“A Long Time Ago, We Used To Be Friends”: Veronica Mars
Warning; there are some spoilers here for the show Veronica Mars (though not the movie).
I have long been of the opinion it’s unfair to blame a movie (TV show, novel, album/group/singer) for the rip-offs that come in its wake. What William Goldman wrote about Hollywood over 30 years ago – “Nobody knows anything” applies equally well to the TV business and music business (as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, the publishing business). The Powers That Be only know what has worked (or is currently working), and they naturally jump on trends in the hopes it can work for themselves, without realizing it was the alchemy of talent and material that made the originals so well in the first place (The Powers are generally, of course, business people and not creative people). But while, for example, Psycho helped usher in both the slasher genre and was arguably the first “B” movie made with “A”-list talent (long before Jaws and Star Wars got blamed for that), those aspects don’t change the fact it’s still a terrific film. Similarly, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have inspired shows (and books) such as Vampire Diaries and movie (and book) franchises such as the Twilight series that are (in my opinion, anyway) markedly inferior), that doesn’t change the fact it was, at its best, a terrific show (I hope to explore both the highs and lows of the show at a later date). Also, just as some of the works inspired by Psycho have been good (the original Halloween), there was one (unfortunately) short-lived show partly inspired by Buffy (though radically different in many ways) that turned out to be good. That show was Veronica Mars.
As show creator Rob Thomas (not to be confused with the Matchbox 20 singer) would say in interviews, Veronica’s “superpower”, as it were, was unlike just about every other teenager in the world, she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about her, and that was remarkably freeing. Of course, when you had a backstory like hers, it was easy to understand why. Once upon a time, Veronica had what was a pretty good life. Her family wasn’t the richest in town – which mattered in a town like Neptune, California, where the rich kids (known as the “09ers”, having to do with their zip code) ruled the school (Neptune High) like their parents ruled the town – but it wasn’t bad. Her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) was the sheriff, which gave her a certain cachet, and it also helped her boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn) and her best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) were the children of Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), head of Kane Software and the richest man in town. Then, during Veronica’s sophomore year, it all fell apart. Lily was murdered, her father assumed Jake did it, for which Jake had him kicked out of office, her mom Lianne (Corrine Bohrer) started drinking more and then left, Duncan broke up with her (it happened before Lily’s murder), her friends abandoned her when she chose to stand by Keith, and when she went to an 09er party and took a sip from the wrong drink, she woke up the next morning to discover she had been raped (as she said in the pilot, “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I”). Veronica had always been intelligent, but she went from being open and somewhat naive to closed off (except for Keith, their dog Back-up, and her rare friends, like Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino)), bitter, and sarcastic.
Fortunately, she found an outlet for her bitterness outside of school. Keith had become a private investigator, and though Veronica may have started out just answering phones and doing paperwork for her father, she soon became a private eye of her own. During the first season of the show, she solved all sorts of minor cases – finding a boy’s long-lost father (“Meet John Smith”, Episode 3), trying to find out who framed her for dealing in fake ID’s (“Clash of the Tritons”, Episode 12), and helping a classmate find her missing dog (“Hot Dogs”, Episode 19) – but Lily’s murder was foremost on her mind (with finding her mother and finding out who raped her close behind). This became especially true when she found out the man in jail for the crime – Abel Koontz (Christian Clemonsen), a disgruntled former employee at Kane Software – was in fact innocent, and had been paid off by Jake to confess. While the sheriff, Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) was indifferent to the case (as well as her rape), and Keith had seemingly given up (though that turned out to not be the case), Veronica pressed on, and eventually found the real killer; Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin), a movie star, and father of Logan (Jason Dohring), Lily’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. It turned out Aaron had been sleeping with Lily, but panicked when he found out Lily had (a) discovered a hidden camera in his bedroom, and (b) had taken tapes of the two of them having sex, and accidentally killed her while trying to get them back (Duncan had discovered Lily’s body, and because he had a history of epileptic fits, Jake assumed Duncan had accidentally killed Lily during a fit, and therefore covered up the crime).
