Monday, February 10, 2014
Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
In anticipation of the March 2014 release of the Veronica Mars film, I decided to finally work my way through all three seasons of the original television series. Considering that I contributed to last year's Kickstarter campaign for the movie, one might suppose I should have liked to know what it was I was handing my money to. I did watch all of the first two seasons during the show's original run on UPN, but it was always a series that I think I wanted to like more than I actually did. I was immediately a fan of Kristen Bell, of course, and I had a particular soft spot for the production, because it was filmed in my home county of San Diego (even if the only location I recognize is the Point Loma area street corner highlighted by the gaudy signs for "venerable" local institutions The World Famous Body Shop and Les Girls).
Still, I never quite understood the cult following for Veronica Mars. It wasn't a genre show, it wasn't really all that offbeat or quirky, and it didn't originally air on cable (not even basic cable). When the Kickstarter went up for the movie, however, I met it with the same sort of sincere enthusiasm as I might greet an old classmate I hadn't heard from in years; although I might never have characterized us as close, nevertheless I was happy for the chance to catch up. I also saw it as a good excuse to give the series another try to see if I would "get it" this time. I'm glad I did.
The Nancy Drew-esque premise of Veronica Mars, about a teenage private eye solving cases mostly revolving around her high school, can prompt snickers from adult viewers, much as it indeed draws skepticism among characters within the show concerning Veronica's qualifications, but the show is a good deal more realistic than, say, Monk or Sherlock, and, more than any other recent story, it seriously rekindled my boyhood dream of one day growing up to become a detective. Unlike a Sherlock Holmes or an Adrian Monk—aloof eccentrics, who solve puzzling mysteries by virtue of some inscrutable genius—Veronica Mars is a detective of the hardboiled variety. She does her own investigative legwork and isn't afraid to get her hands dirty either, routinely bending the rules—trespassing to gather information, blackmailing the corrupt into cooperating, or even occasionally having to taser her way out of a bad situation—to make her case, much to the ire of the local sheriff. The daughter of a professional private eye, she knows some tricks of the trade, and she does have access to a few gadgets and databases that ordinary citizens wouldn't. She's also intelligent, of course, but not inhumanly so, and she can get quite far toward solving a case just through a combination of attentiveness, resourcefulness, and intuition. Sometimes, she'll uncover a lead simply by knowing how to properly use Google to look up people online (the same way I might use Google to hypothetically investigate the background of any new person I meet!). These are the skills and qualities I like to imagine myself possessing, when I daydream about being a detective, and part of the hook of the show is trying to solve the mystery of the week alongside Veronica, and then telling myself that doing so successfully might mean I could do the real thing professionally.
The larger part of Veronica's work, however, and key to her effectiveness, is in how she handles herself as she hits the streets (well, figurative "streets," since this is San Diego we're talking about) to pump people for information. The casting of Kristen Bell in the title role is one of the all-time most perfect pairings of actor to character. It is all but impossible to imagine any other performer bringing creator Rob Thomas's winningly snarky protagonist so fully to life, nor have any of Bell's subsequent roles so tapped into her authentic blend of sass, charm, and unpretentiousness. Bell plays the teenage gumshoe with the necessary toughness to hold her own (and then some) against not only her classmates but often adults as well from the seedier parts of town, who might otherwise dismiss or try to scare her off. Like the detectives of hardboiled films, she narrates episodes with a typically cynical perspective. Even as it is set largely in a high school, the show is legitimately dark. The first episode establishes that Veronica had been roofied and raped prior to the start of the series. Death and murder, which happen with surprising frequency and suddenness, are never glamorized; rather, the crime is always despicable, the fragility of life sadly pathetic. Veronica's very entry into the world of sleuthing is initiated by her need to solve the murder of her best friend, the official investigation into which also tore her parents' marriage apart. Yet, amid all that, Veronica also operates with compassion balancing her sense of justice.
The show is very much carried by the character of Veronica and by Bell's performance, but other characters too are better-written than those you'll find in most teen (or adult) dramas. Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad boy from privilege, rather reminds me of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Like quite a lot of characters on Veronica Mars actually, he has some deeply unsavory, even monstrous traits, and even as he develops into a romantic interest for Veronica, the show never truly backs down from its portrayal of him as, not merely a teenager acting out, but a person whose vile aspects are a real part of who he is. Rather than being either a clear good guy or bad guy, he's just intensely passionate and swings back and forth from being someone you would never want to be associated with to being someone you really want in your corner.
Special mention must also be made of Ryan Hansen's performance in the minor supporting role of Dick Casablancas, Logan's even-more-vile sidekick. This is a character who advocates date rape, among all the other consistently inappropriate and offensive things that come out of his mouth, and, unlike virtually every other regular or recurring character on the show, he never has any redemptive moments. It's hard to defend a character like that—even when I found myself laughing at his jokes, it would fill me with a sort of shame—but, after a while, I came to appreciate how Hansen was always and totally in-character in the role of Dick. He delivers every line with absolute conviction to that character, and he has no "off" episodes. And, even though he's not a true villain, Dick is kind of the "anti-Veronica" of the show—the one nemesis she can never quite verbally overpower, as he instead always comes back and manages to snipe her to a stalemate.
