Good Reading, Good Viewing: ‘Investigating Veronica Mars’

Rhonda V. Wilcox and Sue Turnbull have collected a group of fine group of essays in Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series. Created by Rob Thomas and starring Kristen Bell in the title role, the series ran from 2004-2006 on UPN and then 2006-2007 on the CW. Many people have not bothered to watch the show, finding its conceit of a diminutive blonde female who sidelines as a detective to be too silly to take seriously. Those who have watched it, however, know that it was one of the most sharply written series of recent years, one that goes into some truly dark places, fully justifying the idea of the show as high school noir.

There has been one previous book on Veronica Mars, one of considerable importance due to the short pieces that Thomas wrote for it as well as a few of the essays, but for those wanting to engage the series on a deeper level it was not particularly interesting. A need for a group of serious essays on the series persisted.

Veronica herself is one of TV’s better creations. When the CW began its advertising campaign for its rookie season, it did so by displaying its various shows on bill boards. The one for Veronica Mars consisted of a close up photo of Bell with the words, “Dare to Be…Fearless.” And that did indeed get to the heart of Veronica’s character. She was fearless.

Not that she was perfect. As many of the essays in this collection note, she was frequently wrong. She was a tad too vindictive. She was too unbending. Yet she was also clearly someone we wish we were like. As Tanya Cochran writes, “She is the character many of us want to be: strong and determined, smart and savvy enough to pursue justice for herself and others along the way” (p. 176).

One of the explicit goals of the book is to make the case for Veronica Mars as canonical television. In this I believe the authors succeed, and I would like to take a second to reflect on why this is important and why, precisely, the collection succeeds in making the case for the series as part of the still developing canon.

If one goes back to, say, 1985, the textual analysis of TV was virtually nonexistent. Most writing about television focused on fandom—as shown by many essays on Star Trek fans—or its status as a medium. Classics on TV such as Jane Feuer’s Viewing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism or Raymond Williams’s Television provided many insights on television as a medium, but neither spent much time analyzing the actual content of individual shows. No doubt part of the reason was that few TV series invited textual analysis. This is not the place to explore in depth why the textual analysis of television exploded in the ’90s, but I think that Twin Peaks, at least in its first season, paved the way for television with significant ongoing narrative. Prior to 1990 there were too few shows with adequate content to allow for in-depth textual analysis, even for the best shows of the time, such as Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and China Beach.

Shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Babylon Five, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer provided rich narratives that make textual analysis more than a trivial exercise. There was not a great deal to be said about the relatively thin narratives of L. A. Law, but there was for The X-Files. This capability for in-depth textual analysis is crucial, because the ability to talk meaningfully about a show is, I believe, the fundamental criterion for canonicity.

In his An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis argued against the idea of dividing literature into “good” and “bad” books, as qualities that somehow adhered themselves to a book or poem as an essential quality. Instead, he argued that books and poems and dramas should be assessed by whether they can be read well, whether they invite good readers. The poems of John Donne (Lewis wrote his book at a time when Donne’s critical reputation was lower than it is today) invite good reading, which is characterized by activities like frequent rereading, memorization, thoughtful analysis, concern over a poem’s structure, and debates with others about one or another aspect of the poem. A poem in a greeting card cannot inspire these kinds of activities.

I bring this up became I believe that the kinds of activities that Lewis identifies as “good reading” are seen in this volume with regard to Veronica Mars. The series inspires good viewing. Moreover, it here inspires good writing. The case for the canonicity of the series is laid down here by multiple highly intelligent, diligent, and penetrating analyses of the series as text.

Most of the essays in the anthology reflect two of the major concerns of the series: sexual violence against women and children on the one hand, and class issues on the other. In the series’ pilot we hear the arresting words from Veronica’s narration: “Want to know how I lost my virginity? So would I.” She then tells of waking up at a party sans underwear, realizing that she had been drugged and raped. Sexual violence is not limited to that, as the show recounts incidents of child molestation, of adult males having sex with under-aged teen girls, and, in a long Season Three arc, serial rape.

