Buffy stole my heart first but then came Veronica. She struck a chord within me that resonates to this day, and in anticipation of the film I have been delighted to rewatch and revisit these old episodes to produce this piece, the first of 3 coming throughout the week leading up to the release of the Veronica Mars movie. Try not to squeal too loudly, Marshmallows.
It began on September 22, 2004 on the UPN, almost 10 years ago. It ran for 3 seasons, two on UPN and one on The CW, and aired its final episode on May 22, 2007. In between creator Rob Thomas and his team produced 64 episodes of complex and beloved television and over the years Veronica Mars has maintained a lasting legacy as one of the great cult hit TV shows of modern times. Fast forward to March 13, 2013, almost one year ago. After years of hubbub and speculation, Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell announced that they will finally continue the story of Veronica Mars in the form of a movie, but only if the fans pay the way. For the first time in history, a major Hollywood production was attempting to crowd-fund using Kickstarter. This was a decision of great bravado, a bit of chutzpah, and a lot of insanity. If it worked? Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars would become legendary. If it failed? Well, we don’t have to think about that. The goal: 2 million dollars over 30 days to ensure the creation of the film, with each dollar above that increasing the production value of the film. The result: 2 million dollars in less than half a day and 5.7 million dollars over the 30 day period. The Veronica Mars movie was coming – with all of the original stars signing on – and the fans (known, affectionately, as “marshmallows” after Veronica’s infamous pilot ending narration:” But I promise this: I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again. I’m sorry, is that mushy? Well, you know what they say. Veronica Mars, she’s a marshmallow.) are directly responsible.
Over the past year Rob Thomas has kept the Kickstarter backers (individuals who donated their money to the film in exchange for “prizes” but no equity piece of the film itself) updated with info, pictures, and tidbits about the production utilizing not only emails but an influx of social media. As time progressed a synopsis and eventually a trailer became available, the press coverage grew (the cover of Entertainment Weekly, for example), and awareness was raised. This was a huge gamble and a potentially monumental occurrence for the way fans engage with properties they love. On top of that, Warner Brothers and Rob Thomas are utilizing a one-of-a-kind release strategy that will make the film available not only in cinemas but across VOD and digital platforms worldwide on the same date: March 14th, 2013. That’s just a week away and almost a year exactly from the start of the Kickstarter campaign. In one year’s time the film was funded, produced, shot, and completed, and apparently every aspect of this process was documented for an extensive behind the scenes look on the Blu-ray. I cannot wait to watch that documentary and learn more about this fascinating project. I have a feeling others will be studying its success for years in an attempt to recreate it.
Let’s put all of that aside, though. Let’s quell our excitement, hopes, and expectations for this groundbreaking movie event and take a journey back to simpler times… Season 1. (Spoilers to follow.)
I remember it vividly. I always made it my business to become familiar with the new shows premiering in a given season, and in my research I came across a little ditty called Veronica Mars. I had never watched a show on the UPN before, but a high school drama about a teenage detective sounded far too good to pass up. It would probably be silly and cheesy, but I added it to my DVR and hoped for the best. Cut to September 22nd and my initial assumptions about the show couldn’t have been more wrong. Nestled in between episodes of Eve and the local news at 10, the pilot of Veronica Mars set itself apart as a challenging, witty, and terrifically engaging television program. What initially struck me most was the serious issues the show intended to deal with and the way the writers didn’t skirt around them to appease those who might object to a show about teenagers dealing with such things. In the very first episode we are introduced to our incredibly dynamic, spunky, thoughtful, and all around badass heroine Veronica (the incomparable Kristen Bell) and then quickly learn that her best friend was murdered, her mom abandoned her, both Veronica and her father were ostracized by the town and their peers, and if that wasn’t enough we discover that Veronica was raped at a party “last year.” Veronica serves not only as protagonist but as narrator (a nod to style of many great filmed detective stories) and through her words we flash back to moments in the past that linger in her memory. I think back to the scene when we see Veronica at the party on that horrible night and the song “Girls” by Death in Vegas plays (listen here) and I still become overwhelmed with emotion. Veronica Mars wasn’t some “silly and cheesy” show; this was serious, morally ambiguous television.