Veronica was less successful in her other quests. In “A Trip to the Dentist”, the penultimate episode of the season (and, in my opinion, the best), she discovered she had basically been raped by the 09er culture in general; she’d been given a drink with GHB in it, was passed around and fed shots, taken to a bedroom, and then had sex with Duncan (there happened to be more to the story, which I’ll get to in a bit), which freaked him out because he thought, since Jake and Leanne had been cheating with each other and were an item in high school, that he and Veronica were brother and sister (that turned out to not be the case), which is why he had broken up with her in the first place. And while Veronica checked Lianne into a rehab center, and she eventually came home, it turned out Lianne hadn’t quite kicked alcohol yet, and when Veronica found out, she kicked her mother out. Still, Veronica did solve the murder, and through that case and her other cases, exposed a lot of the hypocrisy of the haves of Neptune (though that wasn’t the only place she found hypocrisy; for example, in “Hot Dogs”, she discovered two workers at an animal shelter had kidnapped 09er dogs to ransom them off). We also had the strong bond of Veronica’s relationships with Keith and Wallace, even if they were both exasperated with her at times (Mac would appear more in the subsequent seasons). For many fans of the show, there was also Veronica’s relationship with Logan; what started out as hatred (in the pilot, Veronica described her as the school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass”) changed to grudging respect and then to, of all things, love (Logan/Veronica shippers were overjoyed when they finally kissed each other in “Weapons of Class Destruction”, Episode 18). Overall, it was a terrific first season.
Season 2 was problematic for many fans, but it certainly can’t be accused of lack of ambition. The main plotline involved a school bus crash that killed several students. Logan was accused of killing a member of the PCHers, a bicycle gang, and in an unlikely yet entertaining pairing, worked together with Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), the head of the gang, to try and find out who was really responsible for the murder. The one student who survived the bus crash, Meg Manning (Alona Tal), one of the few 09er students who was friendly to Veronica in the first season, was pregnant with Duncan’s baby, and when Meg eventually died, and pleaded with Veronica not to let Meg’s overly strict parents gain custody, Duncan and Veronica arranged to take the baby, and Duncan fled to Mexico with it. Wallace found out his biological father was really alive. He also had an on-again, off-again relationship with Jackie (Tessa Thompson), another student who was more than she seemed. Neptune’s new mayor, Woody Goodman (Steve Gutenberg), was pushing for the town to be incorporated, which would set up a bigger wall between the haves and have nots. And oh yes, Aaron was being tried for murdering Lily, but thanks to the fact he manufactured evidence (and Logan destroyed the sex tapes so they wouldn’t end up on the Internet), and his lawyer implied (a) Duncan was the real killer and (b) it was Veronica and Keith who planted evidence, Aaron was found not guilty. And I’m not even mentioning the Fitzpatricks, the Irish gang in the center of things. When all the dust settled, it turned out Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas (Kyle Gallner), son of crooked businessman Richard Casablancas (who fled the country when his real estate scam was exposed), was responsible for the bus crash; he blew up the bus so the fact Woody had molested him and other kids on the bus when he was their Little League coach would never come out (on top of all that, it turned out he had actually raped Veronica in “A Trip to the Dentist”). He also appeared to have killed Keith (though that turned out to not be the case), and ended up killing himself when he was exposed (he was about to kill Veronica when Logan rescued her). And if that wasn’t enough, Aaron ended up getting killed by Jake’s security head Clarence Wiedman (Christopher B. Duncan), in a hit ordered by Duncan.
