Ladyghosts of TV Past: Daria, 1.01, “Esteemsters”

[E] LizaLadyGhosts of TV Past2 Comments

retrorecap

La la la la laaaa.

There are few shows out there that match Daria in terms of wit, intelligence, and message. During the series’ run (five seasons and two movies) they cover the ups and downs of being a brainy high school outcast. The show tackled some serious subjects — sex, death, popularity — without getting bogged down or losing its sense of humor.

One of the key elements of the series is the friendship between Daria and Jane. The pair serve as an excellent model of female friendship. Their bond is almost instant, and based on shared ostracization and loathing of their environment, and perseveres throughout the series. Sure, they fight, but they still always come through for each other in the end.

The series pilot, “Esteemsters,” shows us how the duo first meets. The episode opens with Daria Morgendorffer and her perky, popular sister Quinn being driven to school by their caring but usually hapless father Jake. It’s their first day at Lawndale High, having just moved from Highland  — if that town sounds familiar, it’s because it was the setting of Beavis & Butt-head, from which Daria is a spinoff.

Jake is trying to give the girls — more Daria than Quinn — a pep talk about going to a new school, which they keep drowning out with the radio. When they pull up, Daria sarcastically says she’ll keep an eye on her sister as Quinn gets out and immediately becomes popular, with two girls (who we’ll meet later) telling her she’s cool and a boy asking her out.

A picture of Quinn and Daria taking the psychological test.

“A herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains.”

During their tour of the school, the girls are issued a psychological test, which is for some reason done with the two of them together instead of privately. They’re tasked with describing what two people in a picture are talking about, and Quinn delivers a memorable and character-setting story:

[T]hey’ve been going out for awhile, and he’s upset because other people keep asking her out, and she saying she can’t help it if she’s attractive and popular, and besides, nobody ever said they were going steady, and if he does want to go steady he’s got to do a lot better than movie-burger-back seat, movie-burger-back seat, because there are plenty of guys with bigger back seats waiting to take her someplace nice.

Daria, of course, doesn’t have quite the same yarn to spin. She insists that last time she took this test they were clouds, and could be whatever they wanted, so they were a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains. But that’s a different test, in this one she has to describe what they’re discussing, and they’re discussing  a herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains.

Next we see Daria in history class, with the bulging-eyed Mr. DeMartino, who refers to her definition of manifest destiny (“A slogan popular in the 1840s. It was used by people who claimed it was God’s will for the U.S. to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These people did not include many Mexicans.”) as almost suspiciously good. He then calls on quarterback Kevin and cheerleader Brittany to answer a question, which of course they can’t, and delivers another glorious line:

Son, promise me you’ll come back and see me some day when you’ve got the Heisman trophy and a chain of auto dealerships, and I’m saving up for a second pair of pants.

Kevin and Brittany in class.

“The Viet…Cong war?”

Daria then raises her hand to answer the question and is told not to show off.

Back at the Morgendorffer house, the girls are telling their parents (this is where we meet their workaholic mother Helen) about their first day when the phone rings. The school thinks Daria has low self-esteem and wants her to take a special class. To this, Helen says, “We tell you over and over again that you’re wonderful and you just… don’t… get it! (slams fists on table) What’s wrong with you?!”

The Morgandorffer family at dinner.

From Daria we get what is really one of the best lines of the entire series:

Don’t worry. I don’t have low self-esteem. It’s a mistake. […] I have low esteem for everyone else.

The next day we see Daria in her self-esteem class, taught by the highly sensitive Mr. O’Neill. Daria tries to ask him to explain what “realizing your actuality” means, and from behind her Jane Lane tells her he doesn’t know; he’s just reciting a speech he has memorized. While walking home, Jane explains the rest of the class. She’s taken it six times, not because she can’t pass, but because she likes having low self-esteem. It makes her feel special.

Daria comes home to see Helen, who came home early (gasp!) to work with her on her self-esteem, since it’s obviously something that can be fixed in a day. They’re going to do something Daria wants, which apparently ends up being watching her mother try on power suits.

At school, Daria and Jane walk by Quinn, who is being hit on, and hear her tell the guy in question she’s an only child. Ouch. At self-esteem class, Mr. O’Neill gives them an assignment, to do something that brings them joy. Since Daria wants to make her family suffer, she makes them go to a kids’ pizza place with singing costumed animals.

Daria and Jane watch TV.

Daria and Jane are watching “Sick, Sad World” report on UFO conventions and decide to take the test early to get out of class. So they approach Mr. O’Neill, who administers the test once they flatter him, and they pass, which he decides merits an assembly. At the assembly, Jane fakes a breakdown and runs out to go home, and Daria makes a big fuss out of thanking her sister.

At home, Jake and Helen can’t understand why Quinn is upset, and Daria suggests they all go out to celebrate. Her parents start to say no, but when she says her self-esteem is slipping, they relent, ultimately ending up at the UFO convention that was being covered on “Sick, Sad World.”

Notes:

  • We meet all four Morgendorffers: Daria, Quinn, Helen, and Jake.
  • We see the origins of Daria and Jane’s friendship.
  • Quinn tells the family she’s vice president of the Fashion Club.
  • Helen mentions Highland, where they moved from, and Daria comments about there being uranium in the drinking water.
  • We meet teachers Mr. O’Neill and Mr. DeMartino, as well as principal Ms. Li.
  • This is one of the only times “Sick, Sad World” is more than a single line joke.
  • Brittany’s voice is very different than it will be in later episodes.
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[E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.
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[E] LizaLadyghosts of TV Past: Daria, 1.01, “Esteemsters”

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