Thursday, November 01, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 36: Veronica Mars (Season 3)

Conventional wisdom aside, I'd say the best series on TV got even better during its third and regrettably final season. I mention conventional wisdom because the MSM meme on Veronica Mars 3.0 was that it somehow was "less than" the first two seasons; in particular that the shift from the high school setting to the Hearst College locale was somehow detrimental to the series' vibe and authenticity. Also, the format shift from a seasonal mystery to several seasonal mysteries (lasting several episodes a piece) was viewed as a deficit by some critics.

I couldn't disagree more. In fact, going back and watching the third season on DVD, I'd state that this third season - in many ways - is the most confident and self-assured season of Veronica Mars; and that's saying something considering the high bar established by the first two seasons. But let's re-cap before diving in to a discussion of Season 3.

Veronica Mars is a highly-addictive contemporary mystery series is set in and around the town of Neptune in sunny Southern California, a virtual playground for the very rich kids of privilege and wealth. There, cynical, sharp (but sweet...) teenager Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) and her detective father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) work together in his detective agency, solving petty, occasionally sleazy cases about adultery and the like.

But delightfully, this premise is only the starting point for something far richer than a crime drama. Informing each and every mystery featured on the series is a two-pronged social commentary (or more accurately, social observation). One level of the tale focuses obsessively on class warfare, the battle between the haves and the have-nots at Neptune High as Veronica - an outsider - navigates between worlds. She's a woman with no nation, distrusted by the rich and poor alike.

Secondly, Veronica Mars is a colorful, brilliant (and extremely tech savvy.) updating of the film noir genre, replete with femme fatales, a private dick, labyrinthine mysteries, laconic voice over narration and other staples of the form. Noticeably, however, the mysteries featured in the series revolve around a unique central conceit: how 21st century gadgets impact crime and crime solving. Wireless computers, I-Pods, blogs, web pages, cell phones, etcetera, are crucial tools (and crucial clues) in Veronica's universe. Veronica is thus Sam Spade for the Wikipedia generation, and thus she's very true-to-life in an important sense: like many youngsters of her generation, she's "connected. Not to all the people around her, necessarily, but to the vast amounts of information now available for the grabbing...if you know how. Personally, I find this "tech" private eye conceit a welcome change from all the forensic nonsense on TV. This is a show where the detectives still do the detecting.

In the third season, Veronica attends Hearst University. She’s still dating the millionaire bad boy son of a movie star (and convicted murderer) Aaron Echolls, the angst-ridden Logan (Jason Dohring). Veronica also maintains her “Scooby gang” of helpful associates and hangers-on, which this season includes old friend and tech girl Mac (Tina Marjorino ), a kid from the wrong side of the tracks named Eli "Weevil" (Capra), and the loyal and trustworthy Wallace (Percy Daggs). New to the squad this year: Wallace’s dorky roommate, Piz (Chris Lowell). Oh, and there's also Mac's uncomfortably perky roommate, Parker (Julie Gonzalo).

With Veronica out of high school, one might suspect that a critical element of the series format is sacrificed: the central location of the class-warfare subplot. That's true, perhaps, but the third season has pinpointed a good and welcome corollary that shifts the series' debate a bit.

In particular, the Hearst College campus is a hotbed of competing interests and agendas and Veronica very soon finds herself a woman without a nation once more, viewed suspiciously by all those bearing entrenched, closed-minded points of view. In particular, the first run of episodes, from "Welcome Wagon" to "Spit and Eggs," involves the pitched battle between a politically-incorrect fraternity (and by association, the Greek system...), and a group of radicalized, hostile feminists. Now, at first glance, you might expect a series entitled Veronica Mars to reflexively, mindlessly adopt the point of view of the feminists; but Veronica Mars is a post-feminist efort in a glorious and illuminating way. Polarization is the true enemy, the series appears to conclude, and in the course of several exciting episodes, Veronica discovers that although the fraternity jocks are a bunch of neanderthal sexists, the feminists - though different in their concerns and agenda - are really no better. Each side is committed to the humiliation and destruction of the other side. Veronica's only commitment? To the truth. The first several episodes deal persuasively with the idea of parody (or free speech), sexual assault, hypocrisy and more.

