By ALEX KUCZYNSKI
It seems almost impossible to imagine anything redeemable emerging from the cultural vacuum that is "Beavis and Butt-head," MTV's animated series that celebrates the teen-age male species at its most hapless, self-absorbed and monosyllabic.
But the impossible -- or at least improbable -- has happened. In 1996, Daria Morgendorffer began life as a walk-on diversion in the phenomenally popular series. A feminine, sensible alternative to the acne-addled boys who lived in a basement offering commentary on rock videos, the "Daria" spinoff has emerged in 1998 as one of MTV's most highly rated shows, fighting for the cable network's growing audiences along with live-action series like "Road Rules" and "Real World."
Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, the co-creators of "Daria," decided to pluck Daria from anonymous cartoon girlhood and spin off a series based on the foibles and fragility of an eccentric teen-age girl in middle America after viewers who saw her on "Beavis and Butt-head" called in with praise.
"Basically, she was the smart person who hung out with Beavis and Butt-head to annoy her parents," Eichler said. "She was very perfunctorily drawn. But now she's multileveled and multilayered. And most of the audiences love her." (The group she rates lowest with is the core "Beavis & Butt-head" cohort -- 18- to 24-year-old males.)
Both her creators and admirers cite Daria's frank teen-age voice as the central reason for her popularity. (When Daria's mother, a corporate lawyer, asks whether her new suburban high school will be a lot like her old suburban high school, Daria replies: "Not much chance of that happening. Unless there's uranium in the drinking water here, too.")
Van Toffler, the general manager of MTV, a unit of Viacom, sees Daria as the closest thing to a poster child the network has.
"Even though she is the flip side of Beavis and Butt-head, she speaks the same language that our young audience speaks," Toffler said. "She has an attitude about parents, school, siblings that is common to the experiences of our audience. She is a good spokesperson for MTV, intelligent but subversive."
But how has the team behind her -- a group of sitcom writers, playwrights and MTV honchos who, to put it politely, are all on the dark side of 30 -- tapped into the mind of a disaffected 16-year-old girl and built a loyal audience around her? Neena Beeber, a playwright in Manhattan who has written three episodes, thinks one reason is that the distance between grown-ups and teen-agers has narrowed.
"We can all relate to Daria," Ms. Beeber said. "It's the smallest stretch I've ever had to make." Eichler and the writers of "Daria" acknowledge that they keep an ear out for teen-age lingo, but not too intently.
"In the episode I just wrote, we used the word 'jiggy,"' Ms. Beeber said. "And this sounds pathetically white-bread and thirtysomething, but I think I found it on the editorial page of Jane magazine and thought: 'Huh. Why not use that, whatever that is?"'
"But we're not trying to write like teen-agers," Eichler said. "Teen-agers these days don't even apparently want to be thought of as teen-agers. They want to be thought of as young, young adults."
Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil, two Daria writers who live in Los Angeles and have written episodes of "Wings" and "News Radio," see the same phenomenon.
"I feel that as an adult I began to identify really closely with what it must be like to be a disenfranchised teen-age girl," Johnson said. "Professional comedy writers are a lot like teen-agers. We all suspect that it's the good-looking people who get ahead in life. We're also a little concerned that maybe we're smarter than everyone else."
In the type of curious observation that might have started Marshall McLuhan going for days, several writers credit Daria's success to the fact that she is a cartoon and not a real actress.
" 'My So Called Life' tackled some similar themes as Daria -- you know, the girl who's not the most popular and isn't considered the greatest beauty -- and it didn't last," Marcil said. "I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that it's hard for people to take something that's as real as that. The success of '90210' is that it is fantasy and everybody really is gorgeous and it's very easy to look at. With animation, it at least makes reality more palatable."
Barry Hyman, an analyst at Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum, credits programs like "Beavis and Butt-head" and "Daria" with bolstering MTV's growth in the 1990s.
"Criticize 'Beavis and Butt-head' as much as you want, it started a new genre for cable," Hyman said. "Viacom has been able to leverage the original concept of MTV from just a strict music format to an all-entertainment network. This Daria show is just another good example of that. Look at 'South Park,' 'King of the Hill' -- they're extremely highly rated shows. The networks follow MTV."
Monday, May 11, 1998 Copyright 1998 The New York Times