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Daria - Episode-by-Episode Analysis

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That Was Then, This Is Dumb

How much of ourselves do we give up to succeed? If we do succeed, is it because we made a conscious effort to change ourselves? Or did we just change without really trying?

The '60s had a pretty big cultural presence in the '90s. A lot of kids in that decade knew one or two people who'd been hippies back in the day, very possibly a parent or a teacher. Films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery parodied the decade but still brought some of its imagery to a new generation.

Many of the then middle-aged Flower Children, like Helen and Jake, looked at themselves and realized they'd become the establishment they'd once sought to rebel against. Some felt a bit of longing for the authenticity of the hippies who supposedly led happier and more natural lives. Wasn't all the stuff in their houses—including their houses—just junk that kept them from being themselves?

Thankfully, "That Was Then, This Is Dumb" takes the piss out of this nostalgia.

The conflict between superficiality and authenticity is a recurring one in Daria, usually seen in Daria's relationship with Quinn. But this episode has the conflict play out in two different areas, first in the arrival of the Yeagers.

The Yeagers are hippies who never sold out. They certainly come off as happier and healthier than Jake and Helen at first glance. Coyote and Willow are relaxed and comfortable with who they are; a far cry from the workaholic Morgendorffers. The Yeagers would never pretend to be something they aren't just to cash in on their dreams. They're authentic.

But are they really? Are you truly being yourself if you go out of your way to avoid change? The episode explores this idea in showing how frustrated the Yeagers have become with their frozen-in-amber lifestyle. And why shouldn't they be? People do change. We don't have the same needs and desires at age 30 that we do at age 15. Frankly, it'd be worrying if we did.

The Morgendorffers have changed with the times. Helen, at least, seems to enjoy her work. Consider how bored she looks when tending compost with Willow. The simple life would be torture for her. And, if the flashbacks are any indication, the hippie lifestyle was never that good a fit for Jake. Still, he tried it, and then moved on, which is more than can be said for the Yeagers who are desperately trying to stay still, hoping that what worked for them in their twenties will work for them now.

Daria explores the same issue at the flea market. Though a Morgendorffer, Daria's less keen on change than her parents. In this case, she's analogous to the Yeagers: authentic and unwilling to compromise. She shows this in her hilariously awful sales technique. Daria doesn't pretend to be friendly, or to care about the client. She says exactly what she thinks, and naturally fails to make a single sale.

So if Daria is the stand-in for the Yeagers, Upchuck, of all people, is the one for the Morgendorffers. Though he comes off as unctuous, he tries to communicate with the customer. He adapts to the needs of the situation. And sure enough, he does seem to make a few sales. Granted, he screws it all up by wandering off, but he was willing to play the game while Daria wasn't.

Superficial? Sure. But being able to pitch a sale can get you far in the adult world, particularly during job interviews, which Daria struggles with in later episodes. My point here isn't that superficiality is good. Rather, it's that there's a benefit in flexibility.

At the end of the episode, the Yeagers realize that there's nothing wrong with trying something new (which in a roundabout way, is almost them being more true to the '60s ethos). Likewise, by the end of the series, Daria realizes that there's a social and personal cost to being authentic.

One thing I love about this episode is how so much of the flea market's wares are from the '60s. Though Trent's records aren't just limited to that decade, the only artists explicitly referenced in the episode are The Velvet Underground and Annette Funicello (which presents an admirably broad view of the '60s—it wasn't just hippies). Likewise, both Upchuck and Mr. DeMartino share a (somewhat unsettling) fascination with '60s men's magazines.

And here's the ultimate irony in the flea market. The '60s, that decade of self-discovery and exploration, has become just another commodity, something sold for a few extra bucks.

But that doesn't mean the '60s failed. Daria points out the positive legacy of the decade toward the end of the episode. Likewise, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is still an amazing album, even if it is just more stuff being sold.

Maybe a balance can be struck between superficiality and authenticity.

Notes:

  • The central conflict plays out a third time when Trent and Jesse discuss the merits of CDs versus records.
  • At the start of the episode, Helen reflects on how it was a bad idea to tell Daria to be herself.
  • Also, this episode probably has Daria's single meanest moment in the entire series. I felt pretty bad for the guy looking for "Somebody Up There Likes Me".