Daria Season 1 Episode 1 “Esteemsters” Recap
“I like having low self-esteem. It makes me feel special.” – Jane Lane
The suburbs are depressing, the wit is dry, and the family dynamics are mercenary. You know what that means: it’s time to revisit Lawndale and the cultural impact of its most famous teen misanthrope. Join us as we recap MTV’s Daria.
The world is a lot different than it was when Daria premiered on MTV in 1997. For one thing, suburban conformity sure doesn’t seem like quite the bogeyman it once was in an era of COVID, climate disasters, and forever wars. Growing up is always painful, though, and that goes double if you’re a girl who doesn’t go along with society’s expectations. (Triple, if you’re not white and well-off like a certain salty teen.) In true coming-of-age spirit, Daria speaks to the universal teenage feeling of being trapped in circumstances beyond your control—and she even has the Kafka poster to prove it.
“Esteemsters” wastes no time introducing us to the Morgendorffers and their world of pastel banalities. The family has just moved to the town of Lawndale, and Daria and her sister Quinn are about to have their first day at a new school. Pretty, popular Quinn finds friends and gets asked on a date before she even steps through the door, while Daria trudges off in her iconic Doc Martens to join the herd.
The sisters then undergo a psychological evaluation—the first instance of the show’s amusing portrayal of high school-as-surveillance state. Quinn’s teen soap opera-flavored monologue passes with flying colors, but Daria’s smartass answers lead to a diagnosis of low self-esteem and a mandatory class with sensitive self-help junkie Mr. O’Neill.
Daria uses her newfound status to relentlessly troll her family (this will become a theme), wryly pointing out that her parents won’t let her borrow either car despite the importance of “trust.” Negligent parents Jake and Helen suddenly falling all over themselves trying to convince Daria she’s a great kid is good for a few laughs, as is her torturing her family by dragging them to a kid-friendly pizza place to relive childhood memories. The Morgendorffer family’s deep dysfunction is something the show will explore with great sensitivity in later seasons, and it’s easy to see there’s plenty of material from the moment Helen asks if Daria’s test result is “something my assistant can handle” and Quinn expresses disgust at having a sister with “a thing”—and also pretends to be an only child to her vapid friends at school.
Back at self-esteem class, Daria befriends fellow esteemster Jane Lane, and the two of them use Jane’s notes from taking the class multiple times (she was bored) to pass the test. It’s fun to watch the two of them fall instantly into a shit-talking rapport, trading quips at the back of the classroom. Unfortunately for the two slackers, their spectacular progress warrants an award at the school assembly, where Jane fakes a breakdown and runs off while Daria seizes the spotlight with an off-the-cuff speech ironically praising the merits of self-esteem. After seeing her dismissed by boys in the audience as a brain and a loser, it’s easy to see why Daria cultivates her give-no-shits attitude.
Finally, as a reward for her progress on the self-esteem front, Daria’s parents agree to an outing to the destination of her choice—a UFO convention featured on the TV show Sick, Sad World, and a perfect opportunity to make Quinn miserable.
And there we have it. Daria’s world has been established, a place that constantly fluctuates between the absurd, the insulting, and the soul-crushingly boring. Stay tuned to see how she deals with it (beyond, of course, relentless quipping).
- I regret to announce that I’m already Daria/Jane trash.
- Music rights issues famously held up the DVD release of the show for years, leading to the use of generic placeholder “grunge” for some interstitial scenes. It’s a shame, because Daria’s original ‘90s alt rock soundtrack was one of the best things about it.
- Principal Li collecting DNA samples from students was a nice touch.
- This is the first appearance of that great Morgendorffer staple, frozen lasagna. It will not be the last.
- Today, on Sick, Sad World: a blind man who conducted affairs with the royal family, and a kid attending a UFO convention who claims aliens pressed his pants. “Did a pretty good job, too!”
- Considering she’s a teen girl protagonist of a TV show, it’s amazing how little the writers care about making Daria likeable or palatable. She spends most of her time messing with people, and claims not to have low self-esteem, but “low esteem for everyone else.” Granted, it’s not hard to see how she came by her buckets of bad attitude.