Veronica Mars is a US TV high school crime show from the mid-2000s, in which a teenage girl in the crime-ridden town of Neptune solves a load of mysteries – both smaller ones to help out her classmates and big-time criminal incidents involving gangs, murders and the like. Helpfully, she’s the daughter of a local private investigator, so she knows the business. I’ve long been aware that this is a very well-regarded show, and as a fan of Buffy, I’d probably like it, but only just got round to watching properly.
I’ve now seen the first two seasons – the third will follow, along with the recent Kickstartered film continuation, but considering this are mammoth 22-episode American network TV seasons, I figured I can probably find enough to say about the first 44 eps to fill up a blog post.
So, let’s investigate this detective.
CRIME CRIME EVERYWHERE (ho ho I referenced a poem)
Make no mistake, this is a strange show to get thrown into. The weird combined aesthetic of standard high-school drama and noir crime show leads to some weird disconnects. No, you’re not hallucinating, there really is a random motorcycle gang hanging around, their leader goes to school with Veronica and this is absolutely normal.
Still, the show commits to its dual aesthetic, giving Veronica a wry narration that doubles as a teen-drama diary-style monologue and the grim neo-noir internal thoughts of a PI. After the first ep, the crime keeps bubbling beneath the surface, so much so that you might wonder if there was constant gang activity at your secondary school as well and you were just too wrapped up in yourself to notice.
The dialogue is very much Buffy-esque super-clever-teenager style, with all of them (especially the main character) jabbering at high speed and referencing more pop culture than many TV shows’ entire Wikipedia pages. This conversational style has been used in TV and film for enough years by now that you know if you find it annoying. I love it, and Kristen Bell delivers the shit out of the quicksmart wisecracks.
It’s true that some of the case-of-the-week mysteries get a little formulaic. You can guess whodunnit a lot of the time simply because the regular cast is so large, there’s only room for one or two thinly sketched suspects. Still, they come up with a great range of high-school-based mysteries for Veronica to investigate, all while regular plots jog along in the backdrop.
They also spend a lot of time on the handling of race/class, more than many “adult” shows I’ve seen. Although they do it in a slightly standard high school drama boxing-people-off-into-tribes way, it’s interesting to see. Maybe more so nowadays, considering a lot of the annoyance around pop culture right now that shows and films won’t address these topics to even this degree.
And, yes, although there are a lot of clever tricks and crime show storylines, it’s still a teen drama which means love triangles, kissing, angst, but they usually punctuate it with shock crime twists and killings. Plus there’s some amazing mid-2000s fashion to admire – it’s like a younger Coupling. (In this way and no other.)
If you (like me) have not seen Veronica Mars and think you might like it, you probably will. It really is great for the most part, juggling loads of characters and plot points with aplomb. Very serialised, very ambitious, and I can confirm that the season-long arc storylines pay off well.
That completes the general review. I’m now going to talk about the actual plots and characters a bit more. This will feature spoilers (though I’ll refrain from revealing the major season-long whodunnits). Still, if you are considering watching the show and want to remain surprised, best stop now.
Season One – “Soap monster!”
The series dives straight into the heavy, soapy mythology, building confident, comprehensive, detailed montages in the very first episode. A lot of shows might’ve found a less personal mega-arc to lead off with and kept this story, which really unravels a lot of the major characters, until the second year.
But Veronica Mars dives right in and I think it pays off, getting us right on the character’s side with the terrifying rape/murder combined mystery and flashbacks to happier times.
I felt like Duncan never came into his own as a major character as a result of this structure, though. We started when he was already estranged from Veronica and the attempts to dive into his personality often felt shallow.
Again, this is a show with a massive cast and you can’t win them all – Logan’s rich-boy-angst was competing for space with Duncan’s and seemed to always win out. But yeah, I never ‘felt’ Duncan. To be truly honest: for some early eps, I struggled to tell him apart from brief love interest Troy.
The first season of Veronica Mars also hit the unavoidable problem of stripping a murder mystery across loads of episodes: seeming big reveals in the mid-to-late-mid-point of the season end up being obvious red herrings due to their placement in the running order, meaning we never cared as much as the characters. The Killing had a similar problem with ‘That can’t be it, there’s still eight episodes left!’ syndrome.
Still, the eventual ending was great and had a lot of impact, even if I did guess a major chunk of it one episode before the end. A lot of drama and charm, and Veronica’s relationship with her dad Keith was always so damn warm and likable.
Season Two – “Political animals!”
Perhaps to avoid ‘That can’t be it! pacing issues, season 2 attempted a bigger mystery than a mere murder. This was an epic conspiracy, layers upon layers, meaning they could unveil an individual character’s whereabouts or motivations and it could play into the ultimate storyline in a meaningful way rather than always needing to be a lie.
This worked a lot better at keeping the dramatic tension up, although it never felt quite as personal to Veronica. Also, due to the high level of the conspiracy, a lot of the story arc stuff had to be performed by dad Keith while Veronica focused on the high school mystery of the week. Sometimes seemed weird considering she’s meant to be the hero.
Nonetheless, it was a clever story with enough layers and moving parts to fill the space. I also always enjoy a show that obviously likes playing around in the world it’s created, giving bigger roles to pre-existing characters and bringing back old guest stars.
Yes, my lack of connection with Duncan made the chunk of the season when he was main boyfriend uninvolving at times. Still, this is dramatic television and misery/angst/love triangles are inevitable. I just waited it out.
And then the ending came along. They did a good job of selling it, even though I’d kinda spotted the main baddie reveal coming thanks to a number of hints along the way about that character’s true evil nature. Still, I wasn’t prepared for quite how evil they went with him, not to mention how carefully it was planned and woven into the pre-existing mythology. Gave the finale a real kick.
If I were told to pick my favourite out of the first two seasons, I think I’d struggle. The stakes felt higher in s1, the big conspiracy in s2 wasn’t as personal, but I thought they executed the second storyline better. Your mileage may vary. Feel free to vote for your favourite in the comments below.
And that seems a good note to end a blog post on. More on this very topic in… a month or two, probably, once I’ve seen the final season and movie.