"Esteemsters" was the first episode of the first season of the Daria TV series, airing 3rd March 1997. It was written by Glenn Eichler.
Broadly speaking, the plot involves Daria's and her family's arrival in Lawndale. The major characters and conflicts that would come to play out in the series are introduced. Daria is forced into a self-esteem class when her savage wit is mistaken for low self-esteem.
"Daria and Quinn arrive at their new school. Quinn makes friends easily. Daria does not. " ― MTV website summary
The Morgendorffers have just moved to Lawndale and it is the first day of school for teenage sisters Daria and Quinn Morgendorffer, so their father, Jake Morgendorffer, drives them to school. He stresses that they may have a period of adjustment to their new surroundings, especially for Daria. Arriving at Lawndale High School, Quinn is immediately noticed and greeted by some popular girls, including Sandi Griffin and Stacy Rowe, and asked on a date by a young man (later identified as Corey), while Daria leaves the car and walks into the school without a look or comment from the other students. During the school tour by the principal, Angela Li, Daria displays her cynical side, making sarcastic comments on Ms. Li's statements.
Both girls, as new arrivals, are subjected to a psychological test consisting of inventing a story based on a picture of two human silhouettes. Quinn immediately creates a nice typical teenage story. Daria, on the other hand, gives sarcastic answers to the questions ("A herd of beautiful wild ponies running free across the plains") to the annoyance of Mrs. Manson, the school psychologist. After that, in history class, Daria is able to sum up Manifest Destiny, a task given by teacher Anthony DeMartino. Her correct answer is in stark contrast to the answers of classmates Kevin and Brittany, who say that Manifest Destiny fueled the Vietnam War, "Operation: Watergate", and/or the "Vietcong War", fueling Mr. DeMartino's wrath.
That evening, as the Morgendorffers are having dinner at home, both daughters talk about their day: Quinn is the new vice-president of the Fashion Club and has been invited to the pep squad, while Daria only makes cynical observations about her fellow students and teachers. The school calls regarding the psych test taken: Daria has to attend a Self-Esteem Class.
The following day, at self-esteem class presented by the English teacher Timothy O'Neill, Daria is confused by the expressions used. When she asks Mr. O'Neill, he refuses to explain them. Another student, Jane Lane, tells Daria that Mr. O'Neill doesn't even know their meaning and advices her to relax, further informing she has already taken the class six times. After school, Daria and Jane befriend each other as they walk home and talk calmly about self-esteem class and other topics. Arriving Home, Daria is surprised her mother, Helen is there, having taken the day off to be with her daughter, and they end up going shopping, mainly for Helen's wardrobe.
The next day, prompted by O'Neill's advice during self-esteem, Daria convinces her family to go to Pizza Forest, a kid's restaurant where singers, dressed as animals, try to join families in singing: Quinn is bored, and Jake and Helen are uneasy, but Daria seems content with the situation (it is implied that her contentment stems from her family's discomfort).
Some days later, as Daria is at Jane's, they agree to use Jane's knowledge of self-esteem exam questions to pass the exam earlier than usual, and do so during the following class, answering O'Neill's questions with upbeat and stock answers. The teacher is so impressed with the girls graduation three weeks ahead of schedule that he decides to announce it in an assembly. At the assembly, while on podium, Jane fakes sudden embarrassment and runs off stage amidst laughter from students. Daria, on the other hand, gives a small speech about self-esteem, concluding with a big thanks for her sister Quinn, in front of all their colleagues (taking revenge on earlier Quinn's statements that she is an only child). Quinn is furious Daria has addressed her in front of the whole school and, that evening, at home, she raves and dramatically declares she will lock herself in her room for the rest of the life, in typical teenage fashion. This decision, however, lasts only until she takes a call from another male student, Matthew, which immediately lifts her spirits.
Having graduated early from self-esteem class, Daria is able to convince her parents to spend even more time together: this time, they attend the UFO convention being held at Lawndale. While Daria is much at easy and Helen and Jake go along, Quinn refuses to enter the geeky space, until being contacted by Artie...at which point she runs to be with her family.
