Veronica Mars was cancelled in 2007 after only three seasons. But those three seasons had launched Kristen Bell to stardom, pre-empted Rian Johnson’s acclaimed high-school noir Brick by a year, and come closer than anyone to physically incarnating novelist Sara Paretsky’s Chandlerian female private eye VI Warshawski. So, whether you accidentally found the show as RTE scrambled it across their schedule (weekday afternoons, Saturdays at 5pm, and eventually after midnight), or via DVD box-sets, let’s remember Rob Thomas’ offbeat creation.
After all these years, do you not instinctively fear me? – Veronica
Veronica Mars was set in Neptune, a small coastal Californian town. The rich lived in the 09 district favoured by employees of Kane Software; the tech company responsible for the town’s wealth. The 09ers looked down on everyone else, white, black, and Hispanic, and Neptune High was the frequent flashpoint for these underlying socio-economic and racial tensions. And caught in the middle was 17 year old Veronica. Her father Keith had been Sheriff, until he was recalled for ‘bungling’ the murder of Lily Kane, Veronica’s best friend. Keith had realised that Lily’s tycoon father Jake was lying, but his replacement, arrogant and incompetent Lamb, was happy to pin the murder on Kane-wrapped patsy Abel Koontz. Ostracised by boyfriend Duncan Kane and Lily’s boyfriend Logan Echolls for standing by Keith, Veronica was roofied and raped at an 09er party, and cut herself loose from her social class. Helping Keith with his case-load as a struggling PI, she soon became feared (and employed) for her detective skills. Season 1 saw her investigate the mystery of Lily’s death and frame-up, and her own rape, while playing all the high school cliques; including the dangerous PCH motorbike gang led by sometime ally ‘Weevil’ Navarro. Veronica and Keith barely escaped the confrontation with Lily’s killer alive, but season 2 raised the stakes as Veronica investigated an ‘accidental’ school bus crash that killed 7 Neptune students, and tried to clear Logan of a murder charge; both storylines leading to wider conspiracies, involving the Fitzpatrick crime family and rich politicians, and very dark deeds. Pressure from the newly merged network meant season 3 had two smaller arcs while Veronica attended Neptune’s liberal arts college Hearst. She apprehended the serial rapist terrorising the campus, after almost falling victim to him, and then identified the murderer of Hearst’s Dean.
It took me a while to figure out where you stashed the steroids. But there was only one place you were alone, right? In case you’re wondering, the former contents of the package are somewhere between my toilet and the Pacific Ocean. Say hi to Shauna for me, she sounds like a keeper – Veronica
Veronica wrote those words in a letter that her boyfriend Troy didn’t expect to be reading as he sped away from Neptune thinking he’d played her… She didn’t have superpowers but it was unwise to mess with Veronica Mars. When a jock bullied an awkward girl who’d hired Veronica to find her missing dog, the 5 foot nothing blonde stormed over and threatened to ruin his grades, his social life, and his future career if he didn’t knock it off … and everyone in the school corridor took her threat deadly seriously. Veronica was able to move between 09er high society and Weevil’s underclass with profitable impunity, but ferreting out ugly truths and projecting considerable menace didn’t mean everything always went her way. Alfred Sole’s production design and Victor Hammer, and then Joaquin Sedillo’s, lighting created one of the warmest colour palettes on television, only for the writers (led by Thomas, Diane Ruggiero, Rob Enbom, and Phil Klemmer) to flood the screen with the blackest noir cynicism. In Neptune, a movie star committed statutory rape and then murder, and got away scot-free because his lawyer rendered Veronica a promiscuous Chlamydia-ridden gold-digger, extremely well-known to the police, and therefore the ultimate of unreliable witnesses in a game of ‘he said, she said’. Keith lost two elections for Sheriff to corrupt morons funded by vested interests with considerable expertise in dirty tricks. Money talked, whether it was rich students gaming scholarships with paid-for diagnoses of generalised anxiety disorder, or an amiable philanthropist using his millions to silence the victims of his paedophilia. Even Weevil, an occasional good guy, tied an enemy to a stadium before its demolition and watched it implode. In a town like Neptune the game was always rigged, but Veronica did her damndest to break the players, one by one.
Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.
Veronica: Epic how?
Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.
Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…
Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?
Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.
It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of the first season, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.
