Is adding Jodie going to change the Daria we know and love?
Last month, Variety reported on an MTV press release announcing a slate of new shows in development. Most notable among them was a reboot of turn-of-the-millennium hit Daria. The original show, a Bevis and Butthead spinoff, chronicled the high school years of Daria Morgendorffer, a monotone, acerbic misanthrope, and her family and friends in the suburban town of Lawndale. Daria ran five seasons from 1997 until 2002, and spawned two made-for-TV movies: Is it Fall Yet? and series finale, Is it College Yet? Daria was known for its biting takedowns of baby-boomer and Gen X culture alike, and its return is eagerly awaited by fans the world over. But there’s a distinct difference this time around.
The new show’s title, as billed in MTV’s press release, is Daria & Jodie. The latter refers to Jodie Landon, a black, overachieving supporting character in the Daria universe. This comes a bit of a shock to longtime fans, as Daria already has a partner-in-crime: visual artist Jane Lane. Her brother Trent was Daria’s first crush, and Daria’s only other romantic interest, Tom Sloane, was Jane’s boyfriend first. With Jane’s deep connection to the DNA of the original series, why the sudden shift to Jodie, another book-smart character that rarely had more than a few lines per episode?
While MTV has not confirmed if this series will take place in the future of same continuity as the original series, or if Daria and the gang are going back to high school, this billing shakeup will surely be pivotal to the show’s universe moving forward. My theory is that this decision was made not only to open the series up to new character and story possibilities, but also to update the very message of Daria, so it isn’t seen as an anachronism when it hits TV and computer screens in the near future.
As a character, Jodie Landon is notable as she, along with her boyfriend Mac, were among the only students of color at Daria’s Lawndale High. Jodie also had the distinction of being the smartest kid in school– even smarter than Daria. While Daria provided the show with its greatest moments of witticism, when she would dismantle an overzealous admissions counselor or rant at a listless high school English class, Jodie’s best moments were always the most cathartic. She had a wonderful monologue in the season two episode “Gifted” where she decried the fact that she was always walking on eggshells as “queen of the (by her own admission very few) negroes” of Lawndale, and I still tear up every time I see her in season four’s “I Loathe A Parade”.
She’s barely in the episode, but I think it’s the deepest moment of the entire series. During the homecoming parade, she and Mac grouse, from atop their float, about Lawndale High’s ludicrous gesture of electing them homecoming king and queen every year out of white guilt. They consider bailing on the whole parade, but when Jodie looks into the crowd, she sees a little girl looking up at her aspirationally, eyes as wide as dinner plates. Jodie’s cynicism immediately crumbles, and she waves right to her. That moment is why I love Jodie. While Daria and Jane were always full of, an occasionally off-putting, cynicism, Jodie never got to be a nihilist; she never had the luxury.
Using this moment as a sort of Rosetta’s Stone, I went back and looked at all of the episodes where Jodie is prominently featured (there are really only three, not counting the movies), and it revealed a very specific pattern regarding Daria & Jodie’s dynamic. While Daria was idealistic to a fault, often holding others to impossibly high standards, Jodie was pragmatic to the same. She was a striver, looking to get ahead, not always paying attention to who might get hurt in the process. This seems like fertile ground that the new series is eager to take advantage of, especially in our current media and political climate.
Often, media is distilled to an essence long after its original release, or to quote the Filmspotting podcast “When movies become artifact, subtext becomes foreground.” What this means in the case of Daria is that while the show was a pretty traditional sitcom, with most episodes ending on a note of positivity, the subtext of Daria’s core unhappiness despite each lesson learned, remained. So, when it came time to reboot the show, a balance was needed to offset her nihilism.
I love Jane Lane as much as anyone. She’s a wonderful character, but she is not the partner Daria needs for a show in 2018. Jane Lane is possibly the only person in the Daria universe more disaffected than Daria herself. MTV’s press release describes the show as “two smart young women tak[ing] on the world, with their signature satirical voice while deconstructing popular culture, social classes, gender and race.” I’m not sure exactly what Daria & Jodie is going to look like, but if it wants to follow through on such a lofty goal, disengagement and disaffection aren’t going to cut it. They are no longer the youth culture du jour.
In a world where children are being separated from their parents and we return to gilded age levels of inequality, young people have become more politically engaged than ever. It’s no coincidence, then, that Jodie was chosen for promotion in a cultural landscape moving towards confronting our problems head-on, rather than snidely mocking them from the sidelines.
The show has many more places to go with Jodie in a lead role than it would with Jane, and not merely on the topic of race. Jodie’s parents are black conservatives. How does that square with the age of Trump? In the finale, Is It College Yet? Jodie wanted to go to an HBCU. In the episode “Prize Fighter”, Jodie and Daria debate corporate ethics and “Partner’s Complaint” is about ageist, racist and sexist loan policies. It’s not just that Jodie is a black woman in a lead role, (though that is certainly welcome) she’s also an ideological counterweight to Daria in a show that can tackle many of today’s toughest issues.
By contrast, the Lane family’s endless search for authenticity and ‘realness’ isn’t just disengaged, it’s disconnected. Her brother Trent was in a grunge band, would he be a DJ now? Or is he still chasing that dream, over twenty years too late? Additionally, the rest of her family is rarely in the series. While this would give the writers a chance to draw their characters out, “Lane Miserables” illustrates that they’re intended to be so neglectful and self-involved that Jane flourishes away from them.
What this has historically meant for Jane’s character is that her largest flaw has always been the inability to see outside of herself. She’s prone to fits of jealousy, in episodes like “Prize Fighters” and “Fire”. This makes sense, as she always had to take care of herself, but it seems the show’s creators believe this is a lesson we don’t have the luxury to spend time on right now. There are definitely other people in the world besides oneself, and they need help, or at least consideration. Daria & Jodie appears to be positioning itself for a fascinating discussion on the methods by which we can make a better world in the future, not whether or not we had a great one in the past.
Daria & Jodie seems poised not only for a content update but for a formic one as well. In addition to sidelining Jane, promoting Jodie to Daria’s second lead may get Ms. Landon away from Kevin & Brittney, the jocks to whom she often played second fiddle. Since the duo has no real connection to Daria herself, this likely means that they’ll be minimized in the new show altogether. The original Daria was a sitcom cut from the same cloth as a TGIF show like Boy Meets World or Clarissa Explains It All. It utilizes twentieth-century high school stereotypes in order to flesh out the world of a single protagonist. These shows, then, are almost exclusively from that protagonist’s perspective. Daria & Jodie’s new two-hander approach places female friendship at the forefront, and calls to mind shows like Broad City, Insecure and Girls, where the focus is on the relationship between the stars and the differences in their struggles and approaches to them.
While no one is sure just when Daria & Jodie is coming out, the television landscape is crying out for a diverse animated satire with a heart. The original Daria was already most of those things, but I am certain all the Jodie Landon fans out there are excited to see just what this update has to offer her, and them, going forward.
All images courtesy of MTV Studios.