Flashback Friday: VERONICA MARS

Courtesy UPN/CW

It’s a noir teen drama about a teenage private detective and the seedy underbelly in her hometown of Totally Not San Diego, California. How could it go wrong?

Readers, it didn’t. (Mostly.)

Veronica Mars might not have had a long tenure on the airwaves, but it packed a punch while it graced us with its presence. It had a female protagonist who was smart and strong, yet who was not without her flaws, making her all the more human. It had a wonderful cast full of  TV veterans and newbies alike, who perfectly blended to bring Neptune, California to life. It wasn’t afraid to be gritty, on a network best known for love triangles and homework woes. (Not that Veronica Mars didn’t have its share of those, too.) Simply put, it was unlike anything else on television at the time, and I’d argue there hasn’t been anything like it since.

A long time ago, we used to be friends, but then you got canceled and we didn’t hear from you for a decade.

Quick Synopsis: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is the daughter of Neptune, California’s sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni). When her best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) is murdered, her father gets fired for his supposed incompetence, and her social status plummets among the wealthy “oh-niners” with whom she’d grown up. She gets sassy and she gets even with those who’ve attacked her in the interim, all the while promising to find Lily’s killer. Oh yeah, she’s got midterms and after-school jobs to tend to, on top of everything else. You know, the usual.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

When the first press came out about Veronica Mars in the summer of 2004, I was surprised to find that a) the show took place in high school and b) it was on UPN (later the CW after its merger with the WB). It sounded so heavy, yet its setting seemed incongruous to the subject matter. In the pilot episode, we find out that Veronica was roofied, then raped at a party with the oh-niners, and no one she turned to among local law enforcement bothered to help. (Sadly, probably not that far off from reality.) So she picked herself up, and vowed not to let Neptune get the best of her. She got strong, and she figured out how to get back, in her own way. She was a rare example of agency among female characters, despite the victimization in her past. Frankly, it was a bit of a shocking premise — one that was more likely to be found on Law & Order: SVU rather than a teen drama on an almost-network.

It was precisely that darkness that made the show so enjoyable from the start. (Well, as enjoyable as a show about murder and assault and corruption can be.) It didn’t glaze over the social ills of the upper classes. But it didn’t whitewash the murkiness of Veronica’s behavior, either. Her father repeatedly told her she was in over her head, or that she was sticking her nose where it didn’t belong because it wasn’t legal — and she occasionally paid the price for it. Which didn’t mean she was put in her place as a girl: it simply meant that she felt the consequences of her actions.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

Sometimes she got into trouble when she underestimated the criminal-of-the-week’s power. Sometimes she angered friends when she put her mission over their needs, and they didn’t mince words about it. Sometimes she missed out on typical teenage experiences, because the life she’d chosen for herself in the post-Lily world didn’t lend itself to the frivolity of dances or crushes. Veronica screwed up (and was occasionally screwed up), and that was okay.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

Being the titular character, Veronica was the central focus, but what made the series so great is how well-rounded the cast was. Bell brought the spunk, but under Veronica’s admittedly crusty edges lay the vulnerability of a girl grieving for the loss of her friend and of her family. Colantoni was wonderful as her beleaguered father; remaining upbeat and indulgent even though he had every right to be bitter at his situation. Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino as Veronica’s closest friends Wallace and Mac were everything you’d want your best friends to be — funny and charming and helpful, but also willing to call you out on your crap when you lost yourself your tunnel vision.

Then you had the cast on the periphery supporting the gang: Deputy Leo (pre-New Girl Max Greenfield), new friend Meg (Alona Tal), ex-boyfriend-turned-current-boyfriend-turned-fugitive Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), friendly lawyer Cliff McCormack (Daran Morris), principal Van Clemmons (Duane Daniels), transfer student Gia (pre-Breaking Bad and Don’t Trust the B Krysten Ritter) and snooty new girl Jackie (Tessa Thompson), among others, who fleshed out the Neptune world in which our heroes lived so colorfully. They all had their quirks, but they became essential components of this universe, often used to contrast the darkness with their comic relief. Backup the dog was good for a laugh or two when things got tense.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

Even the characters of questionable repute were engrossing. Requisite Bad Boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) exhibited some astonishingly sociopathic behaviors, but his quiet moments revealed that he was a victim, too — that growing up with a father like his was bound to turn him into a miscreant, no matter what. (Which is not to absolve him of his actions, because he was a total jerk.) He and Veronica may have been destined to implode at one point or another, but it was easy to see why they crashed together when they did.

