“I’m never getting married” a soothing but feisty female voice narrates as the camera pans over a seedy motel with flickering neon lights. The silhouettes of two lovers are visible through the drapes of one of the windows. A middle-aged man walks in a female bathrobe down the wooden stairs to the ice machine. It’s the kind of back-alley, noir realism that Veronica Mars excels in. There she is, staking out in her convertible, with a jar of coffee to help her through the night as she waits for the money shot, while preparing for the calculus exam in a couple of hours. The petite blonde lead is a lot of things at once. An unconventional protagonist. A feminist hero. A teenager. An outcast. A private detective. The list goes on and on. Even as the expositional narration, the faded colored t-shirts and the spiky hair reveal that both Veronica and her show live in the early naughties, it’s apparent that this girl should not be underestimated.
Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, House of Lies) is the social outcast of her high school. She lives in a town without a middle class and her school, Neptune High, is the miniature of that. She used to be one of the popular kids. Veronica and her best friend Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried) were inseparable. She also dated Lily’s brother Duncan (Teddy Dunn, Jumper). That all changed when Lily was murdered. Veronica’s father, sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni, Person of Interest), suspected Lily’s grieving father and billionaire Jake Kane (Kyle Secor, Homicide). When the killer was arrested and Jake was cleared, the town turned on the Mars family. Keith was ousted as sheriff. Veronica was shunned at school. Duncan broke up with her. Veronica’s mother couldn’t take the shame and left Veronica and her dad. A few weeks later, Veronica was drugged and raped at a party, though she never told her father. Now Keith works as a private detective and in her spare time, Veronica helps him.
It’s been almost a decade since the little-watched but highly praised teen detective premiered on prime-time television in the U.S. The age shows. Flashbacks are shaky and in slow-motion with filters that would make Instagram proud. The fashion looks painfully dated. The indie-rock soundtrack doesn’t help. Yet, that’s all on the outside. Internally Veronica Mars is still as brilliant as it ever was.
The structure of the show is admirable. In its skeleton, Veronica Mars is about a teen girl who helps her peers solve mysteries on a weekly basis. In the first season she tracks down a classmate who’s missing, searches the father of a kid who works in a video store and helps a member of the motor cycle gang accused of credit card freud. The procedural side of the show gives Veronica something to do every episode, while also offering the audience the engagement and satisfaction of a case-of-the-week.
The show is infinitely more complicated. On top of the cases is Veronica’s personal life, which, as the massive backstory above showcases, is messy. Veronica is hellbent on finding her mother and reuniting her family. She’s also scarred by her sexual assault. As an outcast, she doesn’t have very many friends, save for the new kid Wallace (Percy Daggs III, Detention). Wallace snitched on the local motor cycle gang and was strapped nude on the school flag pole for it. Veronica cut him loose and earns a loyal friend in the process. Then there’s her bond with her father, the steady rock on which the show was founded on. Without some sort of stability in her life, Veronica could’ve easily been a loose canon. However, as hard and unorthodox as it is for a single father to raise his daughter through the profession of solving crimes, the bond rings true. It helps keep a lot of the far-fetched story lines grounded. Between the mysteries in her life, Keith still makes jokes that embarrass Veronica while also grilling steak for her. The father/daughter bond is one of the few relatively relatable aspects of the show.
Lastly, there’s the Lily Kane murder mysterie. In the pilot, Veronica discovers something that blows the case wide open. The how and why questions span the entire first season and answers are carefully implanted through out. The twist that differs it from so many shows that kick off with the death of a white female, is that it’s Veronica’s best friend. The deceased isn’t some distant yet tragic case. Veronica shares a personal bond with the victim which serves as a drive for vengeance and justice. It makes the wonderfully set up mystery that holds the show together that more intriguing.
The story lines vary from ripped from the newspapers to deliciously extravagant. One episode easily addresses all previously described structures without missing a beat. It’s heavy on the details. The clues to the mysteries aren’t all hidden away for the big reveal either. Some are foreshadowed or simply right under the audience’s and Veronica’s nose. The show demands attention, which might be why it never found a bigger audience. The fine balance in juggling as many stories as the show does is in finding a hook. That’s all in the characters. Veronica is tough as nails, determined, too smart for her own good and rebellious. But she’s also scarred, vulnerable and at times naive. In other words, she’s as compelling and conflicted as a main character as Walter White and Don Draper. Only she’s a teenage blonde.
The show’s most important legacy is the portrayal of feminism. As Andrea Braithwaite notes in her essay ‘Detecting feminism in Veronica Mars’, the show doesn’t naturally assume the struggles of women are history. “Veronica Mars’ combination of the gendered discourses of teen melodrama and hardboiled detection highlights one of feminism’s central tenets: that women’s choices are regulated by cultural norms around sex and gender”. In example; in the pilot, after Veronica wakes up in a strange bed without her underwear on, she walks to her car which has the word “slut” written over the front. When she reports the crime to the new sheriff in town, she’s ridiculed and sent on her way. That is just the first in many instances when Veronica’s gender drives the narrative and shows the limitations that come with being a girl. She’s a detective, after all. When she hunts down a big beefy drug-dealer, she has to rely on her pitbull named Back-Up and her quick wits. It speaks volumes that the show doesn’t shy away from showing the double standards, the vicious backstabbing and social pressures that girls face in high school. In one of the series’ best episodes, Mars vs. Mars, a girl is publicly ridiculed and shunned for claiming a teacher sexually harassed her. Too often teen shows (or TV in general) set story lines in a setting that promotes equality and portrays its world as one where women don’t face these struggles. Or as defined in Braithwaite’s essay: “post-feminism”. It’s both refreshing, culturally relevant and to this day rarely repeated how Veronica Mars doesn’t diminish the severity of the struggles women face in society.
Feminism, in all its value, is just one of the many underlying themes that compose this show. For example, the cast is dominantly male yet diverse. Aside from African-American best friend Wallace, father Keith and ex-boyfriend Duncan, we also see notorious douchebag Logan (Jason Dohring, Moonlight) and leader of the aforementioned motorcycle gang Weevil (Francis Capra, Heroes). Logan was Lily’s boyfriend and Duncan’s best friend, yet has no trouble bullying Veronica. Weevil proves to be a worthy antagonist and occasional friend to Veronica. The two gents are also key players in portraying the class struggles the show addresses. “Your parents either are millionaires or work for millionaires” Veronica puts it. The posh, rich and white Logan beautifully clashes with the influential latino gangster Weevil. The group of men surrounding the big-mouthed, small hearted Veronica are as diverse, complex and important to the story as she herself.
The show draws its comedy from wit and sarcasm, delivered seamlessly by the talented cast, spearheaded by the ever so charming Bell. The casting directors certainly knew what they were doing, as proven by the string of future stars that decorate the first season, such as Seyfried, Leighton Meester, Aaron Paul, Adam Scott and Jane Lynch as well as future Oscar winner Melissa Leo and to-be Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain.
Veronica Mars’ first season is one for the books. Despite it’s outside showing some age, the story and characters are as riveting and contemporary as anything on TV right now. Every episodes is layered with a weekly case, developments in Veronica’s personal life while driving the overarching mystery of the murder on Lily Kane further. The many twists, revelations and confronting stories will guarantee to entertain for the full twenty-two episodes. By the end of it, it’s impossible not to reckon that a tiny, blonde teenage detective, as ridiculous as the concept may sound, can turn any seasoned television fan into a marshmallow. Much like its protagonist, this is one show that cannot be judged by its appearance.