That’s a lot of plot for one season, and it felt unwieldy at times, with a lot of what seemed like retconning going on. Not only that, but despite the fact Veronica originally thought she was the one targeted by the bus crash (a man who had been at a vigil for the victims, and turned up dead later with her name written on his hand, turned out to be Aaron’s stuntman double), it seemed like there was a lack of urgency on her part to solve it (her investigation into Lily’s murder also didn’t really kick into high gear until a few episodes in, but that could be explained by the way she was stonewalled at almost every turn). And while I admittedly didn’t feel that way at the time, giving us a whole different take on Veronica’s rape seemed wrongheaded. Still, a lot of it did feel satisfying, and if anything, the show’s take on the divide between the haves and have-nots of Neptune became even darker than before.
Despite getting critical raves and a loyal and rabid fan base, the show had always struggled in ratings, and seemed on the brink of cancellation. UPN, the network that broadcast the show for the first two seasons, merged with the WB and formed the CW, which ended up broadcasting the show’s third and final season. It’s another season I liked overall despite its flaws, but there were more of those. For starters, most (if not all) high school set shows stumble when the characters go off to college, and this show was no exception, though for a different reason; part of Veronica’s appeal was that she was an outcast who nevertheless triumphed, and something seemed off when she no longer wasn’t (some fans complained her brusque nature, perfectly understandable in high school, became less so in this context). What’s worse, the CW marketed it as a relationship show (to cross-promote it with Gilmore Girls, which Veronica Mars served as a lead-in for in both shows’ final seasons), and interfered with the show to live up to its marketing, which seemed to go against the idea of the show in the first place. Also, instead of a season-long arc, the season was divided into a couple of mini-arcs. Finally, while regulars such as Wallace and Mac seemed to get short shrift at times, characters such as Dick (Ryan Hansen), Cassidy’s loutish older brother, seemed to dominate for no good reason (and in a startling twist, Lamb was killed off for reasons that were never clear).
Still, there were satisfying elements; the first mystery arc, where Veronica tried to find out who had been raping women on campus, was especially compelling. And the open-ended finale – where Veronica had been humiliated thanks to a tape of her and her then-boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), discovered a secret college society similar to Skull & Bones had been responsible, and exposed them, which unfortunately inadvertently wrecked Keith’s chances at becoming sheriff again (he had been temporarily appointed when Lamb was murdered) – while leaving a number of loose ends, got the show back to its noir roots. I wasn’t as sad as I would have been if the show had been cancelled after season 1 or 2, but it was still a shame to see a (mostly) smart and funny show fall by the wayside.
While Thomas and Bell both moved on to other high profile projects (Thomas created Party Down and attempted to revive Cupid, a show he did before Veronica Mars, but neither project lasted that long, while Bell rotated between TV (Gossip Girl, House of Lies) and movies (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Scream 4, Frozen)), both of them apparently thought there was more to Veronica’s story that could be told, and fans had been calling for something more as well. Finally, in 2013, Thomas convinced Warner Brothers (the studio that produced the show) to distribute a film if enough fan interest on Kickstarter was shown, and as we all know, Thomas’ fundraising goal was met and exceeded (the goal was $2 million, and fan backers raised nearly three times that). I have no idea how it will play for non-fans; as for whether or not it’ll satisfy the hardcore base, I’d say that depends on what kind of fan you are.
The movie picks up nine years after the series left off. Veronica, who transferred to Stanford after her freshman year, went on to Columbia Law School and is now interviewing at law firms (Jamie Lee Curtis, who co-starred with Bell in You Again, plays a partner at one such firm). She’s also gotten back together with Piz, who works for Ira Glass (who cameos as himself). But all of that changes when Logan calls and asks for help (even though she gave up being a private eye). Currently flying planes for the Navy, Logan had recently been going out with Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, of the band Twin Sister, replacing Leighton Meester, who had played the character on “Mars vs. Mars” and “A Trip to the Dentist”), now a pop star under the name Bonnie DeVille. When Carrie is found dead in her bathroom, and Logan is found out passed out there, Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O’Connell), Don’s brother, arrests Logan for murder. Veronica ostensibly goes back just to help Logan find a good lawyer (Eddie Jemison plays one of the lawyers they interview), but she gets dragged back both into the case (once she finds out there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye) and into Logan’s orbit, despite her better instincts on both.