For her courageous stand against entrenched agendas, Veronica wins no popularity contests on campus; she doesn't toe to the feminist party line when she helps to prove that a particularly nasty fraternity house was not involved in series of campus rapes. And on the other hand, she gleefully goes after the fraternity system - and those involved - when necessary to find the truth. Veronica's stance points to a fascinating facet about modern America, and one that I've only seen dramatized on Veronica Mars. Which is: no cause is honored when one takes glee in the destruction of an enemy; or more accurately, when one lies, maneuvers, plots and manipulates to see that the enemy - no matter how bad - stumbles and falls. Veronica even comes to realize this herself in one story. In "There's Got to Be a Morning After Pill," she is given a golden opportunity to seek glorious revenge against an enemy named Madison Sinclair, but Veronica chooses an interesting (and new) path.

It isn't merely the competing ideologies of feminism vs brain dead fraternities that are exposed on the third season of Veronica Mars. The series features a great episode about human nature and why it is all to easy for some people to commit torture in "My Big Fat Greek Rush Week," a story that assigns characters roles as either guards or prisoners as part of a sociology class experiment. Another story, "Show Me The Monkey," pits animal rights activists against researchers experimenting on animals. What I like about Veronica Mars is that, not unlike South Park (except without the profanity), the series permits both "polarized" sides to get their say, and then - in the end - with a minimum of preaching or sanctimony, Veronica comes in and devastates both sides with a dose of common sense, logic and clarity. It is...cathartic.

At this point, I can only say this: Veronica Mars for President of the United States. Seriously. If the last fifteen years have proven anything in this country, it is that intense polarization is a dead end for the country. Because what are we left with? Half the country on one side, angry. The other half on the other side, equally angry. And whoever ekes out 51% does a victory lap and gets its way...regardless of the fact that 49% of the people voted against them. Environmentalists versus business, feminists versus sexists, pro-life vs pro-choice. In the end...where does it get us as a people and a country? Veronica Mars deals with this idea in an intelligent fashion. I hate to reduce it to platitudes, but the message seems to be: truth above all.

Watching Veronica Mars' third season this time around, I am reminded not just of the film noir format, nor class warfare, nor snarky teen drama, but rather - surprisingly - the Western genre. In some sense, Veronica Mars -- with that heroic sounding name -- is herself the stranger who rides into town, unattached and unsullied by politics, who seeks and then metes justice for the townspeople. The trappings are all different, of course, but Veronica Mars speaks to the same hunger that superhero films and TV shows often do. It speaks to this deep longing in America - this long-standing myth - of the lone individual who rides into a society and fixes the problems. Unlike Superman or Spider-Man, Veronica doesn't have superpowers, however. Her standing and power and authority arises from the fact that she is a member of "no party or clique" (like my favorite blogger Andrew Sullivan). She is unattached and thus susceptible to...the truth.

Veronica Mars also concerns the love life and personal experiences of the lead character, not merely the mysteries she routinely solves. But the approach on the "home front" is just as intelligent and cleverly written. It is even-handed to the same high degree as the social observation. One thoroughly impressive episode this season, called "Of Vice and Men" thoroughly dissects the male of our species. Yep, men - in all shapes and forms - find themselves under Veronica's microscope in this episode, and her conclusions are witty, fascinating, canny, and I must say, all together fair. How many other series can say the same thing?

Veronica Mars is a character I admire (and love) on a series that is brilliantly-written and well-performed. Television of this quality doesn't come around very often and it's hard to say goodbye...especially after this terrific season. But Veronica...we'll always have Neptune. And Hearst College.


  1. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Hey John -What exactly is the definition of post-feminism? And, is it something that exists in the real world, or just inside the frame of a television?


  2. Hey RC,

    I see a post-feminist woman (like Veronica Mars) as being both real (meaning appearing in life) and fictional (meaning appearing on television dramas...).

    I define a post-feminist woman as one who is fully confident, fully empowered, and fully in touch with her sex.

    But she doesn't feel the need or desire to dominate or belittle men (or anyone...) because of the qualities granted her by her sex.

    She doesn't believe that all women are better than all men by virtue of birth, but rather that they are different animals all together and thus go about things differently.