Behind the scenes
- In the original script, a deleted scene in the Morgendorffer's car has Quinn and Daria arguing about popularity that ends with Quinn asking if Daria's making fun of her (she is) - "No! Er, I don't think so," answers Jake.
- Instead of drowning out Jake's pep talk with music, Daria and Quinn have to listen to his increasingly bitter rant about his father sending him to military school at age 8, "and of course Mom was far too scared to say a word. ... I swore if I ever had a son--" At this point, Daria, apparently unbothered by all this coming out, gets him back on track.
- Li's introduction to Laaaawwwwndale High goes on longer, with cheerful admission of the order and security, that you didn't notice any metal detectors "because they're designed right into the front doors", and a tacit admission that she'll just talk to someone who knows a judge if she wants a court order for your locker. During this, Daria makes a comment to Priscilla and it's the second time it happens that Priscilla moves away from her.
- DeMartino is "somewhere between Christopher Walken and Mickey Rourke i.e. he's eerily menacing and just may be insane." He was meant to pause for a long enough time after saying "Class..." to make it unnerving ("we only know he's alive because he's blinking"), and Daria was saying "excuse me?" because of another, similar odd pause. While trying to coax an answer out of Kevin on a Manifest Destiny war, he refers to the "Daria's unsolicited comment about the MEXICANS, while obviously meant to be INFLAMMATORY".
- Kevin is described as a halfback rather than quarterback and "natural leader". Both these things are laughable wrong!
- Helen agrees on the phone that the self esteem class is a good idea ("you're the expert"). Jake's response of "that really stinks" was intended to go into a more controlled "how can a great kid like Daria have low self esteem?" - leading into the gag of Helen's cry of "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?"
- O'Neill was intended to be a "fresh scrubbed young teacher" and he has a lot more guff he himself doesn't understand in his opening scene ("finding the centre of your you-ness"). When Daria says Helen's look "stands proudly and proclaims "I am"" in the finished episode, she's quoting O'Neill from here. Daria's "something that will really make them suffer" line is originally a punchline to her first saying her idle daydream is to make her family suffering "for what tehy've done me", while O'Neill first thinks is a funny joke and later, when he learns it's not, asks if it's "been that bad?" before giving up.
- Jane is "nihilistic, enervated, nasal as a son of a gun". Speaking of nihilistic, there's a cut line about how she has a better way to feel special "but I've never been any good with assault weapons".
- When Quinn says "I'm an only child", originally it was because she and "Boy" could see Daria heading to Self-Esteem Class. Quinn explicitly states later she thinks nobody will ask her out "if people found out about you" (and, as in the finished ep, they ask her out anyway!)
- "The Head" is named as "Mousy Kid" and scripted as taking feverish notes about what O'Neill is saying - something MTV Animation skimped on actually animating.
- Speaking of, Eichler actually wrote in that everyone is standing up to leave the room "but I assume we can't animate that"
- Jane hadn't seen Sick, Sad World until Daria introduced it to her. She describes it as "every day there's a new bunch of losers, totally humiliating themselves" which bears self-esteem class; "that's just the same loser humiliating himself over and over."
- That is indeed Coach Gibson on stage as "The Daria Diaries" implies and he's explicitly "corrupt"; before we learn the $400 bake sale money was stolen, Li turns to Gibson to say $400 seems "an awful lot for five footballs, doesn't it?" and when Gibson shrugs, we see his gold chains and the glint off a "diamond pinky ring".
- Jake was hoping to meet prospective clients before he was dragged to the UFO con and so is walking around with a Jake Morgendorffer Consulting badge there.