Okay, it wasn’t all serious. Part of what was so brilliant about the show was its ability to blend and balance tones, stories, and characters. At once the show was highly emotional but also incredibly witty, with rich and layered dialogue and references that felt genuine. Rob Thomas and his team created the town of Neptune, California and employed incredibly sharp world building. The town felt alive. Characters from the smallest bit parts to the main characters had verve and personality. In the first season a depiction of a town sharply divided by economics and class was slowly developed: on one hand we have the wealthy 09ers with their mansions, fancy cars, and famous parents; on the other we have the normal folk that live in the sometimes seedy underbelly of this California seaside town. Connecting it all? The PCH highway and the bikers that ride it. By putting all of these elements into the same universe Thomas was able to paint a fully realized portrait of the effects the murder of Lilly Kane had on an entire community.
The murder of Lilly Kane is the catalyst for all of the events of Veronica Mars season 1, even if it does technically occur before the timeline of the pilot. The structure of the season is beautifully drawn, with Veronica’s investigation into Lilly’s murder slowly unfolding throughout all 22 episodes while other stories and smaller mysteries occurred on an episode by episode basis. This effectively gave the season a full arc that hooked in viewers and allowed us to discover clues and revelations alongside Veronica. The strength of this arc is Veronica’s strong emotional ties to it. As we draw closer and closer to the final “whodunit?” of Lilly Kane, we feel alongside Veronica. It is a compelling design for a season of television, and the way it all unfolds and is interspersed throughout each episode makes a case for season 1 of Veronica Mars as one of the single strongest seasons of television in recent memory, minor flaws and all. The balance between the overall mystery and an individual episode’s plot was always exciting and never formulaic. Thus it felt like a natural part of Veronica’s existence and not just something the writers shoved into the episodes at the last minute. The individual episode mysteries were relevant, often topical, thematically rich, and always engaging. Her dad had his own cases, sometimes involving tracking a serial killer or finding a missing rap mogul’s kid. Veronica not only worked at her Dad’s P.I. firm (Mars Investigations) but began to help students at school with cases as well. Saving someone from a cult, finding someone’s dad, locating a missing neighbor, solving an old case of swapped babies at the hospital, taking down a secret society, proving the innocence of a teacher accused of sexual abuse, and so on. She had a full load, and the cases always made for dynamic mysteries.
The other genius element of Veronica Mars was its embrace of old film noir. Although the show flirted with many genres, I would ultimately classify it as one of the few genuine works of television noir. Film noir is defined as, “a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background .” That description nails the show to a T. Take a look at the image on the right. That art, depicting the first season of the show as a poster for an old film noir, perfectly encapsulates why the classification is so apt. From the noir archetypes of the characters (the femme fatales, the detectives, the gang leaders, the debonair gentleman and those in between, all “cynical” and many “malevolent”) to the “sleazy setting” (the previously described Neptune, California) to the hard boiled detective narrating every occurrence (Veronica, natch), it fits in the noir mold in style, tone, and content. Placing these noir elements into a high school and intertwining those archetypes with those of the high school/teen drama was truly inspired and worked better than one could ever imagine. (For another sublime example of this check out the film Brick.) I love that poster depicted on the right very much, and have a framed copy of it in my home.
I could write thousands of more words on Season 1 of Veronica Mars. It was a show that excelled thanks to writing and performance; the direction and style was fine in the first season, often more elegant and poignant in the flashbacks, but the low UPN budget was clear. Regardless, it’s great TV that holds up beautifully many years after it first aired and it remains one of my most favorite shows. I think back to the time I spent watching these episodes and the memories lie deep within. The show is unique in personality and excellent in quality but it also possesses a singular emotional hold over me that few other shows have had. My words only begin to scratch the surface of what Veronica had that was so special and what it meant/means to so many, and so the best thing to do is simply to watch it for yourself. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again.
Now, I’ll talk about two more things: The Characters and The Best Episodes. 22 episodes is a lot to cover, and some mysteries are best left for the episodes themselves.
Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) – Teenage detective, emotional center, ultimate protagonist. The series made Bell an icon and Bell made Veronica one of the great television heroines of modern time. Sometimes an actor and a character are made for each other, and that is undeniably the case here. Bell is phenomenal (Emmy worthy, no doubt) and Veronica is a landmark character. Veronica is an inspiring and tough presence, always the most clever person in the room, always one step ahead of you, always on the case. Despite her small size she was a fierce warrior and rather adept at interrogation and intimidation, but also not afraid to display her vulnerability. Veronica is a legitimately great detective regardless of her age, and she demands respect from those who encounter her. She begins the season as an “outcast,” navigating high school, her relationships (romantic and otherwise), and an intense emotional need to solve the mystery of the murder of Lilly Kane and ends the season as a hero, having solved the case and standing up for herself, her father, and what she believes in.
Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) – Veronica’s father, former Sheriff of Neptune, and truly the world’s (okay, television’s) best dad. Keith and Veronica made one heck of a team, and he backed her up every step of the way, teaching her the tricks of the P.I. trade and instilling within her independence and confidence. Veronica and Keith’s relationship as father/daughter was fascinating, complex, and filled with questionable moral decisions (this man is teaching a teenager how to be a private detective, after all), and the question that arises over paternity makes for one of the season’s most emotionally overwhelming threads. Keith is a fantastic detective, sharp and spry, and quite the master of banter. He, too, begins the season as an outcast, having been run out of the Sheriff’s office (for accusing the town’s wealthiest man, Jake Kane, of killing his daughter Lilly) and ends as a hero, not only for saving Veronica but for his essential aide in solving the Lilly Kane murder. Enrico’s great performance was pivotal to the success of the series and highly dynamic.
Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn) – Lilly’s brother, Veronica’s former boyfriend, suffers from depression and rage issues. Duncan was always my least favorite character because he barely had a personality, but he served his purpose well both as a major red herring for the whodunit and also as a strong, relatively kind leader of the wealthy 09ers.
Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) – Lilly’s former boyfriend, Veronica’s biggest enemy turned passionate lover, dynamic bad boy. Logan actually started out as a relatively unlikeable character and a genuine enemy for Veronica, yet he was always a favorite of mine thanks to his antics and rogue charisma. My affection for him only grew as the show developed his complex family (his movie star father, Aaron Echolls, beat him; his mother was a floozie and a true femme fatale) and his longstanding feelings of grief over Lilly’s death. The casting of real life couple and 80s TV icons Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna as Logan’s parents is brilliant, and they both deliver unexpectedly terrific performances. Mr. Hamlin, in particular, is superb; he uses his old charisma and puts a seedy, almost gross twist on it. He’s an incredibly wealthy movie star but not a good man. Logan never ceased to surprise and compel, and Jason Dohring’s instincts were always spot on. As his relationship with Veronica shifted from antagonistic to romantic their chemistry crackled. Their first kiss on the balcony of a motel is one of the show’s best moments.
Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) – Veronica’s best friend and partner in crime. Wallace sometimes suffered as a character due to his lack of a life outside of his helping Veronica (a notion the show began to explore in later episodes), but he was a truly great best friend and ally for Veronica and Daggs is a sharp presence. I always appreciated that the show ignored the obvious and never put Wallace and Veronica in any sort of romantic partnership.
Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra) – Head of the PCH biker gang, unexpected ally to Veronica, former secret romantic partner of Lilly Kane. Weevil is a fantastic character not only because Francis Capra is awesome but because he represents everything that is great about the series: the complex layers that tough individuals have hiding just underneath the surface.
Other characters of note: Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), often seen in flashbacks; Jake and Celeste Kane, the wealthiest people in Neptune and parents of Lilly and Duncan; Sheriff Don Lamb, a true blowhard not fit for the job; Lianne Mars, Veronica’s awful alcoholic mother; Trina Echolls, Logan’s socialite half sister; Deputy Leo, Veronica’s sweet cop boyfriend that she takes advantage of for info; Abel Koontz, the patsy for the Lilly Kane murder; Cliff McCormack, public defender extraordinaire; (Vice) Principal Clemmons; Mac, Veronica’s best female friend and computer/tech wizard; Dick and Cassidy Casablancas, 09er brothers and friends of Logan; the many Neptune high students and teachers, including Mr. Rooks, Casey, Meg, Madison, Corny, Troy (Veronica’s short lived flame), Butters, etc.; Clarence Wiedman, head of security at Kane Software; Vinnie Van Lowe, Neptune’s other Private Eye; original opening credits cast member journalism teacher Mallory Dent, who oddly and quickly disappears; and many more. All diverse, all richly drawn, and all necessary to the machinations of the narrative of season 1.