Along with the noir setting, and the mysteries (both season-long arcs and episode-long ones), one of the strengths of the show was the large group of characters Veronica interacted with, and for the most part, Thomas and Diane Ruggiero (who was a staff writer on the show, and co-wrote the movie with Thomas) handle that part well. Arguably, the most important relationship on the show was between Veronica and Keith – who’s back as a private eye – and Bell and Colantoni pick up right where they left off. Even though there’s plenty she doesn’t tell him (both in the past and in this movie), and even though he’s disappointed she seems to be giving up her potential life in New York City to, as he puts it, “get dragged in the muck of Neptune”, they remain as much best friends as father and daughter, and convince us of that yet again. Wallace and Mac are sort of the odd characters out in the noir universe of Neptune (even if, for example, Wallace found out his biological dad was still alive (Season 2’s “Green-Eyed Monster” and “Blast From the Past”), and Mac bilked 09er kids by posting a purity test online and charging for the results (Season 1’s “Like a Virgin”)), but they both still have solid roles in the story (Wallace is a coach and teacher at Neptune High, so of course Veronica ropes him into getting a school file for her, and she also asks Mac – who now works at Kane Software because of the pay – for tech help), and Daggs and Majorino also pick up right where they left off with Bell.
Both of them end up dragging Veronica to their 10-year high school reunion, where she runs into many of the other characters, including Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret), who remains Veronica’s bete noir, Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter), Woody’s daughter (she claims to have gotten over what happened with her father), and Weevil, who is now married, with a daughter, and owns his own shop. Dick, of course, is living with Logan and is as loutish as ever (he keeps a flask in his belt buckle), though at least he’s important to the story this time. And the non-high school characters are also handled well. When Veronica gets arrested for breaking and entering, who else would show up as her lawyer but Cliff McCormack (Daran Norris)? Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield), a former Neptune deputy and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend (before Logan), is now a detective in San Diego, and Veronica goes to him for information about the case, which not only deals with Thomas’ proposed fourth season for the show (where Veronica would have worked for the FBI), but also has an amusing callback to his and Veronica’s first meeting. Finally, who else but Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), sleazy private eye, would be involved in taking scandalous videos crucial to the case?
Another element of the show, consistent with its noir universe, was Veronica’s voiceover, which continues in the movie. Sometimes in the show, because of budget constraints, Thomas was forced to use it for unnecessary exposition, but for the most part, he’s able to avoid that in the movie. And while Veronica, at the beginning of the movie, claims to have grown as a person (“People say I’m a marshmallow”; a nod to both the fans, which call themselves that, and to what Wallace called her in the pilot), the other habit she falls back into (aside from solving cases and being with Logan) is her sarcastic front. She, of course, isn’t the only one who snarks – even Piz, who comes to the reunion thanks to Mac and Wallace, says of the craziness he sees, “(Neptune High) actually does sit on a Hellmouth” – but Veronica, as usual, gets the choicest quips. For me, the highlight of the trailer – both the Comic-Con one and the official one – was after the reunion was ruined, and Madison yelled at Veronica, “What are you gonna do, use your stun gun on me? Don’t you think that’s gotten a bit old”, Veronica responded by punching Madison out, and responding, “Original enough for ya?” Generally speaking, Thomas and Ruggiero do a good job with the rest of the one-liners as well.
