Thursday, 20 March 2014

VERONICA MARS IN THE ASCENDANT

STEVEN TIMBERMAN ON THE RETURN OF VERONICA MARS



Veronica Mars should never have worked. A hard to describe show on a little known network, with a mishmash of tones and genres somehow expected to sing together. The recipe for the show reads like a parody of a parody – Buffy without the demons, Nancy Drew with an edge, X meets Y with a dash of Z. High school hijinks standing side-by-side sun-soaked noir with dames in short skirts. And yet, here we are – Veronica Mars endures. The Veronica Mars movie has been heralded as the newest wave of direct-to-audience content, and demonized as yet another way for movie studios to wring consumers dry.

I don’t care about that. We’ve seen Arrested Development return, NBC announced plans to reboot their derivative Heroes, and Jack Bauer returns to kick unholy amounts of ass in a few scant weeks. But shows are more than buzzwords – the best products are able to capture lightning in a bottle at a specific time and place. 24 fed into our national paranoia after 9/11, Heroes arrived to leech off dissatisfied viewers from Lost like a barfly at 2 a.m., and Arrested Development tapped into growing discomfort with corporate greed in the wake of Enron. But when these shows return, they struggle to adapt to a new mood and an always changing audience. Much as I enjoy the exploits of Jack Bauer (This year, he’ll be shooting his way through London!), we don’t really need Bauer to return. 

Veronica Mars needed to come back.

At times, the Veronica Mars movie struggles to compress a sprawling TV series into a two hour event. Characters get lost in the shuffle, the mystery is perfunctory, things have to be alluded to rather than shown. But Rob Thomas understands that we don’t watch television for events, we watch them for the characters.

(I’m not going to spoil any major plot points in the movie, but I will discuss some of the information revealed in trailers, commercials etc.)

When we last left Veronica she was walking down the rain-soaked streets of Neptune, an affluent beach town located somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. Her life had been torn apart yet again, this time by a sex tape. And for all of her growing up, Veronica Mars couldn’t let the issue rest – and picked up a flamethrower and got to work burning down everyone who had wronged her or her friends. The movie tells us that she finally got out, finally stopped the cycle, found a way to win the game without playing.

Veronica Mars had always been a show in love with inverting typical TV formula – call it the Whedon School if you’re so inclined. Veronica Mars the movie is ostensibly about Veronica slowly being sucked back into the town and life and habits she abandoned nearly a decade ago. The emotional core remains resolutely capital N Noir, with injustice always lurking offscreen. Within the first ten minutes, a beloved character makes his entrance by fighting back against a loathsome real life policy that stands at the crossroads of race and class.

And if there’s anything that surprised me about the movie, it is how timely the film feels. This is not a throwback to Bush-era America: This is a fully throated condemnation of America’s class divide. The list of American shows that have dealt with class is pitifully small, and Veronica Mars felt revolutionary in 2004. And for all of our Netflixes and Snapchats and Elected Black Presidents, our class divide is growing bigger, looming ever larger. And this movie feeds off that discomfort, that gnawing sense that by trying to make things better we’re merely speeding further off the rails.

Rob Thomas’ script spends a lot of time on the vocabulary and power of addiction. At times it feels like Veronica might be addicted to Logan, the ultimate bad boy trying to make good. Neptune itself is an intoxicant, offering Veronica a chance to tangibly fight injustice with the added opportunity to gloat about her righteousness. But for all her maturation, Veronica is still addicted to a potent drug: her own nostalgia.

Part of the intrinsic pleasure in early episodes was seeing Veronica take revenge against the rich and powerful (and popular) kids that made her a pariah. But for all her boasting, Veronica missed the naivete and wonder of childhood. She traded Pep Rallies for stakeouts, bake sales for cheating husbands and wives. Like all great Noir, Veronica ached for her past.

A decade later, Veronica is on the cusp of completely erasing her life in Neptune. A high paying job with a big law firm, an adoring boyfriend, a ready-made life in New York.  But this Veronica still aches, this time for the adventures and trials we witnessed her undergo so many years ago.

I grew up in Southern California, an hour or so drive away from where the series filmed. I was introduced to Veronica Mars when I was living in a rat-infested hellhole in Boston, the muggy summer air feeling like a final indignity. I transferred back to California less than a year later.

Veronica Mars portrayed a California that felt if not literally true than emotionally accurate, a whirlwind of sunshine and sex and repression and masochism and New Money throwing their newly bought status around and a deep, deep abiding fear that everyone loved it anyway.

For three years we listened to Veronica rail about her need to get out of California, to sand off all of her edges and become the quintessential Adult. Although Thomas’ work has outgrown the label, Rob Thomas started his writing career as a Young Adult novelist. Even in a condensed format, his characters still emanate from that place, all raw nerves and exposed emotions.

And since Veronica Mars the series ended, Veronica Mars the character was allowed to build the life she always said she wanted. But the audience craved more, and so too must Veronica. Some reviews have expressed dismay that Neptune and her old life hold such power, even after all this time. I have to wonder what past lives they’re running from.

New York a phone call away, slipping ever farther. Her past beating down the door late at night and a growing part of you that wants to turn to knob. The pull of California may well be an illusion, but it will always remain intoxicating.
 
STEVEN TIMBERMAN IS A GRADUATE OF KINGSTON UNIVERSITY AND A CALIFORNIAN WRITER.  HE IS AN OCCIASIONAL COLUMNIST FOR THIS BLOG.
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