Premier episodes are tough to do. Not only must the show establish themes and introduce characters, it also has to grab the audience right off the bat.
What's interesting in "Esteemsters" is that it manages to do all this while maintaining a casual pace. The plot, such as there is, barely even kicks in until about halfway through. Instead, the episode hinges on Daria as a character.
So who is Daria, exactly? In this episode, she's intelligent (as shown in Mr. DeMartino's history class), sarcastic, and indifferent. This last bit is important. While her parents fret about her lack of popularity, it's clearly not something that bothers her.
Daria is not an outcast.
This is an important aspect of her character. High school's a pretty miserable time for everyone involved; we all wanted to find ourselves, make friends, meet that special someone, and maintain some kind of decent GPA. In this venue, I think Daria clicked not so much as someone who was necessarily like us, but someone we wished we could be. She's above all the crap (and a high GPA comes naturally to her).
Just look at her initial reaction to the school: bored contempt. She doesn't seem particularly frustrated or hurt by how the nascent Fashion Club embraces Quinn. Seeing her blasé attitude is downright liberating to anyone who's been frustrated by the vagaries of campus popularity. To hell with everyone else; why not just be yourself?
Well, there are reasons, but the show won't get to them until much later.
In the context of the times, "Esteemsters" satirizes the emphasis on self-confidence that was so prevalent in schools of that era (for the record, I went to high school from 1998-2002). It's definitely a deserving target. Obviously, confidence is important, but it's only meaningful if it stems from actual accomplishment. And to become accomplished, you have to work at something and put yourself out there; memorizing self-help aphorisms really won't do much.
We've all heard the cliche about Millennials having become spoiled through getting too many trophies in return for minimal effort. That it made us think we deserved the world just for showing up. The truth is, we knew it was nonsense. We knew the trophies were just knee-jerk reactions from lazy-minded adults. When everyone got a trophy, we still knew who the winners and losers really were.
And so did Daria. The way the show skewers the self-esteem movement is perfect. Mr. O'Neill is an accurate picture of bumbling good intention. He absolutely wants to make students feel better about themselves, but the only thing his program really nurtures is contempt for a transparently ridiculous system. His class demands almost nothing from the students, meaning they won't have anything to feel proud of. Likewise, he doesn't really put anything into it.
Laziness feeds laziness. There's also a perverse chord of truth to Jane's comment about low self-esteem making her feel "special", even if she was being sarcastic. O'Neill's class babies the students, giving them minimal and largely meaningless attention that might make a few people feel good for a little while, but won't actually help anyone.
Daria is a bit more aggressive in this episode than she is throughout most of the series. It's hard to imagine mid-series Daria taking her family to the Pizza Forest even to embarrass them. Far less effort to simply keep her distance.
Her relationship with Quinn is established clearly in the opening scenes, and continues to be a rich source of conflict for future episodes. At this point, Quinn's not particularly sympathetic, and her denial of sisterhood is one of the few things that actually gets under Daria's skin. At this point (and for much of the early seasons) Quinn is simply a foil.
Daria's introduction to Jane is done pretty quietly. No big drama, just two students finding common ground in the boredom of class. Plenty of us have had similar experiences. Daria is not all that invested in Jane at this point, which makes sense. She's navigating some pretty unfamiliar emotional territory, so her inclination is to keep things casual: watching TV, sharing answers, and so forth. It's a humble and believable start to one of TV's great friendships.
One has to wonder what Daria's thinking about Jane. Is Jane just someone who seems marginally more tolerable than the rest of the student body? Or is there a real sense of kinship? The Daria Diaries suggests the latter, though it's not clear if that's what Daria felt in the first episode. Regardless, Daria's keeping a safe emotional distance, staying above everything like always. This will have repercussions.