If only Thomas had shown as much care with the direction and the story. The show was rarely talked about in visual terms, but the flashbacks used in the show were often sophisticated in how they were shot, with different color schemes and seamless transitions between past and present. The New York City scenes look relatively sophisticated (including the now standard practice of showing text messages on screen), but most of the scenes in Neptune are shot in a pedestrian way (Ben Kutchins was the cinematographer, while Daniel Gabbe, who worked on the show, was the editor). The fight scenes on the show were generally among the weakest parts of the show (except for a Season 2 battle between Logan and Weevil), and the fight scene at the reunion – when Logan, Piz, Wallace and Weevil all rise to defend Veronica’s honor – is no exception, in how it’s shot. More disappointing than that, however, is how Thomas lets the noir and mystery elements slip away. For the former, we do see once again the distance between the haves and have nots, and while Don Lamb was merely incompetent, his brother is full-on corrupt. There’s also a startling scene in this regard involving Weevil, and another one involving Keith. As for the latter, the first 2/3 of the movie does have some interesting red herrings, one involving Ruby Jetson (played with gusto by Gaby Hoffman), a loony stalker of Bonnie’s. But both the mystery and noir end up petering out (the noir) or getting an unsatisfying solution (the mystery). It doesn’t help Meester and Muhney (for obvious reasons) aren’t reprising their roles, as their presence might have lent weight to the story. Estella barely registers, and while O’Connell can play a jerk well, he doesn’t give it the dimension Muhney did, and comes off more petulant than corrupt.
I was part of the rabid fan base of the show I mentioned earlier, having watched it from the beginning, being active in the show’s forum at Television Without Pity, attending fan events (including one in January of 2006 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, where Thomas, Bell, and other cast members showed me and several hundred other fans clips of the show and the controversial season 2 episode “Donut Run” before it was scheduled to go on the air), being part of an e-mail campaign during seasons 1 and 2 to get the show renewed, and publicizing the show whenever and wherever I could. But when the Kickstarter campaign materialized, I didn’t participate, partly because I couldn’t afford it (being unemployed at the time), but also because I wondered if it was too late to try and recapture the magic of the show. And I can’t deny getting a sinking feeling when Thomas said in interviews (as I mentioned before) he meant the movie to satisfy the fans (there’s a special thank-you to the Kickstarter fans in the closing credits, along with a couple of shout-outs to them in the movie), because I took that to mean the Logan and Veronica shippers. This was further reinforced during the marketing of the movie, and the polls asking if you were “Team Logan” or “Team Piz” (at the movie’s Comic-Con presentation, Dohring wore a “Team Piz” T-shirt, while Lowell wore a “Team Logan” one). I admit I’m not above this in general – one of the reasons why I started watching The West Wing again in its last season (after abandoning it a few episodes after Aaron Sorkin left), aside from seeing how they would deal with John Spencer’s death, was to see Josh and Donna finally getting together – but when it gets in the way of the show’s purpose for me, I have to cry foul.
To me, Veronica Mars is a noir show, and yes, during the course of the movie, Veronica does get back to her roots; still, I wonder on some level if the movie was made solely to satisfy those who wanted Veronica and Logan back together again. I never objected to Veronica and Logan together as a couple when they were well-written- Bell and Dohring clearly had chemistry together (though like many fans, I hated when he turned mopey in Season 3) – but in the movie, while Veronica’s rough edges haven’t been entirely sanded off, it seemed like Logan’s have been for the most part. Keith tells Veronica at one point, “There’s a darkness to Logan,” but you barely get a hint of that. There is a bit of the old snarkiness to him (when he jokes about how he of all people was Carrie’s sponsor while she was dealing with addiction), but mostly, he’s in earnest mode, and while Dohring does his best with it, it doesn’t suit the character.
Thomas has written a novel that takes place after the events of the movie, and if both the novel and movie do well (for the latter, the box office results so far have been encouraging), he’s promised more novels (there’s also a spin-off web series, but since it apparently revolves around Dick, my least favorite character, I’m not that interested). Of course, this is also being watched to see if other movies partly (or mostly) funded by Kickstarter can be a viable option. I just hope, if there are more stories to be told about Veronica, they end up being better than this somewhat entertaining but ultimately disappointing movie. If that means I’m not a marshmallow at heart, well, I guess that’s how it goes.