LEAVE IT TO VERONICA:
AN APPRECIATION OF VERONICA MARS
By Lori Wolf
She was blonde and petite, yet teen sleuthing sensation Veronica Mars packed a serious stun gun, along with wit and keen detective skills. Created by Rob Thomas, the show bearing her name ran from 2004-2007 but lives on in DVDs and in an upcoming feature film. Despite its short lifespan, Veronica Mars and its show’s namesake warrant renewed appreciation.
Veronica was unlike most teenage girls. She went through a hell of a lot, things Nancy Drew could never have imagined during her fictional existence. After her father Keith accused the wealthiest man in town of murdering the man’s daughter, Keith was removed as sheriff. This action caused Veronica to fall from the inner sanctum of the rich, popular in-crowd, to outcasted lower-class status. Her father became a PI, and Veronica assisted him in the office. She also investigated cases on her own, ranging from locating the stolen school mascot to finding her best friend Lilly’s real killer (season one), discovering who caused a fatal bus crash (season two), and bringing her college dean’s killer along with campus rapists to justice (season three). One mystery that lasted two seasons, however: Veronica’s rape. Most episodes were as crammed with mysteries as an overpacked suitcase; sometimes one case connected with another.
Noir elements shadowed the show’s first two seasons. Without the heavy use of flashbacks, viewers would miss characters’ emotional changes and clues for the main mysteries. Veronica’s voiceover narration wove through all episodes in the first two seasons and some in the final season. The narration also introduced characters and her feelings. While parked outside the seedy Camelot Motel, Veronica commented in the pilot (1.1): “And here’s where it ends up: sleazy men, cocktail waitresses…cheap motels on the wrong side of town…and a soon-to-be ex-spouse wanting a bigger piece of the settlement pie.” As in this example, the narration projected hardened words from someone jaded, much older than seventeen. The narration continued: “This motel tryst, it is what it is. Make it quick. The person sitting in the car across the street might have a calculus exam in five—make that four hours—and she can’t leave until she gets the money shot.” Viewers soon discovered that Veronica was not the typical hardcore PI. Despite her prickly exterior, viewers quickly realized Veronica was actually quite vulnerable. “You know what they say,” she commented at the end of this episode. “Veronica Mars—she’s a marshmallow.” Unlike many PIs, Veronica also had a wry sense of humor and strong sense of pop culture. “Dear Seventeen magazine,” she began in “Weapons of Mass Destruction (1.18),” “how can I tell if the super cute boy in my class likes me? No, scratch that. Dear Seventeen: How can I tell if the super cute boy in my class killed his own sister?”
Neptune, California, was not only the show’s setting, but also served as a character. “Neptune, California: the town without a middle class,” Veronica observed in the pilot (1.1). The disparity between the have-too-muches and the have-too-littles created underlying tension within the town and its residents. Mansions sprawled across one side of town; modest housing sat nondescriptly on the other. A seemingly idyllic beach community nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego, Neptune possessed scenic beauty but also an undercurrent of seediness. A motorcycle gang, the PCHers, along with a much more menacing gang, the Fitzpatricks, committed criminal acts, ranging from petty theft to murder. On the flip side, the wealthier the residents, the more likely they were engaging in illegal activities. An unspoken rule in Neptune floated through the town: no class was immune from corruption.
The set design featured heavy use of shadows to create an ominous vibe. These shadows lurked everywhere from the Kane mansion to Neptune High. They were especially noticeable inside the office of Mars Investigations. Blinds were drawn; a dimly lit, heavily planted fishtank sat on top of a file cabinet. The journalism classroom lurked in virtual darkness, dimly lit by a light or two. Scenes of the Mars’ modest apartment were shot in a dark light, and most shots reflected rippling waters from the swimming pool of the apartment complex.
Introduced in season two, goldigging Kendall Casablancas, appeared as a trophy wife who would smash anyone over the head with the trophy, if it came between her and a dollar. This femme fatale wed a millionaire, who had earned his money from committing real estate fraud. Kendall lied, cheated, and bedded everyone she could, including a high-school boy. Her life of crime ended in gunshots courtesy of a former lover. Mindy O’Dell, in the lackluster third season, was also introduced as a femme fatale. Mindy was married to the dean of the small liberal arts college, Hearst College, where Veronica and her friends attended school. Dean O’Dell was murdered. With her suspicious behavior, Mindy quickly became a primary suspect, and with good reason. Veronica learned that Mindy and Veronica’s criminology professor were having an affair. After receiving insurance money, she bought a boat, thus making her appear guilty. In the end, her lover killed her.