Well known/now famous guest stars: Jessica Chastain, Melissa Leo, Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Anthony Anderson, Leighton Meester, Lucas Gabreel, etc.
5. “Pilot” (9.22.04) – This is where it all began, and it was great from the start. The episode effectively introduces the many diverse characters, sets the tone, builds the world, and unveils the many mysteries and pains that Veronica and her family and friends have been through and will have to go through. The use of flashback is well done, and despite being heavily expository (as all pilots are) it feels vital, engrossing, and most of all emotional. The episode is well balanced with a case that brings Wallace and Veronica together as she uses her many clever tactics and contacts to help him when the store he works at is robbed. The episode is also the rare case of “in media res” being effective as it takes us right into the noir world: Veronica photographs a man outside of a seedy motel as a gang of bikers approaches her car. Typical high school television this is not. Plus we meet Backup, one of the best (and most cutely named) TV dogs.
4. The Wrath of Con (10.19.04) – Only the 4th episode of the series/season, it does lose some luster for its fine but not exceptional “case of the week” involving Wallace’s new girlfriend, a money scam, and college gamer geeks. (It does get Veronica donning a wig and costume, though, which is mucho fun.) That being said, most of this episode involves the planning of the dedication of the Lilly Kane memorial fountain and it remains one of the most effectively sentimental and emotionally compelling episodes of the entire series. Flashbacks to Veronica, Lilly, Logan, and Duncan attending homecoming are exceptional and finally let us see just why everyone loved Lilly so much. The episode also begins to show us the many layers of Logan Echolls as he is tasked with editing a video of Lilly for the memorial. His approach is atypical but typically Logan and ends up perfectly encapsulating who Lilly was as a human being. The final scene at the memorial is stunning and brings out the tears in both me and those on screen, including, perhaps most effectively (and strangely?) Weevil.
3. A Trip to the Dentist (5.3.05) – The penultimate episode of the season brings many of the unresolved narrative threads to a boil and in many ways serves as the emotional climax before the “fireworks” of the finale. Veronica’s mother is finally back in town and that brings many complications. We flash back to Shelly Pomeroy’s party where Veronica was raped as she finally gets the answers she has so desperately wanted, and it is difficult to watch but also brilliantly structured. Who knew that mean girl Madison would end up so pivotal? The tense relationship between Veronica and Duncan explodes in a scene that has both characters putting all of their bottled up feelings on the surface. Finally, the new (and until now secret) relationship between Veronica and Logan becomes known by all as we head into the finale. This episode juggles many threads that form into an almost overwhelming but richly satisfying whole.
2. Leave it to Beaver (5.10.05) – It all comes down to this. The finale of season 1 of Veronica Mars gives us all of the answers and then shifts gears into an incredibly intense/awesome thriller. When you set up a season long mystery – particularly a whodunit – the ultimate reveal has to logically fit but also be surprising, and that is certainly the case here. Everything the season was building to is perfectly calibrated for maximum effect. It’s emotional, topical, and yes… very noir. Sex, sleaze, cynicism… it’s all here. This is the perfect cherry on top of this great season of television, and the less you know going in to it the better.
1. An Echolls Family Christmas (12.14.04) – Holidays have a storied tradition of often bringing out the best in a television series, and that is certainly true with my pick for the best episode of this first season of Veronica Mars. Interestingly out of all of my choices this episode has the least to do with the overarching stories and mysteries, yet that also goes to show how strong the other elements of this show were. The episode takes a simple conceit – stolen money at a poker game – and utilizes a Rashomon-esque structure, showing the same events from differing perspectives, to reveal information about the characters and the mystery. Fascinating dynamics are tinkered with as Weevil finds himself at the poker table with Duncan, Logan, and other members of the Neptune elite, and any time Weevil gets to interact with Logan it makes for terrific television. The layering of Logan continues as well and as the title suggests much time is spent on Aaron and Lynne Echolls (real life husband and wife Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna) as Keith is hired to protect Aaron from a supposed stalker leading up to the big Echolls holiday party. Veronica always proves that she is the smartest person in the room; she has every single person in this episode wrapped around her tiny blonde finger. Kick ass.
Next up… Season 2.