Meanwhile, Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen), the privileged moron who prided himself on terrorizing his classmates, still made you want to watch what he did next, if only to scream at the TV. Weevil (Francis Capra), the not-so-friendly neighborhood gangbanger, may have struck fear into Neptunians, but the moment where he and his gang threatened to wipe the floor with Logan and the oh-niners for messing with Veronica certainly endeared him to this viewer. (Yep, he was a gangbanger with a heart of gold. Doesn’t matter if it was cliché, it was captivating.) Whenever Weevil screwed up, I just wanted to shake him and tell him to get his life together — even though, in real life, he probably never would have stood a chance. Who could forget bumbling Sheriff Lamb (Michael Muhney), Keith Mars’ successor and all-around incompetent, opportunistic fool? He made life hell for the Marses, but he was damn entertaining to watch, especially when his plans backfired.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

Of course, there were the villains. I must admit that the one that sticks with me the most (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the series) is Aaron Echolls, Logan’s dad. Harry Hamlin definitely brought the creep factor in the role, and his confrontation with Veronica at the end of the first season still sends chills up my spine. (Maybe that’s why I have such a distrust of Hamlin’s character on Mad Men.) Then, EVEN BIGGER SPOILER ALERT, the showdown with unassuming Beaver Casablancas (Kyle Gallner) in Season 2 was definitely a WTF moment for the TV history books. I know the latter in particular was a controversial plot twist back in the day, but I can’t deny that I was completely riveted and glued to my seat when those episodes were on. Add to that any number of run-of-the-mill jerks you’d encounter in high school — especially in one of the most privileged zip codes in the country — and you’ve got yourself a tasty set of foils to guaranteed stir up the pot.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

What I know most people tuned in for were the love triangles, specifically Veronica and Logan’s. (It was a teen drama, after all.) Bell and Dohring had chemistry that could light up any screen, but I must admit I think I preferred them as foes rather than the epic romance they were penned as later on. To be fair, I’m rarely a fan of that type of drama, so I’m probably not their target audience. I just realized that while they had a scintillating rapport, Logan as a character was so self-destructive (and borderline abusive) that I found it hard to cheer for them as a couple. On the other hand, their scenes were some of the greatest of the show, so what do I know? In addition to that, Veronica’s dalliances with Teddy, her first love, and Piz (Chris Lowell), her college friend, didn’t do much for me, but like with the Logan plot, I could see where they were coming from and understood their role in the greater story, even if they weren’t my cup of tea.

What I loved most about the show, though, were the relationships as a whole. Obviously, as the central character, Veronica’s interactions with her peers took precedence, as well they should. Yet upon reflection for this piece, I realized that really, you could pair any member of the cast with another, and there would be magic on screen, which is probably a testament to both the writing and the skill of the actors. (I mean, really, Colantoni could have chemistry with a bowl of fruit, I’d imagine.)

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

There was the beautifully complicated father-daughter relationship between Veronica and Keith (the season 1 finale was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the series); the sweet friendship between Veronica and Wallace when they had no one else; the joining of forces necessitated by Veronica and Weevil, but also Weevil and Keith, or Weevil and anyone else in the school when it served him; the tenuous balance between Keith and Logan, especially where Veronica was concerned; Mac being awesome and unapologetic for her nerdy ways, no matter who challenged her; Logan and the Casablancases and the rest of the oh-niners, trying to fit in, but also cognizant that there was something missing in these friendships, and so on.

I just really appreciated that we had a central female character who made mistakes, who was admittedly a difficult person to befriend, who made no excuses for what she chose to do with her life, who overcame her assault and refused to let it define her, and was allowed to be all these things, without any “tarting up,” as it were. She was smart and excelled at school, but those smarts also got her into trouble, and in a sea of Joey Potters (or even Rory Gilmores), it was refreshing to see a girl who used her intelligence without always being the Good Girl. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a Good Girl — it’s just nice to have some variety.) Veronica could hurt the ones she loved in the pursuit of her work, but that didn’t make her a bad person. She struggled to strike a balance, and it made for great TV.

Courtesy UPN/CW

Courtesy UPN/CW

Veronica Mars may have only lasted three seasons (and a movie!), but it packed a punch in the time it was here. In fact, I’d argue its first season may be one of the best of any series, at least in the last decade. As the saying goes, maybe it left us before it could falter. (I’m not sure I subscribe to that theory, but we’ll never know, now, will we?) I didn’t breach this in this piece, but on top of all the delicious character development, the mysteries of the week were just plain fun to watch, too. (You know, when they didn’t involve putting our heroine in mortal danger.) It had that elusive suspenseful quality that certainly left me wanting more after every episode ended.

I honestly think Veronica Mars is one of the shows people have to watch at some point in their TV-viewing lives, because it was so underrated while it aired, yet layered with some pretty groundbreaking elements, at least for a network show in the mid-2000s. The women were strong and capable and agents of their own fortune, and the most enlightened of the men (like Keith and Weevil) unequivocally understood it. While it’s a shame creator Rob Thomas didn’t get the chance to give us more of their journeys, I’m glad we’re able to keep discussing them now, thanks to the marvels of digital entertainment.

So let’s keep remembering the tiniest private eye in all of SoCal, roaming the streets in her ancient LeBaron and keeping us safe from school bullies and corporate greed alike.

Plus, you know, there’s that awesome theme song, to boot.


Veronica Mars, the show and the movie, are available on DVD and Amazon Prime streaming, as well as digital downloads via iTunes.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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