The events of "Esteemsters" are supplemented by entries from Daria’s notes, as given in The Daria Diaries. We learn:
- Daria had to ride in the moving van because Quinn's clothes were taking up too much space in the car. The movers let her be their lookout while they did a "quick errand in the warehouse district" (i.e. stole stuff)
- Daria stole the front door knob from their old house, as a memento of Highland
- Daria and Quinn had a brief quiz to do for Manson, with the former deliberately giving disturbing answers. (The quiz warns that writing on the back may see you labelled as a "delinquent personality", to which Daria added "It's far too late to worry about that")
- When she went to Jane's house, Jane got her to help barricade the front door in case the bank tried to foreclose on the house (Mr and Mrs Lane had forgotten to leave any mortgage payments). Daria met Trent for the first time that day, and he fell asleep in mid-conversation.
The calender in the Morgendorffer house is at May 12. This would mean the school year is already well into its run, that Daria spent most of her sophomore year at Highland High, and that "Road Worrier" can take place during August as "The Daria Diaries" says it should. This, however, clashes with parts of "The Daria Diaries" which includes an assignment from March, Fashion Club entries from February & March, and diary entries from the autumn. "Depth Takes a Holiday" has to happen before October 31st, and we can't easily cram every episode between "Worrier" and "Depth" into two months...
The episode would set the tome for the series and introduce several characters and their characteristics, as well as other themes and references which would later be used both in canon and in countless fanfiction works. Among them are:
- Jake's initial characterization is established, namely his lack of capacity to recognize sarcasm or humour.
- Helen is already working long hours, a characterization that will continue through the run of the series.
- The first and only appearance of the self-esteem class.
- The first appearance of Principal Angela Li, already displaying a unhealthy degree of paranoia and reverence for Lawndale High School.
- The first appearance of the characters Kevin Thompson and Brittany Taylor outside of the pilot, Sealed with a Kick.
- The first appearance of Anthony DeMartino, shown with his distaste for stupid or ignorant students.
- The first and only appearance of school psychologist Margaret Manson, who would go have a much more diversified history in fanfiction than she ever had in canon.
- The first appearance of lasagna as the Morgendorffer usual main dinner course.
- The first time Quinn refers to herself as being an only child.
- The first appearance of Sick, Sad World.
- The first appearance of Artie, pizza parlor employee and self-proclaimed alien abductee.
There are four other new students in the first-day tour of Lawndale High. All four hang around as voiceless background characters; "Shaggy" and "Scarlett" have proven popular because of their distinctive looks.
This episode has the single reference to Daria's old show Beavis and Butt-head, when Helen refers to how Daria shouldn't want Lawndale to be "Highland all over again". (The girl says it can't be "unless there's uranium in the drinking water here too") Neither Beavis, Butthead nor any character or setting from Highland will be mentioned during the entire run of Daria.
Corey's line, "Hey, beats algebra, though, doesn't it?", is very similar to what Barry Loukaitis is alleged to have said after he shot and killed his algebra teacher ("This sure beats the hell out of algebra, doesn't it?"). This incident occurred on 2 February 1996, more than a year before this episode first aired.
"Esteemsters" and Fanfic
"Esteemsters" has a curious place in the hearts and minds of Daria fanfic writers. See "Esteemsters" and Daria Fanfic for an extensive discussion of this topic.
Also, while Daria was almost certainly joking when she said Highland had uranium in the drinking water, fanfic after fanfic has worked off the premise that she was telling the truth.
In Wouter's Dariarotica comic The Triple cross club the episode is referred to when the club president returns several transcripts that Daria wrote. Saying that she really enjoyed reading them and that of all of them "Esteemsters" was her favorite.
- Transcript at Daria Transcripts
- Original script
- Novelization by Martin J. Pollard
- “The Daria Temporal Analysis Project” by Richard Lobinske, a superb and useful essay offering a chronology of the Daria series that places “Esteemsters” in, most likely, fall 1997.
- The Daria Fandom Blog, March 2007 archive. The entry for Saturday, March 3, 2007, is “In Honor of the 10th Anniversary…” a long and critical essay about “Esteemsters.”
- "This Show Sucks" A critical essay by C.E. Forman