Another great thing about the show is that, although Rob Thomas and team write all the characters to be quite witty, the characters don't sound alike. This isn't one of those shows where every character delivers at the same annoying tempo. Dick, the affluent California hedonist, doesn't talk like Weevil (Francis Capra), the Latino gang leader. And that brings up another noteworthy aspect of Veronica Mars: beyond having just an obligatory racially diverse cast, the show directly incorporates into its plot the class and racial tensions existing within and around a Southern California public high school—one of the few places where the lives of the wealthy white families that own the town might cross with those of the local poor and minorities. This sort of realistic social commentary is distressingly absent from the majority of high school dramas, and probably even less often found in murder mystery shows.
The first two seasons of Veronica Mars feature season-long mysteries, as well as secondary relationship arcs, but the bulk of the show is weekly cases. I enjoyed most of the cases, because I enjoyed following along with Veronica's investigative process, but be warned that these are 22-episode seasons, and the show is not as tightly serialized as the cable shows that are the darlings of today's binge-watching audiences. But the writing in the first season holds up, and the second season, though it initially rehashes some of the first season's business to lesser effect, is eventually even better. It's not something I was able to appreciate back when it first aired (probably because I was working 12-hour days and unable to devote too much brainpower to TV), but I now find the second season to be an extraordinarily well-crafted and complex mystery narrative, labyrinthine in classic noir fashion, yet where almost every thread cleverly converges in a finale that actually adds up perfectly.
Unfortunately, the show rather nosedives in quality with the third season, as the story awkwardly transitions to college (right as UPN transitions to The CW). High school is such a popular setting for television dramas, but, off the top of my head, I can't think of any worthwhile shows about college (never seen Felicity). And even great shows that begin in high school, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, stumble at the college season. Veronica Mars, sadly, doesn't buck that trend. For one thing, it's always contrived whenever all the high school classmates on a show end up at the same college or university, but it's even worse in the case of Veronica Mars, because one of the subplots of the second season is Veronica's determination to get into Stanford, but then, at the beginning of the third season, she's attending the fictional local university instead, and it's never even addressed why the plan changed. The behind-the-scenes reason, one supposes, is so they could keep the rest of the cast together, without having to go the even more ridiculous route of having everyone make it into Stanford. Problem is, the returning supporting characters become all but irrelevant in the third season anyway, so what was it all for? Weevil, the poor Latino character, who wasn't ever headed to college, especially becomes a very sad shadow of his former self, and that highlights the key problem that college is less interesting than high school simply because there is less diversity of social classes at the higher education level.
With the show still struggling to find a wider audience, the producers began (ultimately to no avail) to try different things, so season 3 features two shorter arcs instead of one central mystery, then finishes with a bunch of standalone episodes. The major cases, unlike in the first two seasons, have no deep personal connection to Veronica, and consequently she comes across as more of a jerk, whenever she butts into other people's business. Then there are some episodes of the "very special" variety thrown in toward the end (so, even as the characters are supposed to be progressing to college, the writing regresses to a more juvenile level), including a tie-in with the campaign of San Diego organization Invisible Children. The episode is neither great nor terrible, but if you follow Kristen Bell on Twitter, then you know that she remains Invisible Children's most outspoken celebrity supporter. Lest you think she is merely attaching herself to a visible cause for PR purposes, the origin of the relationship can actually be traced way back to Veronica Mars; Ryan Hansen's wife, Amy, who worked on the show, is sister to the organization's founder, Jason Russell.
You won't find it on the video-on-demand services, but the third season DVD set includes a short "pilot" pitching a fourth season, which would have skipped ahead years to Veronica working as a rookie FBI agent. A "Hail Mary" play to try to save the series from cancellation, the pilot features a different aesthetic, different setting, and different characters. It's interesting to ponder how a Veronica Mars take on the FBI might have stood apart from all the police procedurals that have been produced about characters in the agency, but I'm kind of glad that that fourth season never came to pass, and that the film will be going in a different direction and bringing back the original cast. A lot of Veronica's appeal in the first two seasons is in how she operates as a maverick in service to "the little guy"—her peers and herself—who can't depend on local law enforcement for justice. I don't know that I'd really want to see her working within the system and assigned to the same sorts of criminal cases that we see on every other show.
The first two seasons of Veronica Mars easily rank as the greatest series in the history of the UPN television network (yes, I'd rank them ahead of the UPN seasons of Buffy). Although I don't know, based on the disappointing third season, how many more times we can buy Veronica getting pulled into solving a deeply personal whodunit, I hope they can deliver at least one more good one for the movie.