DARIA: THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES
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"Esteemsters," "The Invitation," "College Bored," "Café Disaffecto," "Malled," "This Year's Model," "The Lab Brat," "Pinch Sitter," "Too Cute," "The Big House," "Road Worrier," "The Teachings of Don Jake," "The Misery Chick," "Arts 'N' Crass," "The Daria Hunter," "Quinn the Brain," "I Don't," "That Was Then, This Is Dumb," "Monster," "The New Kid," "Gifted," "Ill," "Fair Enough," "See Jane Run," "Pierce Me," "Write Where it Hurts," "Daria!," "Through a Lens Darkly," "The Old and the Beautiful," "Depth Takes a Holiday," "Daria Dance Party," "The Lost Girls," "It Happened One Nut," "Lane Miserables," "Jake of Hearts," "Speedtrapped," "The Lawndale File," "Just Add Water," "Jane's Addition," "Partner's Complaint," "Antisocial Climbers," "A Tree Grows in Lawndale," "Murder, She Snored," "The F Word," "I Loathe a Parade," "Of Human Bonding," "Psycho Therapy," "Mart of Darkness," "Legends of the Mall," "Groped by an Angel," "Fire!," "Dye! Dye! My Darling," "Fizz Ed," "Sappy Anniversary," "Fat Like Me," "Camp Fear," "The Story of D," "Lucky Strike," "Art Burn," "One J at a Time," "Life in the Past Lane," "Aunt Nauseam," "Prize Fighters," "My Night at Daria's," "Boxing Daria"
PARTY DOWN: SEASON ONE
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"Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party," "California College Conservative Union Caucus," "Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar," "Investors Dinner," "Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty," "Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen," "Brandix Corporate Retreat," "Celebrate Rick Sargulesh," "James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion," "Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception"
by Jefferson Robbins If he hadn't helped oversee the death of the music video, Abby Terkuhle's tenure at MTV could be viewed as the network's Silver Age. "The State", "Liquid Television", "Beavis and Butt-Head"--apogees or nadirs, depending on your perspective, they defined the channel in the '90s, until "Road Rules" and "Cribs" redefined it into irrelevance. Terkuhle, the network's director of animation and overall creative chief, left MTV in 2002, but when hipsters in the decade just passed whined that such-and-such MTV show wasn't available on DVD, they were usually talking about something he'd incubated. His reign straddles the cultural shift from the Age of Irony (David Foster Wallace, "Daria") to the Age of Schadenfreude ("Mad Men", the shitty-childhood memoirs of Augusten Burroughs). We used to be able to contemplate human abasement and crack wise about it, like Daria Morgendorffer; now the abasement is our entertainment, and we sit slack-jawed before the awesome pathos of Snooki and The Situation.*
The acerbic Daria (voiced by Tracy Grandstaff) popped up as a short-lived foil on "Beavis and Butt-Head" before spinning off into her own animated series in 1997. (Why anyone thought "Beavis and Butt-Head" needed a character smarter than the two leads is a mystery: by definition, none could possibly be dumber.) For her own show, she debuted as a new transfer to Lawndale High School, complete with a high-achieving, high-strung set of parents, a little sister of effortless popularity, and an ecosystem of dimbulbs to contend with in class. Her Sancho Panza is Jane Lane (Wendy Hoopes, who also voiced Daria's mom and sister), the quick-witted, multi-pierced fruit of a wildly dysfunctional family tree. "Life's just a big smartass joke, isn't it?" one teacher says to the pair, and that's the series' formula in a nutshell. "Daria" does, however, provide a nice lesson in how to distinguish irony from sarcasm: what happens to the people around Daria is ironic; what she says about them is sarcastic. They're easy to confuse.
But this ironic world is well-animated and lovingly constructed. It's the little touches, the attention to detail, that sell me. A warped, spinning kids' record, the print of the Hindenburg crash in Daria's locker...these are subtle signposts to character that "Family Guy" hasn't the brains for and which "The Simpsons" eschews once it gets past Bart's chalkboard-punishment gags. And in the best Shakespearean tradition, only the fool--Jane's brother, Trent, lead guitarist for the moronic metal band Mystik Spiral and a long-deferred love interest for Daria--knows what's really going on.