A crew of friends had Veronica’s back and assisted most of her detecting needs: Wallace, her African American best friend, worked in the attendance office at school for the first season; Mac, was a computer genius; and Logan, proved himself her on-again/off-again soulmate. Logan provided fistfuls of yin to Veronica’s snarky yang. Keith, however, remained her most important partner in life and in crime solving. For instance, they worked together to figure out who was scamming a rap music mogul. They teamed up to investigate the Lilly Kane murder. After the bus crash in season two, Veronica and Keith pooled their knowledge of the case to eliminate suspects and determine the identity of the true killer. In most cases, Veronica, not Keith, identified the culprits. The girl couldn’t help it—she was a born detective.
Some may wonder why Neptune needed any private investigator at all, much less a tenacious teenaged Nancy Drew. In keeping with the neo-noir characteristics of the show, Neptune’s law enforcement proved incompetent and corrupt. Keith’s replacement as sheriff, Don Lamb, preferred photo ops and the power of his title more than delivering criminals to justice.
Veronica delivered a more logical, and perhaps refreshing, form of detection than her fictional teen predecessors. Prior to Lilly’s death, Veronica had been innocent, na´ve, even boring, yet the murder, Keith’s removal from office, her alcoholic mother’s departure, the rape, and the ostracizing from the in-crowd had forced a complete 180 in her personality. She cut her hair; grew suspicious of life in Neptune and of people; developed a tough, sarcastic fašade; started asking lots of questions; persisted until she solved the case.
“Nevermind the Buttocks” (2.19) displayed Veronica’s keen skills and advanced the mystery of the bus crash. Working with her father, Veronica learned that Kendall Casablancas was the beneficiary for a life insurance policy, if her stepsons were killed. Incidentally, the insurance policy was also being used as a tax shelter. The smaller but nonetheless important smaller case began when Harry asked Veronica to help him locate the owner of a green Barracuda that ran over his dog. Veronica ran a computer database search on possible owners in Neptune, but the search returned no results. She then took out an ad asking for information in the school newspaper. A girl told her it was the same car whose passenger mooned her on Pacific Coast Highway right before the bus crash. There was a sticker on the car.
Veronica visited Harry at home and saw that his kid brother had a black eye. Soon, she got a lead on the owner of the Barracuda: the deceased grandfather of Liam Fitzpatrick, ruthless leader of the gang bearing his last name. Sneaking into the garage, she examined the car. She used blue chalk spray to discover that the sticker had been removed. She also saw a revolver in the glove compartment and placed a tracker in the car.
Once the tracker was activated, Veronica followed the Barracuda to a house. She called Keith, who warned her to pull in front of the house and wait for him. Unbeknownst to her, Keith already had been inside and was fighting with Liam Fitzpatrick. Keith had learned that this was also Kendall’s house and stole her hard drive. He escaped. Veronica enlisted the help of her computer genius friend, Mac, to hack into the hard drive and print its contents.
Veronica pieced together the conclusion that Harry’s kid brother was a member of the PCHers, a bike gang into petty crime and drug dealing. The PCHers were indebted to the violent Fitzpatricks, and Liam beat the brother for not pulling in his share of “business.” It was Liam who ran over Harry’s dog. The brother begged Veronica not to tell Harry; Harry was an expert archer, and the brother feared for Harry’s safety. Conflicted, Veronica informed Harry she couldn’t find out who had killed the dog.
Sometimes gaps existed in clue gathering for some of the episodes, but expository dialogue and viewers’ observations filled them in. Yes, viewers needed to willfully suspend their disbelief in many episodes; after all, Veronica was a young woman outsmarting law enforcement with many more years of experience than she. Yes, she sometimes screwed up and found herself in grave danger. In the brilliant “Donut Run” (2.11), Veronica and her former boyfriend staged an elaborate ruse for him to flee the country with his baby daughter. They outsmarted local law enforcement, the FBI, and even Keith, who lashed out at her stinging betrayal in a powerful scene. Great with voices, she was adept at going undercover as anyone from a video game geek to a school district official. Veronica did everything well: she was an excellent student, fake ID creator, and snickerdoodle baker.
Why did Veronica Mars have a limited run on the small screen? For starters, it suffered from low ratings and ran for two seasons on the now-defunct UPN network. In 2006, the UPN merged with the WB, with its teen-driven, angsty programming. The third and final season saw an unfortunate transformation of the show’s formula. Many of the noir elements were reduced, including most of the voiceovers. There was no season-long mystery. Character development became static. Most importantly, shows lacked the darkness and Veronica’s urgency in solving capers; in fact, they became full of levity and dull romantic triangles.
Still, the show retains a cult following. Fan fiction forums and You Tube clips abound. For years viewers have long hoped for a movie to properly end the series. Their wishes are coming true. In April 2013, Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, the show’s star, and a few cast members conducted an aggressive Kickstarter campaign to raise two million dollars to film a finale to the series. Thanks to these eager fans, they have surpassed their goal. The campaign raised nearly six million dollars. Filming commenced in June 2013, and the film is scheduled for release at many AMC Theaters on March 14, 2014.
When we see her again, Veronica Mars will still be blonde and petite, older and wiser, and eager to resume her unique way of solving a mystery.