The Veronica Mars movie is out today. It's a strange thing to talk about. Every piece about it, including this one apparently, must talk about how it only happened because fans of the original Veronica Mars television show went on Kickstarter and supported it. So it was never designed to be an independent cultural product. The chief imperative was to Give the Fans What They Want.
What's the relationship between what the fans want and what the general public might want? The original program, about an uber-sarcastic girl detective in a rich-people California town, was relatively low-rated, after all, and it was canceled way back in 2007.
But Veronica Mars happened to be one of the best things this Golden Age of television ever produced, in my opinion, even if that is still not as widely shared an opinion as my fellow fans and I might like it to be. Partly it was doomed by its time and place of origin to miss most people's list of Great TV Shows. It ran on the CW and its predecessor, UPN, not on HBO or Showtime or the other aspiring-auteur networks, and it aired long before our present era of Taking Television Seriously and Writing Review-Essays About It in the New York Review of Books.
The movie would probably do more to remedy that if it could survive as a standalone, something you could take an ignorant friend to as a gateway drug. Unfortunately, the same fans-as-patrons movement that made the movie happen also limited its outreach potential. So, I mean, yes, I've seen the movie, and yes, as designed, it did elicit every bit of affection I have for the show. But it did that without attending much to the questions of plot and dialogue and whether this was really a story that needed to be told, as a story.
In other words: I could see, watching it, that this movie doesn't itself make much of a case for the greatness of the cultural event that was Veronica Mars. So—with the show currently available on Amazon Prime, in addition to the usual illegal sources, for those who might be ready to discover it—let me give it a shot.
The crucial thing to understand was that everything and nothing about Veronica Mars was about high school. We have had enough depictions of high school in popular culture to last us a lifetime. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life: All cast the same hook into the old wounds of adolescence.
Or, for what seems like an awful lot of people, the not-so-old wounds. This was the advantage Veronica Mars had over their other shows. It knew that one of the more frustrating lessons of adult life is that in many ways the intense stratification of high school never really ends. This was a show about high school that was talking to the grown-ups who still feel stuck and angry.
The "teen noir" conceit of Veronica Mars meant that from the get-go, the problems facing Veronica (Kristen Bell) weren't really about popularity. As outcasts go, when the series opens, she's relatively new to the status. To use the phraseology of another great tale of high school, The Outsiders, she was a Soc who very suddenly found herself a Greaser. And as such, the dislike her classmates have for her has less to do with her outfits than with class and violence and power. Not in the implied sort of way that a generation of cultural-studies majors have spent years unearthing and arguing in academic essays. The subtext is text, here.
The backbone of the first season of Veronica Mars is a murder mystery: Veronica—whose father is a newly deposed county sheriff turned private investigator—is looking for the killer of her best friend Lilly. The death explodes Veronica previous life. The murder investigation brings Veronica's father down, drives her unstable mother to disappear in the night, breaks her up with her stable-if-sort-of-boring boyfriend. To make matters worse, not long after Lilly's death, Veronica is herself drugged and likely raped. All this becomes clear within the first episode.
From there the series never really got less violent or less driven by stories of sexual assault. What continued to ratchet up the stakes for Veronica over the course of the first two seasons was the way the violence became more and more clearly entangled with official corruption in the town she was living in.
Veronica Mars's setting in the fictional, Orange County-ish Neptune, California, meant that the show's palette was all sunshine and candy colors, styled not unlike a catalog for a line of teen girl clothing. But underneath all is dark, and everyone is out for themselves. If sometimes this makes the plot byzantine, the interconnectedness of all the suffering has a wonderful way of saying, graduation won't end this. It won't.
Does all that sound too cynical? Unrealistically so? I guess I am tired after years of debating culture on the internet of addressing this question of whether life is really like it is in the movies, so to speak. There are nuances in Veronica Mars. Not all the adults are bad—Veronica's father, Keith (Enrico Colatoni), qualifies for sainthood on an episode-by-episode basis. Some people even change. Even the most boorish, untrustworthy, violent of Veronica's classmates, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) eventually morphs into an excellent boyfriend. Other people, just as in life, don't learn a thing, go on being the clichés they really are, right through college and into the grave. That's close enough to reality for me.
It's important to stick to those first two seasons in making the argument for Veronica Mars because the third loses this thread, somehow. Veronica herself graduates high school and there is something about removing the characters from that setting that always hurts these shows. The world outside high school at least likes to tell itself it's more chaotic, loose, disconnected. Without the hypocrisy-in-microcosm of Neptune High, the hypocrisy of a college, or of the town proper, just didn't pack the same punch.
The only reason to watch the third season is because by then you've become addicted to Veronica herself. Usually in these genre shows the sidekicks have a better claim on the audience's affection than the hero, but not so in Veronica's case. Her quips are wonderful, but they are not the whole appeal either. They are a lovely dress on a very bruised and angry sort of person. Because Veronica, like all the other creatures on her show, is not left unmarked by all she's seen. Trauma does not conclude at the end of the hour. And the nicest thing I can say about the Veronica Mars movie, without spoiling it one bit, is that it turns out she's still surviving everything that happened to her.
In that, I think, is the series' actual brilliance. Even before Dan Savage formalized the phrase, we have long been fond of telling high school students that it "gets better." When I was a kid, and people told me this, I thought they meant that people in adult life would be kinder, nicer, less driven by arbitrary sorts of status. But I wish we'd make it clearer to kids that the way it actually "gets better" is that you just get used to the idea that cruelty is a given. The edge gets duller. You learn that even some of the most egregious forms of it are survivable. You learn there are things that can keep you off the floor: a good dad, good friends. And if you are the kind of person who has none of those things, at least you can take some comfort, in a very profound way, from a good television show like Veronica Mars.