Straight face of cool TV: Laughing inside, creators of the deadpan hit 'Daria' stuck to belief that she was too good for 'Beavis and Butt-head.'

March 23, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

In her previous cartoon hometown of Highland, Daria Morgendorffer was forced to share a classroom with MTV's nacho-munching, TV-worshiping, generally anti-social Beavis and Butt-head. The duh duo would often serenade her to the tune of "diarrhea, cha-cha-cha."

No wonder she's so cynical.

"They had a poor schooling system," says Glenn Eichler, co-creative supervisor of MTV's first full-length cartoon, "Daria." Now in its second season, it's one of MTV's highest-rated shows.

Daria, a character audiences got to know from sarcastic asides aimed at Beavis and Butt-head, is now the primary character, getting ample chances to demonstrate her droll demeanor. The makeup-free teen in oversize glasses disdains shallow pop culture and materialism while making brainy individuality and a cool, skeptical perspective into an unlikely fashion statement.

Eichler says the gifted Daria ended up in the same classes as Beavis and Butt-head because Highland didn't have much money to filter into education. "That's why there were only three teachers in the school. She had to get out of there."

So with the help of creative co-supervisors Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, Daria got out of Highland and into her own show, which takes place in the equally generic setting of Lawndale.

In "Daria," the intellectual butt of Beavis and Butt-head's taunting has a sleeker look, owing to "Daria's" more polished style of animation.

She won't grin for a school picture: "I don't like to smile unless I have a reason." Her sense of irony helps her through stormy weather: "Good, I was feeling too dry." And she can't understand why, just because she doesn't have a jones for the mall or gratuitous social interaction, everyone thinks she has problems: "I don't have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else."

So she doesn't smile much. So she speaks in a monotone that makes Ben Stein sound giddy. She'd rather be referred to as a realist, as opposed to "The Misery Chick."

"We had her personality in the back of our minds all along. I don't think it was ever fully expressed in 'Beavis,' " says Eichler, who has written several episodes. "We wanted to move her out of that environment and give her a new world."

Add a modern dysfunctional family to that new world. The Morgendorffer clan includes a hyper-careerist mother, Helen, a corporate jellyfish father, Jake, and impossibly cute younger sis Quinn, who tells all her fabulously popular Lawndale friends that she's an only child. "Sometimes your shallowness is so thorough, it's almost like depth," Daria says to Quinn after her younger sister spends two hours primping only to turn away a date.

Daria may have left Beavis and Butt-head back in Highland, but Lawndale offers a new array of morons to dismiss. Lawndale High is populated by stock teen characters with a twist. The star-struck head cheerleader Brittany and quarterback Kevin are expectedly empty-headed. But reflecting their status-mania, they're constantly in uniform, as if they'll lose all worth out of costume, or, more likely, forget who they are.

The fashion club, of which Quinn is a member, is concerned with the new neutral color for fall and whose hair is the bounciest. Student council reps are ambitiously repellent, and the ineffectual teachers have their own issues.

Daria reserves her muted affection for her best friend, angular and artsy fellow outcast Jane Lane, and her secret crush, Jane's spacey, Kurt Cobain-wannabe brother Trent, Daria's narcoleptic knight in shining armor.

On the surface, Daria seems like one of those nerd fantasies where former geeks turned influential-TV-types write popular people as vapid jerks and glorify their own fringe culture.

"Every single one of us was voted most popular," Eichler deadpans, like a male Daria.

Daria actively avoids social activity, like class field trips or camping with her family. But that doesn't mean "Daria's" writers are endorsing ennui.

"I don't like it when people expect a character to be a role model," says Anne Bernstein, who has written several episodes. "It puts too much pressure on the writers to make them perfect."

Eichler says if Daria is a role model for anything, it's for sticking to your beliefs.

In one episode, Daria and Jane collaborate on a poster for a school art competition meant to reveal aspects of student life. Jane creates an image of a beautiful, thin teen, and Daria writes a poem under the picture:

She knows she's a winner

She couldn't be thinner

Now she goes to the bathroom

And vomits up dinner

The Lawndale High administration pleads with the combat-boot-wearing cohorts to make the work more "upbeat," but Daria and Jane refuse.

It would appear that Daria and Jane are the only signs of intelligent life in Lawndale. However, the most shallow-seeming characters aren't completely brain-dead. For instance, Quinn fumes over coral nail polish that's too pink, yet knows exactly how to string along her male admirers.

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