Like pretty much everyone else who heard about it, I’m more than excited about the Daria reboot, Daria & Jodie (check out my article about it). But, since it doesn’t have a release date, I’ve had to sate my thirst for new episodes by watching old ones. In my endless search for unseen Daria content, however, I came upon a most curious oddity: a pilot script for a Mystik Spiral spin-off.
Now, we all know that Mystik Spiral is the post-grunge band fronted by Trent, the elder brother of Daria’s best friend Jane Lane, but what I didn’t know was that he was considered a major enough character to headline his own series. Daria itself is a spinoff of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, so a spinoff of a spinoff does seem a little farfetched; most first-generation spinoffs aren’t even good. There are some shows that have succeeded as second-generation spinoffs, (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Good Times) but these shows are decades old, and one of the shows in the link chain is usually much weaker than the others. B&B and Daria were both massive hits, so there would have been a lot of pressure on Mystik Spiral to live up to its lauded lineage.
So, just how is the pilot? The short answer is, not bad. The story concerns the eponymous band (consisting of Trent, Max, Jesse, and Nick) playing the latest of a long string of gigs to an empty room. The four consider breaking up the Spiral, but at the last minute, Max’s brother Mark—the quartet’s only fan—offers to let them stay in a dilapidated house he purchased in Mirage, an artsy town described as like “Seattle, Austin, [and T]he East Village”. The four settle in Mirage, try to get a steady gig and fix up the house. It’s a funny script with a lot of the wry Daria-style humor, but with a lot of the masculine energy that hasn’t been seen from the franchise since Bevis and Butthead.
Each of Trent’s bandmates is given a pretty different personality from their brief cameo appearances in Daria. Guitarist Jesse Moreno has gone from being a monosyllabic girl-chaser to an idiot savant when it comes to members of the opposite sex. Jesse has been upgraded from rhythm guitar to lead, but his intelligence is definitely playing backup. He spends the pilot as the comedic relief. Bassist Nick and drummer Max have seen the largest changes since their initial appearances. What has been kept is their constant bickering, but Nick has become ‘the sensitive one’, spending much of the episode pining after the folk singer girlfriend he’s leaving behind in Lawndale. For his part, Max is the closest thing the pilot has to an antagonist. He’s selfish, rude and opportunistic, but his desire to keep the band together is what consistently drives the plot forward.
There’s not a lot in the way of new characters, but I really like what we do get. Max’s brother Mark is a classic smooth-operator type, glomming on to the Spiral’s alterna-cred to make himself feel cool. He’s bought the house in Mirage to flip when its aesthetic eventually becomes commodifiable. If the show had gone to series, the band’s extremely corporate benefactor and the town’s gentrification would have been interesting storylines to follow. Also along for the ride is Charlotte, Nick’s aforementioned girlfriend who writes oversharing songs about her and Nick’s relationship and moves to Mirage in the last act of the pilot. Rounding out the cast is Cubby, the owner of the club that gives Mystik Spiral a residency and Tulip, his daughter who may be interested in Trent.
So, with so much going for it, why did Mystik Spiral never even get so much as an animatic? I think there are a few reasons. First is the format of the show itself. Quick, what’s your favorite show about a rock band? If you didn’t say Metalocalypse, you’re lying to yourself, and that show wouldn’t come out until four years after the Mystik Spiral pilot, and only then on Adult Swim. Network television didn’t have a model for how to deal with a sitcom about a band. Only a few years prior, Shasta McNasty, a show about a nu-metal outfit, had premiered and was lambasted as one of the worst shows ever made.
Additionally, 2002 (when the box set’s draft of the pilot was written) was a very different television landscape from today. There weren’t serialized sitcoms in the same way there are now, especially not on network television. While it’s a horrible show for so many reasons, Entourage really set the stage for how showbiz sitcoms could become more serialized: the come up story. By giving each season a goal and an arc, the band seemed motivated, rather than merely being the vehicle to get a group of disparate personalities to spend time together. Once again, though, Entourage wouldn’t come out for another two years, and again it would avoid traditional programming for HBO. MTV may have been a cable channel, but it still operated on the network model. People need to be able to tune in and understand each episode, even if it was their first.
This is not to say that the pilot was a perfect script, damned for arriving too early; there are definitely flaws. Trent is probably the largest. Rather than expanding his chill persona into something more substantive, he just comes across as a passive character. It’s natural for the writers to want to spend more time on explaining new characters to the audience, but it’s done at the expense of the real reason that we’re watching the show in the first place.
Another issue is that masculine energy I mentioned earlier. I love that the Daria team is tackling character arcs about trying to get girls and some more juvenile humor, but it leaves the few female characters we do have underwritten. Charlotte was easily my least favorite character in the pilot because she’s the least human. She’s like a cliché of a folk singer, really only relevant because of her relationship with Nick. Is she going to go through the same trouble finding a place to play that Spiral did? I have no idea, but I also don’t really care to find out. Tulip is also pretty minimal, but she’s only in one scene, so it is entirely possible that they would have given her some more to do later on.
Sometime next year, we will surely get the Daria continuation we deserve, but I can’t stop thinking about the one that never was. Mystik Spiral had a really interesting early 2000s charm that could have had a lot to say about the rise of boy bands and hip-hop’s supplanting of rock and roll as the American zeitgeist. The Spiral were always dinosaurs, about three years too late for grunge, and never going to fit in with the likes of Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd that came after. As much as we need shows that move us forward, as Daria & Jodie seems poised to, it’s also important to imagine the worlds that never came to be. I’d spend some more time moping, but I think Trent would tell me not to worry about it.