Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars aired its final two episodes on 22 May. Viewers who haven’t obsessively followed the ups and downs of the girl detective’s fortunes over the past year might not have realized that the episodes constituted a series, not a season, finale. Written and produced long before the cancellation decision came down, they reflect Rob Thomas’ vow that he wouldn’t tie up all loose ends and make it easy for the CW to cut the show off.

“Weevils Wobble But They Don’t Go Down” and “The Bitch is Back” didn’t share a main storyline, just subplots. For the final five episodes of this season, Thomas and company abandoned multi-episode mystery arcs in favor of standalone mysteries (Veronica Mars always used such weekly cases, but sometimes de-emphasized them in the manner of the “monster of the week” episodes of The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer). “Weevils” and especially “Bitch” were vintage Veronica, fast-paced, funny, and well plotted. They offered no unofficial goodbye, like 2000’s lovely Freaks and Geeks finale. Instead, the final shot of “Bitch” — Veronica walking solemnly through the California rain on election day — wasn’t aiming for closure at all, but building a bridge to the next phase of her life. And the CW hasn’t yet called these episodes the absolute end. With promos trumpeting a “season finale,” the network appeared to be hedging its bets.

So Veronica‘s third and bumpiest season came to shoulder the burden of wrap-up. This after it had already been saddled with several format changes. First, the plan was to do three shorter mystery arcs rather than the all-encompassing season-long mysteries of yore; the third arc was then scuttled in favor of the five stand-alones; and after filming had finished, there was talk of a fourth season that would jump ahead several years to Veronica’s early days in the FBI academy.

None of these is necessarily a bad idea. The problem was the lack of a clear choice made among them. As it sought to be more “accessible,” the series was occasionally awkward, especially when the MOTW material faltered. Two episodes (“Witchita Linebacker” and “There’s Got to Be a Morning-After Pill”) even ended with almost the same quasi-surprise culprit, a trusted ally of the victim. Such unexciting solutions underlined the loss of the show’s rich noir trappings when Veronica’s move from Neptune to the sunny Hearst College campus.

Still, an uneven season of Veronica Mars only means that maybe a third of the episodes were terrific, and the rest were merely enjoyable, clever, and stylish. (Match that, Lost.) And it yielded many highlights: Keith’s near-death experience, leading to a torrid affair in “Hi, Infidelity”; Veronica’s trust “issues” so vigorously tested by an insanely hopeful girlfriend in “Of Vice and Men”; the suspenseful capture of the Hearst rapist in “Spit and Eggs”; and Paul Rudd as a soused rocker in “Debasement Tapes.” Under pressure, the show demonstrated flexibility, both a willingness to please the suits and an ability to entertain on terms different from the first two seasons. These included attention to new characters: tart heart-to-hearts between Veronica and Mac (Tina Majorino) became an almost weekly occurrence, culminating with Veronica’s realization in “Weevils,” as they stood in line for frozen yogurt, that she was “totally a girl.”

In the finale, Veronica discovered that a sex video of her and new boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) was circulating on the internet; she went on a vengeful rampage, trying to track down the original distributor (her ex, Logan [Jason Dohring], preferred to rampage directly against Piz, whom he assumed was guilty). Veronica’s investigation led to a perfectly class-conscious, college-related subplot, involving a Skull-and-Bones-like secret society of privileged rich men, initiating promising freshmen into their ranks.

Back home in Neptune, Veronica continued to confront a similar network, in the finale working against her father’s Keith’s (Enrico Colantoni) campaign for sheriff. By episode’s end, his rival, fellow PI Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), seemed assured of winning, a result that seemed weirdly appropriate: the sleazy Van Lowe seemed able to unite Neptune’s shiny veneer with its seedy underbelly once and for all. It also looked forward to a crackling Season Four, if only more people had been watching Seasons One through Three.

Season Three actually drew the series’ biggest numbers, at least in the fall. But all three seasons have done okay (by UPN/CW standards) in the fall and pretty lousy in the spring. Even absent a season-long mystery arc, the series could’ve benefited mightily from the kind of nonstop scheduling 24 has enjoyed and Lost will be adapting for the remainder of its run.

Like many of the best network shows, Veronica seemed just a little bit ahead of its time, the kind of DVD boxed set that will be passed around for years. (The show has already inspired a book of thoughtful essays called Neptune Noir, published just in time for the cancellation.) At least Veronica benefited from what seems like a new practice, such that critically beloved, cult shows with miniscule audiences can now run for three low-rated seasons instead of one (RIP, Arrested Development). Maybe it’s progress. Maybe someday the networks, not the shows, will be looking for ways to demonstrate their flexibility, and a show like Veronica Mars will last five or six seasons, matching the According to Jims of the world.

For now, my season’s wrap-up has been turned into a series appreciation, just as “Bitch” became a grand finale by default. There is so much to love about the show — Kristen Bell’s grinning take on the cynical gumshoe; the mix of sun and seediness; the strong, almost strange father-daughter bond — that I’ll mention just one impressive achievement. In creating Veronica Mars, Thomas opened up a whole world, a fake California town as vivid as Buffy’s Sunnydale. Neptune, the “town without a middle class,” was home to movie stars and their spoiled children, a biker gang, a branch of the Irish mafia, surfers, at least two private investigators, and a whole lot of simmering class tensions. Veronica often professed to hate Neptune, but she was undoubtedly from there; the writers were especially smart about how hometowns can shape us, whether we know it or not.

Even when she was off at college, Veronica’s life was informed by her previous experiences, and even as the show came to an end, Thomas reached back to Neptune for fresh conflict. Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), returned as the head of that secret society, may have been cleared of his daughter’s murder back in Season One, but that doesn’t make him a nice guy. When Veronica nicked Kane’s hard-drive in an attempt to bring the distributor of her video to justice and Keith attempted a little cover-up, Kane made certain that no Mars transgression would go unnoticed.

And so it was, as usual, Veronica and Keith against a stacked deck: scrappy, tenacious, and mutually supportive, but not in the clear. Before her melancholy walk in the rain, Veronica told her dad, “You know I love you, right? More than anything.” “Of course, honey,” said Keith. “I never doubt it.” Neither do we, guys.