We started the week with Nancy Drew, and it’s only appropriate for us to end the week with our favorite modern girl detective, the one and only Veronica Mars.
If you never watched Veronica Mars during it’s overlooked 3 seasons (first on UPN then on the WB) then do yourself a favor and add the first season to your netflix queue. Veronica, as played by Kristen Bell is a skilled private investigator, who solves major crimes (who killed her best friend, Lilly Kane) and minor (who stole the team mascot). The show is terrifically written and the acting, especially Bell’s is fantastic. Veronica might be the most Slatebreaking television character I can think of.
As much as we would have liked to sit down and rewatch the entire first season for this post, we don’t have that kind of extra time. So we decided to watch two episodes – the Pilot and “Purity Test” and offer some commentary on what makes this show so great. Before we started, we identified some of the major Slatebreaking elements that we would watch out for, and made notes as we go.
Father Daughter Relationship
This is the single best father daughter relationship in the history of television, and the first thing we both mentioned when listing categories to write about. Keith Mars, disgraced former sheriff turned Private Investigator demonstrates none of the stereotypical “protect my daughter’s purity” father daughter bullshit that we usually see in onscreen portrayals. He cares about his daughter, and he does worry for her safety and want to protect her – he’s always portrayed as a conscientious, good parent. But he also demonstrates a real faith in her ability to take care of herself. I love the respect with which Keith treats Veronica. There’s obviously a ton of love between them. But there’s a real respect too, for her intelligence, her ability, her skills. He is so proud of the person she is and treats her like an equal. I cannot think of a single other father in television who acts this way. Similarly, she loves and respects him. The deep love in their relationship is clear, and in the few episodes where they do fight, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
The writers have taken care to write father & daughter’s humor to correspond & reflect each other, and Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni play up the complementary snarkiness perfectly. Carson Drew, eat your heart out.
Approach to Teenage Sexuality
Throughout the three seasons, Veronica Mars explores the variety of circumstances when teenagers have sex and neither condemns nor condones outright. It’s presented as both likely and totally acceptable. Some of the characters have sex in high school, others wait until college and it’s not that big of a deal. I love that.
However, I also appreciate that the show takes a hard line on sexual assault and exploitation, demonstrating a clear difference between consensual sexual experiences and rape. Often when we see rape portrayed on television, it’s used to drive home the point that sex for teens is dangerous. Either that or sexual violence is glorified and fetishized, like with the hyper-sexed murder victims on Law and Order. But the writers on this show treat the issue with both the respect and weight it deserves. We know from the first episode that Veronica was raped, and her dealing with it is a huge part of the storyline. The scene in the pilot where she reports her rape to Sheriff Lamb and he blows her off absolutely kills me, it’s so infuriating. The awfulness of what happened to her is not subdued. However, it doesn’t totally define her character and it doesn’t keep her from having other sexual or romantic experiences throughout the show.
Friendships, with both male and female characters
Almost as important as the father daughter relationships are the many friendships that Veronica builds over the course of the series. Lilly, of course, we see only in flashback, but she’s not just a generic tragic victim. We get a real glimpse of her friendship with Veronica and why her death would have had such an impact in changing Veronica’s life.
And then there is Wallace, who becomes her best friend, who we love so, so much. Why doesn’t Percy Daggs get more work nowadays? Brianna’s on his IMDB page right now and it’s embarrassing! But seriously, he’s the greatest best friend I can think of on television. Really, I feel like he’s both the moral center of the show, and of Veronica’s world. When he gets mad at her it cuts deeper than anyone else, because you know it’s seriously earned. The moment in the pilot when he tells her he’s sitting with her at lunch because “I can either go hang out with the kids who laughed at me, took pictures of me when I was up on that flagpole. Or I can hang out with the chick who cut me down” – pretty much defines his character. He might seem like a b-plot character from the show’s description but really, we don’t think the show would work nearly as well without this friendship to keep Veronica grounded.
Eli Navarro, or Weevil is also a great character. Brianna noted that Francis Capra – the actor playing Weevil – we’ve seen him on practically every crime show out there. He’s always playing these really one dimensional characters, which makes the depth of his character throughout this series even more admirable. This is a show that pushes all of it characters past stereotypes in a way that doesn’t happen elsewhere.
And of course, there’s romance and it’s totally compelling. We have our standard issue love triangle, with Duncan Kane vs. Logan Echolls, but anyone whose watched the show knows that Duncan doesn’t measure up in the long run. He’s the weak link, acting-wise, but also because we don’t really understand what Veronica sees in him.
But then there is Logan Echolls – the “obligatory psychotic jackass.” Watching the pilot, it’s hard to believe how much we love him by the end of season one. But like nearly every character on the show, there’s more to him than meets the eye. And the relationship, first as a friendship and then romantically, that emerges between him and Veronica is both legitimately earned and incredibly satisfying.
Veronica’s Competence and Subversion of Gender Stereotypes
Veronica always surpasses others’ expectations of what she’s capable of, both because of her age and because of her gender. She knows how to use gender stereotypes to her advantage when she has to, but most of the time she plays things straight, allowing her toughness and obvious competence to show through. For the audience, it’s never in question whether or not Veronica is good at her job – we know she is. The really fun part is that we get to see exactly how smart she is, and why she is able to figure things out that others don’t.
She knows how to work the system. Partially because her dad was sheriff but partially because she just pays attention to what’s going on around her, and the different layers she has to fight through. Brianna points out that that’s part of what makes her such a great version of the classic noir detective story. Good detectives are about paying attention and cleverness.
Veronica is a consummate professional. She knows the tricks of the trade, she knows what she needs to do. But this show also never ignores the high school element. Homework, the typical social constructs of high school are always present in her world. I particularly love this element, that she still has to deal with these recognizable frustrations. It plays into the power dynamic of adults versus teens, that comes up a lot on the show. Many adults, often in positions of power, don’t deserve that power. And yet, the young people on this show demonstrate real power and agency, if not always authority. Take, for example, in purity test, when Veronica goes to the technology teacher to find out how the school’s password system got hacked. He’s a coach, who doesn’t really know much about computers, so he directs her to Mac, a student & computer expert.
Also, I love that she carries and uses a taser. Totally nonchalantly. And I seem to remember her calling it Mr. Sparky at one point, which is hilarious.
At one point in “Purity Test,” Veronica explains to another girl that when someone does something terrible to you, “You get tough. You get even.” She’s fiercely uncompromising, even when she maybe ought to cut others a little slack. But one of the best things about the show is that Veronica is obviously tough, but she’s not impenetrable. She does get bothered by what happens to her and what people think about her. She’s not some impervious superhero – as capable as she is, she’s often distraught by the things that happen to her. Partially because of the writing and partially because Kristen Bell is so flipping good in this role, I find that I always believe in Veronica’s ultimate humanness.
Watching the pilot, it’s amazing how much they fit into this 42 minutes of television without it feeling like a totally melodramatic soap opera. In one episode they have to give us all this backstory, including Lilly’s murder, Duncan’s breakup, the Mars family’s fall from grace, her mom’s alcoholism and disappearance and Veronica’s rape. It’s not, as Brianna pointed out about halfway through our viewing, “really a feel good show.” And yet the things happening in the moment are still clear and present and relevant and the terrible situations never fully drown out the humor and resilience of our protagonist. Veronica Mars is an amazing character, and an incredibly Slatebreaking one. And the quality of this show measures up to the awesomeness of her character. If you haven’t watched it, please, figure your life out and get on it. You won’t regret it.