You played me, Veronica, you played me! You’re my daughter, I’ll always love you. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust you again – Keith Mars
Any serious discussion of the best father-daughter pairings on TV has to feature Veronica Mars and Enrico Colantoni’s Keith Mars prominently. Their father-daughter dynamic obviously harks back to Nancy Drew and her father Carson. They use those as cover names on occasion but their relationship has a good deal more sass, and, indeed, as using those cover names would suggest, a high level of self-awareness of the absurdity of both ending up as P.I.s; they often conduct entire conversations in faux-Bogart accented private eye speak. But under the surface playfulness is an incredibly strong bond, underscored by Keith’s conflicted pride in Veronica’s prowess, and shame that his recall forced her to discover that talent. Veronica disavows her own alcoholic mother when she bails on rehab, but her deepest emotional lows are often connected with disappointing (or losing) Keith. When she’s told her father is really Kyle Secor’s Jake Kane she throws up at the idea that she unwittingly slept with her half-brother Duncan, but the true horror is that the one constant in her life, Keith, is not her father. When Keith appeared to die before her eyes when his plane is bombed mid-air in the season 2 finale her reaction was heartbreaking. But ‘Mars vs. Mars’ wasn’t restricted to that one episode where they ended up on different sides of a case. In the episode where Veronica outwits the FBI, Keith is incredibly hurt to find that he was a patsy in her ploy to appear estranged from Duncan, leading to the outburst quoted above. And yet despite this Keith’s love for Veronica saw him sacrifice his chances of election in the final episode when, because of Veronica’s secretiveness, he found himself with no option but to tamper with evidence in an attempt to save Veronica’s reputation.
Meg, you’re the last good person at this school. I’d believe cartoon birds braided your hair this morning – Veronica
Veronica Mars also excelled at depicting female friendship. Alona Tal’s Meg Manning was the one 09er that Veronica had time for, and, as one of the show’s few bright spots of unerring moral probity, the disintegration of their friendship over Duncan was upsetting viewing. Veronica’s return to her sleuthing ways in season 2 was initially just to prove Meg had not been doping, a vindication an embittered Meg threw in Veronica’s face; only to later relent. A more constant friend and ally was Tina Majorino’s computer whizz Mac, the self-proclaimed Q to Veronica’s Bond. Sure Veronica wasn’t above pimping Mac out as a prom date to secure information from a geek, but, most of the time they were tight, with Veronica there to comfort Mac after her boyfriend turned out to be a mass murderer, and, in the show’s saddest moment, after Mac discovered she’d been switched at birth in a hospital mix-up; and her existence as a blue-state peg in a red-state hole was because she’d been separated from the bookish sister she should have had. Living that life instead was Amanda Noret’s Madison Sinclair, the arrogant airhead 09er par excellence, and Veronica’s nemesis – even before Veronica realised that a characteristically mean prank by Madison had landed her with the roofied drink the night of her rape. Logan sleeping with Madison, while he and Veronica were split up, drove Veronica to the edge of her reason; and Madison’s car to Weevil’s scrap-yard… But Veronica didn’t always push the nuclear button, even if Weevil then mocked her for getting soft. She held back from dynamiting Tessa Thompson’s Jackie after a cruel trick, because her stalwart best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) asked her not to. And when Jackie became the new pariah at school, Veronica bonded with her fellow outcast.
You know what they say, Veronica Mars, she’s a marshmallow – Veronica
Thomas made heroic efforts to save Veronica from cancellation, even shooting a lengthy teaser for a time-jumped fourth season, Veronica Mars: FBI, which saw her graduating from Quantico and trading her trademark taser for a glock. But nothing could salvage the ratings situation as far as the CW network was concerned. Thomas went on to briefly re-boot his own rom-com series Cupid for ABC, co-create short-lived raucous comedy Party Down with his Veronica Mars cohorts John Enbom and Dan Etheridge (and Ant-Man himself Paul Rudd) for Starz, before successfully re-booting 90210, and co-developing iZombie with Diane Ruggiero as a comedy procedural for the CW. But die-hard fans, the Marshmallows, were never happy with his deliberate anti-finale of Veronica walking into the Californian rain after voting for Keith for Sheriff, so when Thomas turned to Kickstarter in 2013 to finance a follow-up movie they showered him with money. And so, in a strange afterlife akin to Firefly, nearly ten years after it premiered, Veronica Mars returned as a movie. Veronica had transferred from Hearst, and left her old life and PI badge behind for law school, but just as she was about to begin her legal career, she was pulled back in when Logan was again framed for murder. Thomas and Bell have recently been talking about hopping on the bandwagon of 24, Heroes, and The X-Files, and returning Veronica to TV for an 8 episode mystery a la True Detective. It’s an enticing prospect, but, tangibly, the movie has allowed Thomas to initiate a series of novels, co-written with Jennifer Graham, which lead on from the movie with Veronica and Mac running Mars Investigations together. In that sense Veronica has come full circle, back to the hard-boiled cases and sardonic narration of Chandler’s ‘shop-soiled Galahad’ Philip Marlowe.
Feature Image Credit: anatomyofapilot.com