Alas, "Daria" isn't so much funny as it is clever. In the fourth episode, "Café Disaffecto," Daria and Jane watch an obese woman keel over in front of them. This sitcom moment was the first one I laughed out loud at, and I'm not sure there were many more giggles after that. Setting the title character aside, the show is really about Jane and her oft-quashed attempts to outgrow Daria. "See Jane Run," for instance, finds the sidekick discovering herself through competitive track-and-field and earning Daria's scorn for it. Similar attempts to meet boys or otherwise fit in are likewise met with acid. Jane can't grow as long as she's Daria's friend. Daria's smarter than everybody, but until she makes some crucial connections in the later seasons, she ignores the responsibility that bears. She's even cynical about the Internet! In 1997! Over time, you (and the show's writers) gravitate towards the satellite characters, as clueless as most of them are, for respite from Daria's sardonic monotone. She was fine in 22-minute instalments every week back in the '90s; consumed in giant DVD blocks today, she's like an untuned violin.
"Daria" is wryly amused by others' strivings, if not outright offended by them. Rob Thomas's sitcom "Party Down" is terrified at the thought of striving at all. Staffing the titular Los Angeles catering company are also-rans and never-weres, people who made a stab (or are still stabbing) at the entertainment industry but got shaken off with the rest of the flies. Their lives are not quietly desperate but frantically so. Main protagonist Henry (Adam Scott) is a recovering actor who gave up his limping career to return to the service industry, working under gung-ho catering boss Ron Donald (Ken Marino) with a crew of fellow showbiz cast-offs. There's Constance (Jane Lynch), who remains a naïf despite the years she spent partying with the stars on B-productions; Kyle (Ryan Hansen), the blond bro who's forever thisclose to being cast in the next hot TV show; aspiring sci-fi screenwriter Roman (Martin Starr), whose aggro nerdiness prevents him from getting laid even with drunk pornstars; and stand-up comic Casey (Lizzy Caplan), who can't stop texting her agent for a gig in the midst of a marital break-up.
In the course of their work, they'll brush up against fame and riches, nagged by the knowledge that it will never be theirs. Although Constance is sanguine about her place in the food chain and Henry claims to be, practically all the Party Down employees yearn to be plucking the canapés from the silver plate rather than proffering them. The only one fully committed to the act of service, Ron, is the one singled out for the most suffering, from professional humiliation at the hands of his staff and his boss (Ken Jeong) to the old reliable crotch-violence parceled out to stock rube characters. He's a sucker for trying, so why not wallop him in the cock? The improvisational performances (and the guest stars) elevate the whole, but what it seems to be saying is that if you can't be on the inside of Hollywood, there's no point in being at all. A work ethic is for schmucks, unless it gets you a SAG or WGA credit.
Ever on the bubble during its run and recently cancelled at the end of its second season, "Party Down" strikes me more as a very well-acted, very high-end web-series than as the premium-cable comedy it was. The camera needlessly floats in that faux-vérité style we can't seem to shake post-"The Office", and the credits are rich with name cameos, but it feels like it's reaching for a guerrilla style to which its pedigree won't let it stoop. Jane Lynch's performance is airy and innocuous in a way I haven't seen from her before; once she departs eight episodes in (to join, offscreen, "Glee"), the casting of Jennifer Coolidge in her position makes more sense. Lynch soars at playing iron butterflies like Sue Sylvester, whereas Coolidge can do bubbly and dumb like nobody's business.
On DVD, "Daria", its five 13-episode seasons spread across eight discs, is a whole lot of cartoon to consume. Presented in its original 1.33:1 fullscreen ratio, it's astonishingly well-preserved--the only elements that appear to suffer crop up in the opening credits, where colours look a tad bleached. (Speaking of credits, I was shocked at how low the voice actors rank in the closing scroll, with no indication of who gave breath to which character. "The Simpsons" had been on for almost a decade by the time this show arrived and everybody knew who Dan Castellaneta was--why not these guys?) The show survives an upconversion to HD quite well, its palette of crayon colours intact, and the stereo audio sounds fine as rendered in DD 2.0.
