Down These Teen Streets, a Girl Must Go
Remembrance and reflection how allied! What thin partitions sense from thought divide!
—“Epistle One”, Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Man
Want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I.
—Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Pilot
In the first episode of Veronica Mars, the schoolgirl detective summarised Epistle One of Pope’s An Essay On Man as “Life’s a bitch until you die.” Her teacher may have been unimpressed with her interpretation, but as a prediction for the next three years, it was on the money.
Veronica Mars entered our living rooms as a petite girl with an enormous backstory. Her best friend had been murdered. Her father (Enrico Colantoni) had lost his job as town sheriff as a result of his pursuit of the victim’s own father. Her mother had abandoned her family. And, icing on the cake, Veronica had recently been drugged, raped, and unfairly ostracised for being both the town slut and the daughter of the unpopular ex-sheriff.
TMI? Maybe so, but actress Kristen Bell pulled it off. Previously she had been a cheerleader with ruptured breast implants (Everwood) and a sociopathic whore (Deadwood). She’d also auditioned for the role of Chloe Sullivan in Smallville before winning the best new role for a teenage actress on TV. Yes, she was actually 24, but she looked young enough and gave the best voiceovers in town. Although the show’s second episode featured Paris Hilton—imaginatively cast as a stupid, spoilt whore with no sense of irony, Veronica Mars was still an instant hit.
All things, however, are relative. Just as Veronica suffered crisis after crisis, so her show experienced perennially low ratings. At the end of its first season, VM was the 148th ranked primetime TV series (out of 156) with an average of just 2.5 million viewers. The second season simultaneously lost 200,000 viewers and improved three places in the rankings. This time, however, the CW’s Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff finally cancelled our girl. Or, as they say in these parts, put her on permanent hiatus. Ms. Mars’ fans are obviously desolate at their loss, but I’m already over it. In comparison to stillborn shows such as Drive, VM has had a good long run, and it’s better to celebrate that we had three (very nearly) full seasons with Veronica rather than throw ourselves on her funeral pyre.
Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I’ve never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn’t making, and maybe even more than those. Crazy crisp dialogue. Incredibly tight plotting. Big emotion, I mean BIG, and charismatic actors and I was just DYING from the mystery and the relationships and PAIN… These guys know what they’re doing on a level that intimidates me. It’s the Harry Potter of shows.”
—Joss Whedon boosts Veronica Mars on his blog (12 August 2005)
Joss Whedon had it right. The first season of VM was utterly compelling, Film Noir meets Beverly Hills 90210, and then some. The plot, which spanned the entire season, was rooted deep in moral ambiguity, sexual tension, and murder. The storytelling was supported by a potent combination of voiceover and flashback, and the whole was delivered in a stunning visual style. One favourite technique was the short-lens shot, both to emphasize the distance between Veronica and her peers and to focus our attention on the isolated protagonist. At times, VM came dangerously close to Art.
The second season was less outstanding, but it was still one of the best things on TV. Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon made cameo appearances; Alyson Hannigan featured in three episodes and Charisma Carpenter had a recurring role throughout. The comparisons between Veronica and another California-based, pint-sized, blonde kicker of butts hardly needed such reinforcing, and Veronica Mars was always much more than just Buffy P.I.. Approaching issues such as race and class with the same wry intelligence she brought to bear on rape, murder, and missing monkeys, Veronica tracked her teen noir lineage all the way back to Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia and Winona Ryder in Heathers.
Sadly, Veronica’s third season was her weakest by far. If the leap from high school to college was unkind to Buffy, it was doubly so for VM. Other than V herself, of all the “teenage” characters only ex-con Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra) seemed to make the leap intact, landing a job as a college janitor. Worse, the writing became lackluster. At times it seemed Thomas was trying to turn VM into Grey’s Anatomy (though he was unable to make an unfeasible romance even mildly interesting). Despite the always strong Bell, Colantoni, and Capra, the choice of guest stars frequently provoked more conversation than the plots. Patty Hearst’s appearance as a disappearing heiress echoed Hilton’s in Season One. And Laura San Giacomo as Keith’s love interest proved only that short bald Italian men age better than cute Italian vixens. Just shoot her.
The third season had no ongoing mystery, and was much the poorer for it. A serial rape investigation linked the first nine episodes but rarely proved compelling (worse, the storyline often trivialised the crime). The murder of Dean Cyrus O’Dell (Ed Begley Jr.) dawdled haplessly across the following six episodes. Viewers were so underwhelmed that when VM was sent on an eight-week hiatus to make room for The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll, many feared the worst. As it turned out, VM did indeed return, but apparently only because So You Think You’re Smarter Than a Crack Ho ran into production difficulties. Sadly, the remaining episodes had me wondering if this was a good thing or not.