Few shows have dealt with sexual violation to the degree that Veronica Mars did, and it’s interesting that its last season was on the CW, a network that currently shows Gossip Girl, a show in which one of the central relationships involves what is by any clinical standard an abusive relationship. Veronica Mars always acknowledged abuse as abuse. (Interestingly, Bell, who played Veronica, provides the voiceovers of Gossip Girl herself, while the actress who plays the abused female on Gossip Girl, Leighton Meester, appeared on two episodes of Season One of Veroncia Mars, both episodes about the sexual abuse of women.)

Most anthologies have stronger and weaker essays, but here the essays are uniformly strong. The first three—the introduction by Wilcox and Turnbull, an overview essay by David Lavery, and an essay by Turnbull on the acting issues on the show—are more general in nature, outlining the major aspects of the show. Even if you are a veteran fan of the show, there is nonetheless a great deal that is helpful here.

For example, I had always told people that the show was influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all, Veronica seems like Buffy in many ways: small, blonde, very pretty, fearless, and yet despite all this not having an ideal high school experience. Veronica is a superhero whose power is that she is smarter than everyone else. I was, therefore, fascinated to read in David Lavery’s piece that Thomas only started watching Buffy after Veronica Mars was being broadcast, and then may not have finished watching all of it. So the one show actually had very little influence on the other, despite the appearance of several Whedonverse actors, including Joss Whedon himself.

There are several essays on family relationships, including Wilcox’s on “So Cal Pietà: Veronica Mars, Logan Echolls, and the Search for the Mother”; an essay entitled “Who’s Your Daddy?”: Issues of Fatherhood,” written by the daughter-father team of Sarah A. Leavitt and Lewis A. Leavitt; and Stan Beeler’s essay “Family Matters: Antigone, Veronica, and the Classical Greek Paradigm.” Many if not most television series have dealt with family issues, but these issues highlight how Veronica Mars manages to do so in ways rarely seen before. Families on the series seem more sinister, more threatening than on other series, without resorting to melodrama. Most of the family relationships on the show are somehow twisted, deformed, dysfunctional.

But not all. In the midst of all the unhealthy relationships, we also get one of the finest parent-child relationships on TV—one that I, as a single-parent of a daughter have especially loved—that between Veronica and her father Keith. Things are not always perfect between them: Veronica lies to Keith, Keith disappoints Veronica, but ultimately they exhibit one of the most delightful parent-child relationships on TV, and the finest father-daughter one.

Tammy Burnett and Melissa Townshend examine Veronica’s predilection for getting even rather than mad in “Rethinking ‘The Getting Even Part’: Feminist Anger and Vigilante Justice in a Post-9/11 America” while Paul Zinder looks at the revenge angle from a Joseph Campbell perspective in “‘Get My Revenge On’: The Anti-Hero’s Journey.” I enjoyed the former essay though I must confess that even after reading it I don’t see the post-9/11 aspects of the show the essay identifies.

I had far more trouble with the Campbell essay. I’mm not convinced that Campbell has ever been particularly helpful in understanding any narratives. I find the resemblances he notes between various heroic (or anti-heroic) narratives to be so trivial as to be unhelpful. Primarily they demonstrate that you can take Campbell’s template of the hero’s journey and map it onto any character you can come up with. But fans of Campbell—and I grant that there are man—may find this essay to be more helpful.

I thoroughly enjoyed, however, the final four essays. Lisa Emmerton writes interestingly about how and why a show superficially directed at one age group can appeal to others. I most assuredly am not a part of the show’s target audience, yet I count it among my favorite shows. Sophie Mayer’s “‘We Used to be Friends’: Breaking Up with America’s Sweetheart” is a fascinating exploration of the way the show both plays off of and engages with other depictions of teen girls. While many of the essayists touch upon issues of rape, Sarah Whitney’s does so at length in “‘No Longer That Girl’” Rape and Narrative and Meaning in Veronica Mars.” Finally, Cochran writes in “Neptune (Non-)Consensual: The Risky Business of Television Fandom, Falling in Love, and Playing the Victim” of many of the experiences many Veronica fans underwent when the series was cancelled.

This is a model for what TV studies should be like, both in its focus on the subject and for the case it makes for the excellence of this particular series. It will be a valuable addition to any student of television or fans of Veronica Mars that would like to study their show on a more analytical level.

RATING 8 / 10