Emotional Algebra: The Formulas of Television and What It Means for Daria’s Sick, Sad World
By H. Hernon
Human beings can be broken down into a series of patterns. The same can be said for our media. For as much as we complain about tropes, stereotypes and formulas there’s a reason they’re so prevalent: they work. They work really well. As a self-declared semi-creative, this can be frustrating. There’s no need to innovate. There’s no need to try something new. We’ve wasted our time on English classes, social science classes, and the dreaded media classes when we could’ve been doing math and science because that’s all you need. Grab the formula, plug in Chris Pratt and Anna Kendrick and you’ve got yourself a hit. No thinking necessary in this sick, sad world.
Or perhaps I’m just in a nihilistic mood because I’ve been binge watching MTV’s Daria. The show works incredibly well as a slice-of-life for late 90’s culture- it captures a certain early internet pessimism and necessary disdain for everything through the lens of high school apathy. But I would argue the show works on a level beyond that. It’s one thing to synthesize and satirize culture. It’s another to try and do that while maintaining a level of emotional connection, and Daria is able to make this all work using an extremely effective formula for television.
Let’s pull back a sec. When it comes to television comedy I’ve always preferred some sort of emotional core. I’ve taken a Community or a Party Down over a Always Sunny or Arrested Development time and time again. Not to say that those latter shows aren’t good or anything like that, they’re very funny. But a lot of narrative shows are funny. It takes a bit more spice to get a viewer invested. Community and Party Down do it through pop culture reliability and capitalist dread respectively, but it’s Daria that does it in a way that shows why TV is so damn good at getting people emotionally involved.
Daria Morgendorfer, the character, has been somewhat caricatured over the years. (Known blogmate Eli Schoop compared her to Tina from Bob’s Burgers in one drunken conversation, one of the most horrific atrocities in our friendship.) The stigma seems to be that she isn’t a character as much of ball of sarcasm, one liners, and edgy-cool disdain for everything. (Hi Tumblr!) But that perception of her as a character is paper thin. Daria’s character can be surprisingly complex for the world she exists in, but we’ll just use the important things. She has unrealistically high standards for everyone and everything, including herself. She has disdain for “the system” but no real drive to change it. She’s emotionally distant because she feels like that’s the only way she won’t be taken advantage of by anyone or anything. Non participation is a big theme. This doesn’t account much for her interests or even personality (the caricature gets some things right, sarcastic and a little bit too edgy at times), but for the basis of outlining this TV formula we can stop here.
And this is where the common critiques of Daria get things wrong. The show isn’t about how everyone is shitty and the only way to get through life is to be a sarcastic asshole to everyone and involve yourself in nothing. It’s most profound moments are about exploring the times when that clearly isn’t the case. The formula the show uses is this: set up a character that has a strict moral view on what they will and won’t do (Daria), establish this for several episodes so the audience knows what to expect from them, then in a moment of true emotional dilemma have them act out of there own understood set of morals and have them do something they wouldn’t normally do for someone else to show that they really do care. This can be seen in a lot of my favorite shows on a monumental scale. Rick and Morty season two ends with Rick getting himself arrested against his own socio-political views, Party Down as a series ends with Henry doing the one thing he said he’d never do, go back into acting, as a grand gesture to his faith in love interest Casey. The Office (UK) series two end with David Brent swallowing his pride for the first and only time and begging for his job back. These are all huge, one time moments, but Daria is able to do this by constantly questioning our main character’s morals.
And in slice-of-life fashion, this isn’t always a dramatic moment. Sometimes it ultimately means nothing, despite being internally huge for Daria (deleting embarrassing tape of Quinn in “Monster”), sometimes she grows as a person despite being right in the end, (attempting to accept that Jane can be participating in a corrupt school sport system in “See Jane Run”) sometimes she tries to change for someone else and feels shitty about it, (literally any Trent/Daria episode) and sometimes she legitimately is just in the wrong, and we see the faults of her rigid world view (“Jane’s Addiction”, “Partner’s Complaint”).
A lot of these episodes come later in the series because time is needed to set up these crescendo moments. That’s why TV is so fucking good. You can go a few episodes without giving the characters any moral dilemmas to work with or you can go years. Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the amount of time we spend with the stories we watch is key here. Daria starts to realize these things late in season two and way more in seasons three and four because the audience has seen who she is for an entire six hours of content by then. There’s something to be said about following someone for that amount of time.
This doesn’t just apply to comedy, although I think it works better because I find it easier to connect to people I think are funny. This is why people loved Breaking Bad, it’s why everyone I know won’t stop watching Vanderpump Rules. (Reality TV, although unscripted, is a breeding ground for this sort of stuff, if you’re patient enough [I’m not]). This is something mostly bound to TV as a medium, and it’s so satisfying to be a part of.
So many shows try this formula, and not all succeed. Daria does it really damn well, and at a rate that is really impressive, especially for what it is. I’m still not done with the show, and I’m already anticipating that single tear slowly rolling down the cheek at the end of the last episode. I’m not saying every show has to do this emotional-moral marshmallow fluff, or that Daria is for everyone. It’s really not. But for as cliché, trope ridden, and stigmatized TV in general is, it’s a goldmine of emotion and growth over time, largely thanks to the patterns and rules that we know work.
So yeah, I overreacted a bit earlier. Knowing what works isn’t always a bad thing. As a self-declared semi-creative it’s always more fun to dump a can of beer on “the system” and give it a stone-cold stunner, but perhaps, just like Daria, we self-declared semi-creatives need to learn that sometimes dipping a participatory toe in “the system” isn’t always a bad thing.