There are roughly nine episodes per platter, none with commentary; special features are confined to Disc 8. There we find the two TV movies that helped usher the show out of its run, 2000's Is It Fall Yet? (72 mins.) and 2002's series-closer Is It College Yet? (65 mins.); a rough cut of the show's unaired pilot, "Sealed With a Kick" (5 mins.); Daria and Jane hosting a between-seasons countdown of MTV's top 10 animated music videos (6 mins.); click-through character bios with early designs; and a video for the surprisingly catchy Mystik Spiral song "Freakin' Friends" (2 mins.). A cast and crew interview featurette (6 mins.) delves into some production details and actors' tricks for voicing multiple characters. (Wendy Hoopes calls her multi-voice repertoire a simple matter of pitch, but there's more to it than that--she's not Mel Blanc level, but she's pretty damn versatile.) Co-creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis reveal that MTV specifically wanted a female-friendly character to counterbalance the "Spring Break" boneheadedness that was wafting through the network at the time, and Lewis sets Daria among '90s girl icons like "My So-Called Life"'s Angela Chase and "Roseanne"'s Darlene Conner. "There was this sort of teenage female revolution going on," Lewis says, "and she absolutely fit into that." Sure, in your mind, retroactively.
Several episodes throughout the set kick off with "Daria Day Intros," in which Grandstaff and Hoopes reprise their characters to soften us up for the main event. These interstitials demonstrate that while Daria and Jane might not have aged, their voices have. As a DVD-ROM supplement, there's a PDF of the script for an unproduced "Mystik Spiral" spinoff show. (That might have been pushing things a bit.) Startup trailers on Disc 1 are for Paramount's DVD sets of "The Maxx", "The State", and "Beavis and Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection," which apparently retained the rights to the videos used in the moron twins' famous critiques. This is not the case for the original music cues of "Daria," but unlike "The State"'s DVD edition, the newly-written cues sound organic and not abruptly pasted-in.
Rob Thomas, creator of "Party Down" and "Veronica Mars" before it, pins down my problem with the newer show in the featurette on Anchor Bay's DVD release of "Party Down"'s first season, "What Is 'Party Down'?" (2 mins.). "This is a show we're writing for us and for our peers," he says. Clearly. It's a shuddering look backward, no doubt, for almost everyone involved--from the former "Veronica Mars" castmembers who cycle through as special guests to executive producer Paul Rudd, who today sits at the right hand of Judd Apatow. The A-list influence mingles with the low-budget aesthetic to create a truly great-looking sitcom, with HiDef cameras yielding a sharp, clean, well-lit image in almost every scene. A yacht's dancefloor is all burnished parquet and brass, an underworld supper club is sooty and dim. It really pops in this 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer, though some aliasing intermittently intrudes in the back half of the season. The 5.1 Dolby mix meanwhile puts you reliably but unobtrusively in the kitchen, behind the bar, or in the walk-in cooler--wherever the cast may wander.
A second mini-doc, "'Party Down': A Look Behind the Scenes" (3 mins.) is only notable in that we get to see child-actor-turned-director Fred Savage, who helmed five out of the ten episodes in this season, stride around the set as unidentified as any other hired hand. Eight minutes of outtakes highlight the improv aspects of the show, as actors spin varied lines out of the scenarios they're granted, while a 90-second gag reel lets them lose their composure. Commentaries on two episodes have co-execs John Enbom and Dan Etheridge chatting with actor Scott and holding out hope that the series will go on. Of Steven Weber's Draculean Slavic gangster from the antepenultimate episode, "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh," Enbom says, "We were talking about how if we were so lucky as to get a Season Three, how maybe we can bring Ricky back." No such joy. Originally published: August 2, 2010.
*A strain of that pathos is already on display in "Sick, Sad World", a TV news show the characters watch to unwind. It's a stab at the tabloid television genre ascendant in the '90s...the reality-TV of its day, before producers realized the morons and bimbos they were ridiculing could be wrapped into actual narratives and forced to eat raw scorpions. return