“Is it Fall Yet” at 15

After 15 years, I think I have finally come to a rounded appreciation of the Daria sub-epic which climaxes in “Is it Fall Yet.”

I hated this story when it was new. I know that I was not alone, either. “The whole Tom thing,” i.e. the soap-opera romantic triangle of Daria, Jane Lane and Tom Sloane, upset more than a few fans. Who was this tosspot, what about Trent, and most of all, what happened to the cool Daria who mocked life’s absurdities rather than becoming a performer in them? I considered this departure from the early seasons’ approach to be a sellout and a travesty.

Gradually my opinion has shifted, particularly since I acquired the complete series on DVD a few years ago. I think I have mellowed a bit toward fiction, generally, for one thing. With an opportunity to reexamine later seasons at leisure, I also found more quality writing than I had remembered from spotty exposure during the initial broadcasts. I think “Fizz Ed” merits inclusion among a discussion of the series’ best, in particular.

As it happens, that was also the episode which finally persuaded me that Tom has redeeming qualities; at her insulted best, Daria is meta-complaining about how everyone thinks she does nothing but complain, upon which Tom looks up from the TV and very casually asks “…what are you bitching about now?” That’s just too perfect. For that alone, Tom could probably be forgiven for intruding upon everything after all.

So I kind of settled to the swerve of season four, and I think I began to feel that this whole storyline was part of the characters, and the canon, and that its absence would feel wrong, now, if only because of the nostalgia that the series has accrued for me. After watching “Is it Fall Yet” once more (along with its lead-in episode), however, I have as noted found a deeper appreciation of the story and its place.

I believe I would now describe “Is it Fall Yet” as a flawed—but not actually failed—effort in an entirely worthy purpose.

On its own, “Is it Fall Yet” is certainly flawed. Basically it just isn’t particularly fun to watch. It might be alternately titled “everyone spends summer vacation being miserable,” and the few exceptions are mostly “easter eggs” largely extraneous to the movie itself. Nearly the only really fun segments are

  1. Splendora’s groovy “Turn Down the Sun,” and the accompanying montage of silly beach scenes, which precedes the movie
  2. The wry “outtakes” which accompany the end credits, and
  3. the debut of Mystic Spiral’s “Freakin’ Friends,” which is somewhat more integrated with the movie, but only by comparison.

Everything else is mostly everyone being miserable for a solid 60 or 90 minutes or whatever. There just aren’t enough laughs.

(Also, while entirely a side note, I suspect that if the show’s creators had it to do over again they probably would not have made creepy, manipulative sexual predator Allison the only openly queer character in five years.)

On its own, “Is it Fall Yet” is critically flawed, but it really doesn’t make any sense to judge it outside the context of the episodes around it and, really, the whole series. It made no attempt to be a standalone work; it’s very much the fulcrum of the “dealing with a boyfriend” storyline that extends through seasons four and five. In this context, “Is it Fall Yet” still isn’t necessarily better… but I think it’s much less of the awful wrong turn than it can seem.

“Is it Fall Yet,” and the entire Tom Sloane storyline, are departures from the classic Daria that so many of us fell in love with. The zany Daria of e.g. “Café Disaffecto,” “College Bored” and “The Big House.” But in most specific aspects, I’ve concluded, no “rules” are broken by “Is it Fall Yet” that aren’t broken many other times through the series’ five seasons. Humor taking a backseat to teen-angst drama? Several examples come to mind. Takes place outside school? Done other times. Daria and Jane separated, and on the outs with one another? Both done at other times. This wasn’t even the first time that a boy came between them.

The key differences with “Is it Fall Yet” are that it 1) deviated from the classics in all of these ways at once, and 2) dragged it out over much longer than a typical episode, whether you count just the movie or the longer story arc. But I’ve decided that these features actually underscore how “Is it Fall Yet” does fit with the series as a whole, in a more fundamental sense, and even enriches it on balance.

“Is it Fall Yet” was a somewhat questionable experiment, but so was the whole series. The whole reason Daria exists is because some bright sparks at MTV decided that “the female demographic” represented an untapped market resource, and then said “hey, there’s a girl character on Beavis and Butthead, why not spin her off into her own show?” This by itself is more fumbling than any thinking behind the romantic misadventures of Tom Sloane. Add to this the acknowledgement of creator Glenn Eichler, in the DVD cast interviews, that they didn’t really know what they were doing in the first season or two. It’s plain that taking creative shots in the dark was key to Daria.

Just as important, that remained the case. After season one, whatever chance’s role in it they had a great formula. But they never stopped screwing with it, and I think Daria would be poorer if they had. Sometimes they cranked the wackiness way up, as in “Depth Takes a Holiday” and “Murder She Snored,” both of which I’m quite fond; I believe some disagree, but this recklessness also gave us the absurd idea of a musical, and “Daria!” is simply one of the series’ highlights, end of discussion. Focusing on emotional turmoil also paid dividends a few times, too, meanwhile. I rank “Boxing Daria” as a small masterpiece.

Inevitably, not every experiment paid off equally, and “let’s embroil Daria and Jane in serial romantic crises and then stretch the story out longer” proved a bit of a dud. I’m not sure how this could have been prevented, though, without sacrificing the spirit of experimentation. I don’t know that one could really properly evaluate some of the left-field ideas without basically completing the episode… and aside from economic pressure to then release a completed episode rather than scrap it, in some cases it might also be necessary to pursue an experiment all the way to broadcast before you can really judge it. If nothing else, without that level of commitment to following through and seeing what happens, something like the romantic subplot that extended through two seasons and “Is it Fall Yet” might not have been possible…

…and I think that would have lessened Daria. I think having an epic, even a flawed epic, made the series more than it would have been without. As much as I love the classic, zany episodes, Daria and Jane and to some extent other characters became more than just comic props. They developed as people, and the addition of a long story arc—and particularly a story arc that really challenged their senses of self—was an important part of this.

“Is it Fall Yet” is still rather difficult to like by itself, and ideally would have accomplished the same thing in more satisfying fashion. The series send-off movie “Is it College Yet” represents a somewhat improved response to similar challenges, but then, very possibly it also represents learning from the first try.

For my part I’ve decided to give “Is it Fall Yet” credit for this, and for the other ways that I now see it as a more valid work in context. By season four, the creators of Daria were trying to make more than just funny single episodes… I’m glad that they tried, and I think that in a big picture of which “Is it Fall Yet” is a key piece, their effort proved worthwhile.

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