to get out of Daria’s way, but not before accusing the show’s title character of being a “misery chick,” the kind of girl who is “always moping about what a cruel world it is, making a big deal about it so people won’t notice that [she’s] a loser.”
After Tommy huffs off to take a look at his commemorative plaque, Daria laments “the real tragedy” — that Tommy will be treated like a hero for the rest of his life. Jane retorts, “maybe he won’t live that long,” only for Daria to ruefully remind her that “wishes don’t come true.” Then, by some grisly coincidence, immediately after this exchange the goal post collapses on Tommy and kills him.
No one in Lawndale quite knows how to handle Tommy’s death. Principal Li holds a school assembly; Jane becomes distant, and person after person comes to Daria for advice on how to cope, because they, like Tommy, assume that Daria is unhappy and experienced in facing the cruelty of the world, thereby giving her an insight into these sorts of grim occurrences that they lack. Daria is, understandably, less than pleased at this perception of her, and it’s clear that even though Tommy himself is gone, his accusation she is a “misery chick”, a label her compatriots appear to agree with, quickly gets under her skin.
To this end, the finale of the show’s first season grapples with a central question that would bear strongly on the show going forward — who is Daria? That sounds cheesy, but the question is framed more specifically than that. Is Daria as gloomy or miserable as her detached exterior and cynical one-liners would indicate, or is she more complex than that? Is there something more going on behind that knowing smirk at the end of the opening credits?
“The Misery Chick” seems designed to suggest that there is. The show could have made Daria nothing more than a sad soul with a dry wit and still succeeded. Daria is undoubtedly a misfit who does not suffer fools gladly, and from the very first episode, the series makes no bones about the fact that the show will offer her no end of fools to suffer. “Daria vs. The Inane Nuisance of the Week” would have been a venerable blueprint for the series going forward, and the show would occasionally lean into that structure.
And yet, the show pivots here to prove that Daria is more than just a series of smart remarks and a pair of glasses, and that the series itself could tackle something as emotionally and ethically complex as the death of a repugnant person. The episode uses its protagonist to ask how we should process the death of someone less than worthy of the veneration most people receive after they die. It’s a complicated topic, but Daria doesn’t shy away from the uglier or more complex facets of it, and manages to reveal the core of its protagonist in the process.
Part of how the show achieves this is by contrasting the show’s eponymous lead with her colleagues and acquaintances at Lawndale High, showing how she is, in turn, different, more insightful, but also understanding of them despite her sarcastic remarks. One of the more impressive things about Daria is how the series could use more serious topics to add shading to even dullards like Kevin and Brittany, who could otherwise devolve into one-note punching bags in their role as the popular kids.
When a tearful Kevin asks Daria for help in understanding his reaction to Tommy’s death, the show hints that, at a level he cannot even process, Kevin is starting to feel his own mortality in the face of another hunky QB, whom he admired, meeting an untimely end. The show undercuts that sentiment a bit at the end of Kevin’s conversation with Daria, but there’s a sense that even if Kevin is an idiot, he’s going through something he doesn’t quite comprehend. The interaction shows how Daria perceives this even if Kevin does not, and makes Kevin’s unwittingly existential discomfort as much a part of his personality in this episode as his persistent idiocy.
The same is true for Brittany, who struggles with the fact that Tommy was a jerk and a creep to her, and so she doesn’t feel as bad about Tommy dying as she otherwise might. But Brittany, in turn, feels bad for not being more upset about his death. It’s an incredibly nuanced topic for any series to examine, especially with the sentiment coming from a typically air-headed character like Brittany.
But Daria’s response is equally nuanced when she explains that not feeling as bad about someone’s death as you think you should, even if the person who died is not necessarily deserving of the pity, makes you question whether or not you’re a good person, but that the very act of worrying about that and feeling sorry for the loss in the first place means that you are a good person. Or, as Brittany sums it up, “feeling bad about not feeling worse is good.” Brittany may lack Daria’s sophistication, but the show makes both her and Daria sympathetic here, putting them on the same page if still remaining true their core characterizations.
The episode uses these interactions and similar ones between Daria and Mr. O’Neil, her sister, and others denizens of Lawndale, to vindicate the idea that Daria is more than a “smarter than the room” cynic who’s miserable or otherwise unhappy. She’s sensitive, insightful, and simply unwilling to buy into half-truths and B.S. that are constantly peddled to men and women her age. As she protests to Jane, “I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.” Her flat affect may suggest a standard Gen X gloominess, but there’s much more going on under the surface than that.
In the episode’s standout scene, Daria and Jane confront each other about their concerns and frustrations after Tommy’s death. It’s a strikingly real and adult conversation, made possible by Trent, another character who the show does not convey as having a great deal of depth, but who intuits that his sister and her friend ought to talk. When they do, Daria is upset that Jane has been avoiding her and how everyone assumes that she’s so morbid and depressed. For her part, Jane was pushing Daria away because she feels guilty for joking about Tommy’s death right before it actually happened, and thinks that Daria will only brush off something as significant as a human being, even an unpleasant one, losing his life.
They reach a detente, and agree that Tommy Sherman shouldn’t have died, but that he wasn’t a nice person. As hard as those two sentiments are to reconcile, speaking frankly about them allows Daria and Jane to understand and accept where they’re both coming from.
Daria reassures her best friend that jokes or not, Tommy’s death wasn’t Jane’s fault. And Jane reassures Daria that when people come to her to understand how to cope with loss, what they’re really saying is that because Daria doesn’t smile, they see her as someone who thinks, who can handle contemplating life’s tough questions and harder truths, so when they ask her for advice, they’re really asking her to “tell me how you cope with thinking all the time, Daria, until I can get back to my normal vegetable state.”
It’s as sharp a statement about the people in Daria’s life as the show would ever vocalize, and it shines a light on who Daria is as well. She isn’t morbid or depressed or unhappy. She’s someone who sees the world for what it is, confronts the more difficult realities of that, and won’t pretend to do otherwise simply because it suits those around her. The relationship between Daria and Jane is one of the show’s strongest, and here, it illuminates who each of these characters really are.
The show doubles down on this point when Daria discusses Tennyson in her English class, and interprets his famous phrase that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” to stands for the idea that meaningful things in life have both beautiful and painful sides to them and that’s “just a fact of life.” She defends Tennyson as something other than a “big unhappiness freak,” positing instead that he, and by the same token she, are realists who believe that “emotional involvement brings pleasure and extraordinary pain” and that that’s “better than feeling nothing at all.”
Daria is reserved, but not detached. Her snark is a vessel for her realism, subtle sensitivity, and perceptiveness. The show itself would prove time and again that it could look at the issues affecting teenagers through the lens of its protagonist without dumbing them, or her, down, or otherwise patronizing the young adults who made up both the show’s cast and its audience.
“The Misery Chick” marks a turning point for the series, and shows that it was more than a funny cartoon meant to take the stuffing out of high school life. It was a series that could plumb the depths of growing up in middle America without pulling any punches, missing any nuance, or sacrificing the depth, insightfulness, humanity, and humor that would elevate the show and make its lead one of the most indelible young women to ever grace our television screens.