Saturday, January 28, 2012

Daria 1-07: The Lab Brat

Probably the most surprising thing about Daria's first season for me is how well the series uses its generic jock and cheerleader caricatures, Kevin and Britney.  On any other show, they would be plodding stock jokes and the objects of social satire.  But there's a kind of joy and innocence in the way in which they guilelessly inhabit their roles that makes them fun to watch -- and it doesn't hurt that Daria lets them surprise us from time to time.  None of the shows' characters are more than two-dimensional, especially not the titular snarker, but somehow they all manage to be endearing in their own way.

Mostly this is because the object of satire in Daria isn't the characters themselves, but the social situations they find themselves in -- everything from teenage rites of passage (trips to the mall and college tours) to social phenomena (fashion and self-esteem fanaticism) which are unfortunate and mockable events larger than any of the generally pitiable people within them, no matter how dumb or uncool said people may be[1].  "The Lab Brat", however, is perhaps the first episode that doesn't have an overt target of satire.  The science project is a pretty stock plot for teen shows, but it's not really the focus here.  Instead, "The Lab Brat" looks at adolescent relationship drama through the idea of psychological conditioning.

The idea, not an especially new or revelatory one but still fairly true, is that teenagers are in everything motivated by the quest for love/sex.  This isn't always a pure carnal desire, and in fact thus far Daria is pretty asexual (both the show and the character).  Instead, it's more about status and self-image -- witness Quinn's glee in having multiple boys wait on her, or how Chuck doesn't really know what to do with Britney once he has her under his power.  The motivation is less having a significant other than being the type (or calibre) of person who has one.  This is a pretty accurate representation of high school.

"The Lab Brat" introduces a second desire for our characters, that of getting the school project done with as little effort as possible.  This gives privilege to previously undesirable characters like Daria and Chuck, the "brains" who can be relied upon to do the entire project.  They react to this newfound power in opposite ways: Chuck lords it over Britney, using it to achieve the primary sexual motivation that gives him so little power under normal circumstances, whereas Daria more or less ignores it, not really caring about anything enough to leverage her power towards it.

In the world of the lab rat, the story would end here.  The experiment that Daria and her classmates are asked to conduct are all about singular desire and how to alter it.  But in a social environment, we aren't the only one running towards the cheese.  We also have to deal with the desires of others, the desires we project onto others, and our ability to achieve that desire.  So Britney assumes that Daria is exploiting Kevin in the same way that Chuck is exploiting her, because she assumes that any woman would desire him -- and while she's wrong in this instance, the threat is real, in the form of the ever-predatory Quinn.  As for Kevin, his simplistic desires -- basically a constant stream of football -- are what allow  him to be so easily controlled by the women around him.

All of this culminates in a collision of interests that ends up basically ruining the plans of all the characters involved, or at the very least returning things to the status quo.  If there's a moral to be had -- and Daria is too ironic to really have a didactic moral -- it's how the simplistic idea of conditioning, which assumes that everyone follows their own desires without any thought of others both can't and shouldn't apply to the world we live in.  It's a weirdly complex idea for a MTV cartoon to get across.

The above descriptions make this sound like a philosophy lecture, but it actually plays out as a broad farce.  All of the characters are essentially coddled upper-middle-class American teens, and as such we don't need to take seriously either their desires or their punishment -- the worst fate that can befall anyone in this story is a lost boyfriend or a failing grade.  So the mutual doom we see in the last scene is not a tragic ending but a comedic comeuppance.  All of this is in addition to the usual tropes of bedroom farce -- the ridiculous suspicions and more ridiculous acts of vengeance.

Coupled with this, we can observe the characters from afar, like we do with lab rats, because they aren't entirely human.  This isn't simply because it's an animated show, although the animation -- especially the simple line-based character designs -- do limit our abilities to identify with them as fellow humans.  (Then again, it's leagues more photorealistic than your average Adult Swim show).  It's more that the characters are two-dimensional in personality as well as appearance.  They always wear the same outfits, always have the same attitude, and always essentially the same relations with each other.  We don't have to use our knowledge of episodic structure to know that no long-term harm will come to these characters.  We know, almost instinctively from watching them, that they cannot change without remaining the same character in anything but name.  If Kevin takes off his sports jersey, how will we know who he is?

Usually saying a series has shallow characters would be a criticism, but Daria uses these two-dimensional types well.  Because we immediately understand them, we can focus immediately on the situation they're in instead of learning who these people are.  It's not a conventional approach to storytelling, but it more or less works.  When Daria fails, it's because of the relative tameness of its satire, not because of the characters.  With that said, I have to wonder if these cut-outs will remain appealing over five seasons, or whether the show will have to become a more standard character-based comedy.

"The Lab Brat" was written by series co-creator Glenn Eichler, who seems to have a better idea of what the show wants to do than most of the writers have thus far.  He also knows how to mix the right level of absurdity into satire to make its strong message palatable, as evidenced by his later work on The Colbert Report.  This episode is, however, probably the least openly satiric of the series' run thus far -- instead of a declared target like college or the fashion industry, we have what initially seems like a sitcommy plot based on character interaction that gradually turns into a satire on teen desire.

Of course, in the end no one learns their lesson.  Kevin's ignorance of the drama unfolding around him is rewarded by Britney continuing to cater to his every whim, and Britney never shakes (or wants to shake) her dependence on him.  Daria and Jane only add more fuel to their misanthropic fire.  Some characters are punished by their raging science teacher, but the punishment seems to have no danger of getting them to change their ways.

In its own way, this is more realistic than the traditional method of character development.  We don't necessarily learn from our mistakes -- if we did, we'd make a lot more mistakes.  It requires careful self-reflection and consideration, of which none of our teenage narcissists - Daria included - are really capable of.  This episode reflects that, being simple on the surface but, under further examination, actually having something quite interesting to say.

Next Week: "Shall I show you what's under this eyepatch?"

[1]I'm still making my way through the first season, so take this and any other generalities to apply only to what I've seen so far.

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