Just what the heck is ‘Veronica Mars,’ anyway?

The mood was often very 1940s in Veronica’s dad’s office. © Copyright Warner Bros.

All the Internet buzz about the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie has no doubt left plenty of people scratching their heads. Perhaps you too have asked, what the hell is Veronica Mars, wondering if this was yet another triumph of those damn kids and their geek culture. Why does a TV show that was cancelled almost seven years ago still have such a devoted following?

The original female teen sleuth…

And a TV show about a teenage girl detective, no less. A modern-day Nancy Drew, as critics loved to point out. Yes, Veronica Mars (2004–07) was about the adventures of a high school girl whose father was a detective, and she followed in his footsteps, sneaking and sleuthing around her high school and home town — the fictional southern California  hamlet of Neptune (filmed in San Diego) — to crack cases both humorous and sordid. As unlikely as it might sound, Veronica Mars was an inspired updating of noir and gumshoe traditions. 

Creator/showrunner Rob Thomas, a former teacher, used Veronica’s investigations to look at the often toxic side of teenage culture in the 21st century, specifically the culture of overprivileged kids. The show was never quite cute in the way its promos sometimes made it out to be, or the way the “modern-day Nancy Drew” angle might suggest.

…and, decades later, taking in things Nancy Drew could never dream of. © Copyright Warner Bros.

The series pilot kicks off a season-long mystery wherein Veronica (Kristen Bell) investigates not just the murder of her best friend Lilly (Amanda Seyfried, seen in flashbacks throughout the season) but her own rape, after she had been roofie’d. The two events  eventually prove to be connected, as is her father’s demotion from respected town sheriff to lowly private detective, struggling to eke out a living for himself and Veronica.

That first season proved to be addicting. Rob Thomas adapted his own unpublished YA mystery novel into a season-long arc, and presumably it was his novel that gave the show an unusually strong pace and narrative drive. Each week played like a new chapter in a carefully thought-out whole. Even during the few episodes where the standalone mystery of the week felt like the result of a network memo, Thomas and his writers would sprinkle in enough leads or annotations to the murder case to keep a viewer hooked.

How many times did they break up? I lost track. © Copyright Warner Bros.

There are undoubtedly critics who deride this kind of serial mystery as the opiate of the masses; count me among the saps happy to be strung along. As Veronica Mars‘ debut season zoomed along, the standalone cases became increasingly clever and the larger overarching murder mystery built up terrific momentum. More focused than Twin Peaks, ten times smarter yet less pretentious than the U.S. version of The Killing.

I would wager that the abiding reputation of Veronica Mars stems in part from how satisfying it was to tune in every week for the climactic streak of episodes in the spring of 2005, leading up to the dramatic bombshells of the finale. The whole week became about the countdown to Tuesday night.

When I catch an episode today, I notice the occasional rushed edit; the writers always had more plot points and jokes than could be comfortably accommodated in 42 minutes of screen time. And revisiting the show on DVD, I notice the eccentric use of wide-angle lenses and some occasionally gaudy lighting. This was a production that sometimes gave the impression of being held together with tape from Rite-Aid.

Someone please get this woman a co-star.

What I also notice, and what I first noticed, when I first watched Veronica Mars: the talent at the center of the show. For three years Kristen Bell presided as the Paulette Goddard of the UPN/CW set, anchoring the show and giving the impression that she could play anything. Her performance as Veronica stayed lively over three seasons, never descending into shtick or the more cartoonish, this-is-what-the-audience-likes version of a character that TV actors sometimes fall into after a couple of years.

(Can Bell play anything? The more relevant question might be, will Hollywood  ever give her the chance to show off the same range of comic and dramatic chops that Veronica Mars afforded her?)

At first glance, Veronica appears to be the adorable underdog, played by a tiny blonde ingénue whose way with a one-liner is to die for. Dialogue was the show’s most dependable strength — the writers always provided Veronica with a fusillade of witty quips even when the plotting sometimes went astray in the subsequent seasons. But the show doesn’t settle for just cracking wise, and Veronica isn’t quite the sweetheart she initially appears to be. The humiliations suffered by the Mars family have left Veronica bitter and defensive, the acid sarcasm of her one-liners an expression of hostility against Neptune’s ruthless class system (both Neptune the school and Neptune the town).

Having to eat lunch by yourself takes a toll on a girl. © Copyright Warner Bros.

Bell’s equal facility with Veronica’s hardened, less ingratiating qualities may have landed her the role. Veronica is a deeply sympathetic figure but also an expert manipulator. Her finely tuned sense of others’ moral failings blinds her to her own faults, mainly how readily she uses and exploits other people to solve a case. And this wasn’t the sort of character flaw that gets neatly resolved in an “arc” by the end of the season. Veronica’s less admirable traits recur throughout the three-year series, giving us an endearing yet flawed, recognizably human heroine.

Veronica Mars was noir down to its bones. Down these mean streets a cute girl must go. The series was adamantly class conscious in a way that’s rare for a work of American popular culture, with the divide between the rich and the have-nots in Neptune always harsher than you might expect from network-TV entertainment. The show wasn’t preachy about it, but the scripts’ insistence on the lack of fairness in Neptune — the gross inequalities between the rich and everybody else, the routine abuse of power — may have been what doomed Veronica Mars in the ratings (and what makes it feel unexpectedly timely in 2014).

The gang’s all here, season 3: I’ll admit I can’t remember the first thing about a couple of these characters. © Copyright Warner Bros.

No doubt the show’s networks (first the UPN, then the CW, and between them the two could never come up with a decent promo for the series) would have preferred a heroine who rubbed fewer viewers the wrong way, and a glossier, more fun teen milieu like The O.C. It’s a wonder that Veronica Mars managed to hang on for three seasons.

Seasons two and three had trouble matching that charmed first year, but there’s no shortage of good moments and killer one-liners throughout the show’s lifespan. All three seasons undoubtedly play better in binge viewing. Sadly the show isn’t streaming on Netflix, but the DVDs are available to rent, and you can also go the iTunes or Amazon route to watch episodes online.

Feel free to weigh in