the commercial invites us to "meet the animated women of MTV in their all new shows, 'Daria' and 'The Jenny McCarthy Show.'" And, as usual on the teen-testosterone-pandering joke the network has become, the real woman is the cartoon and the cartoon is the real woman.
Daria Morgendorffer, the heroine of the delightful animated sitcom "Daria," is caustic and intelligent and totally misunderstood by her overachieving boomer parents, her gaggingly cute younger sister and her superficial classmates at Lawndale High. Daria is one of those quiet girls cursed -- and blessed -- with being smarter, deeper and funnier than anyone around her. But because she's neither a bubbly babe nor a hopeless geek (this is not "Welcome to the Dollhouse II"), Daria simply doesn't register on the teen radar. She's practically invisible. And she kind of likes it that way.
"Daria," which premiered last week, is a "Beavis & Butt-head" spinoff (the boys' only female friend, Daria used to insult the uncomprehending goofballs right to their faces), but its humor is vastly more subtle. Daria (she shares the name with a Russian Orthodox martyr, probably not coincidentally) has sleepy-lidded eyes behind big, round, black-rimmed glasses, a Mona Lisa smile and a Zen-like stillness. She renders her sarcastic comments in a low, unruffled voice erased of every perceptible verbal cue except irony. It's as if she, like, barely cares enough to speak about people who mean nothing to her (even if they really do mean something). Daria's voice is a Janeane Garofalo voice, although it's not Garofalo who actually provides it. (The identity of the actress who portrays Daria is being treated by MTV like a state secret.)
But where Garofalo's brilliant, wounded humor is based on hating herself as much as she hates everybody else, Daria's wit is rooted in a stronger sense of identity. She turns her reputation as a loser back on itself so it becomes a triumphant commentary on the vacuity of those who don't appreciate her. In last week's pilot, she goofed on the school shrink who was administering an idiotic personality test and got routed into a class for "remedial self-esteem." When her high-powered mom (a Hillary look-alike) freaked out at the news ("We're always telling you how wonderful you are and you JUST DON'T GET IT!"), Daria replied calmly, "There's nothing wrong with my self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else."
Once Daria gets out into the real world, she'll do just fine; she'll probably end up in some brainy-bratty female rock band modeled after the Breeders (or after Splendora, who provide the show's excellently sarcastic-mopey theme song, "Excuse Me, You're Standing on My Neck"). But until graduation, Daria and her new friend from self-esteem class, Jane Lane (who's even more low-octane than she is), will have fun mind-tripping and tormenting tormentors like Daria's ultra-popular sister Quinn and twinkly self-esteem teacher Mr. O'Neill.
"What's a daydream you'd like to make a reality?" chirps Mr. O'Neill. "Well, I guess I'd like my whole family to do something together," Daria answers, and just as he's nodding like a puppy, his heart full of naive hope, she reels him in for the kill. "Something that'll really make them suffer." She proposes family outings to Pizza Forest and a UFO convention, and when her parents and sister try to back out she says, "Uh-oh, I feel my self-esteem starting to slip..."
Written and produced by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, "Daria" puts an almost healthy spin on teenage angst. "I like having low self-esteem," Jane tells Daria. "It makes me feel special." After school, Daria and Jane watch the tabloid TV show "Sick, Sad World," making arch comments about the high-strung hostess and the pathetic exhibitionists she preys on. It gives them a nice superiority boost. Daria and Jane may be unpopular, but they're not suicidal. They know it's OK, maybe it's even better, to not be like everybody else. It means they're doing something right.
If there is any justice, the producers of "Daria" will soon have Daria and Jane watching MTV and doing "Beavis & Butt-head" style commentary about the programming. And please, let them start with "The Jenny McCarthy Show." The ubiquitous former co-host of MTV's dating game "Singled Out" is now the star of her own skit-comedy series. At least it's supposed to be a skit-comedy series -- there wasn't a single laugh in last Wednesday's pilot and the other cast members are sort of like window dressing in a porno flick. Let's face it: Anybody who would actually clear their calendar to watch this show is only watching it for one thing. Or two.
"Jenny McCarthy" is a showcase for McCarthy's many talents, like waggling her tongue, crossing her eyes, making pig noses, doing goofy go-go girl dances, cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West in heat, stunt puking (she does this quite realistically) and, above all, calling attention to her breasts. Those former Playboy centerfold celebrities are the real stars of "The Jenny McCarthy Show." In one of the pilot's skits, McCarthy's picture appeared on "Sugar Boobies" cereal boxes. In another skit, a bunch of animal puppets ogled her chest and she screamed, "For once, I'd like to do a show where the focus is on the material and not my f---ing boobs!"
McCarthy's self-satirizing sexpot act is nothing new -- but then, it's doubtful many of MTV's viewers are familiar with such McCarthy antecedents as Clara Bow, Mae West or even Marilyn Monroe. On MTV, Jenny McCarthy is just another hot chick with an awesome rack, whether she makes fun of herself or not. And if it isn't Jenny McCarthy, it's her pelvis-thrusting, hot-pants-wiggling replacement on "Singled Out," Carmen Electra. Or the bikini-clad babes on "Beach House." Or the booty-shaking babes on "The Grind." Or the supermodel babes on "House of Style." And that's not even counting the videos. MTV looks more and more like a junior Hugh Hefner creation -- the Playpen Mansion -- all the time.
So the question is, does running a show about a smart, normal looking, cartoon girl make up for the network's alienating, insulting and objectifying images of human women on the other six programming days?
There was a stinging scene in the "Daria" pilot in which Daria and Jane recited for the self-esteem teacher the correct thinking on body image: "There is no such thing as the right weight or the right height. There's only what's right for me. Because that's who I am." Their contempt for this P.C. Pollyanna-ism was so thick you could almost see it oozing out of the screen. They know it's bullshit. They watch MTV.