Now that we’re entering the fifth and final season of Daria, I want to take a look at how the show has evolved. The early seasons brought us the sharp satire and deadpan wit of Daria Triumphant. Many fans today consider these to be the funniest episodes overall, and I don’t think I’d disagree.
However, there was only so much the writers could do with this setup. Having Daria and Jane blithely glide through one absurd situation after another could only be funny for so long. Season 3’s reliance on gimmick episodes like “Depth Takes A Holiday” and “Daria!” (neither of which were bad episodes, in my opinion, but definitely odd ones) showed that they might be running out of ideas. Season 4 brought us drama, primarily with Tom. Is It Fall Yet? escalated the drama in the context of a muddled TV movie.
“Fizz Ed”, the Season 5 opener, jettisoned the dramatic elements of Season 4. It’s almost a return to Daria Triumphant… except it isn’t, not quite. Sure, Daria gets her way (to an extent), but this seems to have as much to do with Ms. Li’s panic attack as it does with Daria’s wit. More importantly, Daria’s motivations in “Fizz Ed” are drastically different from what she displayed in earlier seasons.
Season 5 was Daria’s most overtly political season. “Fizz Ed” tackles the uneasy-at-best topic of commercial funding for public education. Unfortunately, I don’t think the episode quite figures out how to handle the characters. While “Fizz Ed” does have one of the funniest scenes in the show overall (Ms. Li’s freakout), the satire misses its mark. I don’t really believe it when Daria states that she’s concerned for other students. Yes, she’s grown a great deal since the start of the show, but not to the point where she’d be altruistic toward people she normally holds in contempt.
I suppose that one argument is that, by now, she’s gained respect for Quinn, someone she previously looked down on. And to Daria’s credit, the show has built this up beautifully over the seasons. Still, Quinn’s exceptional by any reasonable metric. I’d argue that Daria’s acceptance of her doesn’t stem from growing tolerance of “normal people”, but rather that she now classifies Quinn as being more on the level of her, Jane, and Jodie. Daria may be more aware of her own fallibility by this point, but that’s not the same thing.
Her arguments about advertising destroying any respect that students might have for the school is also undercut by the show’s presentation. Lawndale High has always been corrupt. Only the foolish or naïve would feel much respect for it. True, Daria has always been in favor of learning, but learning is distinctly shown as something done in spite of school, not because of it. The show doesn’t support Daria’s argument.
What’s interesting is that Daria’s criticisms of Ultra Cola’s campaign end up being irrelevant. The problem doesn’t arise from students losing faith or becoming unhealthy (with the notable exception of the football team, and then only because of Ms. Li’s intervention). The situation falls to pieces because of Ultra Cola’s insistence on exerting direct control and Ms. Li crumbling under the pressure. Had the superintendent arrived earlier, when things were more normal, I’m not sure he’d have done anything.
Which isn’t to say that Daria’s wrong… just that the show in general, and this episode in particular, don’t do a good job of backing her up. I think Jodie brings up a fair point about schools benefitting from outside income, though Ms. Li’s misplaced priorities render this a moot point.
- The episode also comments on the athletics obsession that drives some American schools.
- Daria really does owe Jane hugely.
- Jodie also comments on the Chechnyan Conflict, which was a regular news item at the time.
- I think there’s a lot that can be said about the dangers of making profit the point of education—it’s just that this episode doesn’t do a good job of it.