“Un-American Graffiti” was little more than an extended sequence of public service announcements linked by an occasionally neat one-liner and a whole stinking heap of sterile “romance”. What did we learn today, children? Racism is bad, mmmkay. Tolerance is good. Underage drinking is bad. Oh, and girls develop faster than boys and have “higher levels of cognitive functioning, including math calculation, written language, and verbal fluency.” Mmmkay.
“The Debasement Tapes” plumbed both new depths and new shallows. The headline mystery featured a has-been rock star (Paul Rudd) who inadvertently swapped bags with a drunk. The subplot revolved around a website called Grade My Ass. I could say more, but then I’d have to kill myself. “I Know What You’ll Do Next Summer” rushed us straight back to Worthyworld. This time our theme was child soldiers in Africa and the charity Invisible Children. If only the episode had been as worthy as its cause. Sadly, however, it supported my growing suspicion that VM‘s writers had already checked out of Mars Mansions, and that a small group of script monkeys had been dragged in off the street and told not to bother their pretty little monkey heads with such abstract concerns as continuity or quality. Worst. Episode. Ever.
Two episodes closed the series on 22 May. “Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down” featured politics in the workplace, politics in the community, and the little man getting shafted in both. Not to mention recurring scenes and themes from previous seasons, a nod to Paris Hilton’s many sex tapes, V’s Bad Boy Ex beating the crap out of her Rebound Nice Guy, rich students setting up ex-con janitors to take the fall for their capers, Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) getting his first proper lines of the season, and a series of inexplicable references to The Office. Best of all, following the longest sequence of product placements ever seen outside a big budget Sci-Fi movie (Veronica Mars uses a Venus razor, drives a Saturn hybrid, and I can’t think of a joke about Uranus), we get the throwaway line, “Rob Thomas is a whore”. It was ostensibly a reference to a Matchbox 20 reunion, but…
The final episode, “The Bitch Is Back” took us all the way back to the heart of Veronica Mars. When Best Friend Forever Wallace (Percy Daggs III) was testing his engineering course project, a remote control plane, it was a clear reference to the pilot, when he flew a remote control plane on the Neptune beach. Similarly, when Veronica’s BBX turned up at her door all bloodied from his encounter with her RNG, it was a direct echo of the opening of Season Two. In the pilot, BBX was beaten up by Weevil and forced to apologize to Veronica for vandalizing her car. In “The Bitch Is Back”, he was the one beating an apology out of the student responsible for the Veronica Mars Sex Tape. In both cases, Veronica’s reply was the same: “I don’t want his apology”. There, right there, is the heart of Veronica Mars. She’s not interested in apologies. She’s driven by a nihilistic need for action and payback.
Once more cast as the town slut, Veronica was scorned by her peers both because of the sex tape and because her father, sheriff again, was having trouble keeping his job, again. This time, however, Keith wasn’t just being forced from office by Neptune’s corrupt powerbrokers. He shot himself in both feet and the palms of his hands, stigmata-style, by resurrecting the old magnet-in-the-evidence-room ploy to erase a recording (nonsexual) of his daughter busy at burglary. Most viewers focused on the love affair between Veronica and her BBX Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) as the pivotal relationship in VM. Really, though, it was all about Veronica and Keith. And beyond that, about parents, children, and the myriad ways they can fuck each other up.
The final scenes of Veronica Mars offered no sense of closure. Rather, we were left with the sense we’d been denied a genuinely thrilling fourth season based on a newly discovered all-powerful Skulls-West called The Castle. Subplots would have included a potential Russian mob hit on Logan, a new sheriff deep in the pockets of both the resident Irish mob and The Castle, Weevil’s imminent return to crime, Veronica and Logan’s continuing off-on relationship, and, of course, the uncertain future of Keith Mars. From lawman to jailbird?
It’s possible Thomas may take some of these ideas and run with them in movie form, following Whedon’s Firefly-Serenity model. There’s also been talk of sending Veronica off to the FBI Academy. I wouldn’t hold my breath for either. Having proved herself TV’s Voiceover Queen, Bell will be back on the CW later this year, narrating Gossip Girl, an adaptation of Cecily von Ziegesar’s books that will turn out to be The O.C. meets the Gilmore Girls in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Pussycat LLC’s will be searching again for fresh pussy in the fall and Bones will continue until hell freezes over or David Boreanaz learns how to act, whichever comes first.
As Veronica Mars walked down Southern California’s rainy streets and off our screens for the very last time, the point seemed emphatically clear and killingly accurate. Life’s a bitch until you die.