    I don't see her sex as "the reason" a post-feminist woman might be successful in terms of love, career, etcetera, but simply as a well-spring of certain gifts that go into her personhood and help form a confident, strong, independent identity.

    Traditional feminism is a form of bigotry, is it not? Saying that one sex is always superior to the other (as a racist might conclude whites are always superior to blacks). Feminism seeks to champion one demographic at the expense of another.

    A post feminist doesn't rely on platitudes of superiority or stereotypes to be tough-minded, strong, effective or successful.

    And just about every young woman of Generation Y I've met fits into this mold. She's not looking to score points or feel entitled by her sex. She's making her own way without regard to the old rules and without heeding these old, divisive battle lines.

    And very successfully.

  3. Yet another reason why the Greatest Generation is just that . . . the Greatest.

  4. Anonymous1:22 PM

    John, I’m going to rant and ramble a bit.

    When you say that traditional feminism is a form of bigotry and that feminists think one sex is superior to another, it appears that you may have been misinformed about the feminist movement. I don’t think you would say that the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a racist movement or that civil rights leaders felt that one race was superior to another. When you say that you define a post-feminist woman as “one who is fully confident, fully empowered, and fully in touch with her sex; but also someone who doesn't feel the need or desire to dominate or belittle men (or anyone...) because of the qualities granted her by her sex.” -This sounds to me like a feminist. I don’t think I have ever read any liberal feminist literature or heard any mainstream activists claim that women were superior to men. Yes, there are those out there that claim both female superiority and the feminist label, but they are not the norm inside the traditional first and second wave movements. However you are right when you say that “Feminism seeks to champion one demographic at the expense of another.” Men will lose power as women gain power, it is inevitable. When women fought and won the right to vote, this naturally displaced potential power consolidation. When women gained the right to buy and sell property or to take out credit in their own names, and not their husbands, men lost power. When a traditionally subordinate group gains power it’s only logical that the traditional superordinate group will lose power. Finally, a quick reply to your final statement:

    “A post feminist doesn't rely on platitudes of superiority or stereotypes to be tough-minded, strong, effective or successful. And just about every young woman of Generation Y I've met fits into this mold. She's not looking to score points or feel entitled by her sex. She's making her own way without regard to the old rules and without heeding these old, divisive battle lines. And very successfully.”

    Not to be funny here, but how many young generation Y women have you actually met and spent enough time with to understand what kind of mold they actually fit into? And, not counting the ones on TV. Many, not all, but many of the female generation Y’ers I see on a daily basis seem to have regressed to a pre-feminist mindset where self confidence and self-worth are teetering on a delicate and ephemeral idea of sexuality that is artificially constructed by patriarchal corporate advertising and media images. Take a look at the data that tracks the plummeting self-esteem of adolescent females in this country. Not to mention more concrete subjects like income disparity and the leadership ratios in business, politics, and religion. Just as in the past, feminists are continuing to address these issues. It would be great if every person had the characteristics of your defined “post-feminism” ---utopian in fact. And I think it’s great if TV and film characters take on these positive characteristics that I am arguing are actually feminist characteristics. I guess my issue is with the Orwellian word play of “post” feminism that not only belittle past feminist advances, but also suggest we have entered an era where women no longer need to worry about fighting for equality within the very male-centered social structure that creates us. Anyway, we can settle this over beers tonight.

    PS: and I know you won’t print this but to make my point that we have not achieved post-feminism yet. Take into consideration the new THB scene we are shooting today and why and how you are using it.

    see you in a bit - oh, and I made a salad to go with the pizza tonight.

  5. In academic circles, "post-feminist" is often used as a negative term. It often refers to the widespread mis-comprehension that the feminist movement has "ended" and is therefore no longer necessary. The argument against films/television shows/etc that are explicitly "post-feminist" is that they basically tell women that the thousands of years of gender inequality are now over and done with, so that it is now ok to become complacent and perhaps even regress back into unconsidered, pre-feminist roles.

    I attended a lecture given by Susan Douglas (author of WHERE THE GIRLS ARE: GROWING UP FEMALE WITH THE MASS MEDIA) in which see discussed the recent film DOWN WITH LOVE as perfectly indicative of a "post-feminist" mindset, in which certain token conceits of the feminist movement (empowered sexuality chief among them) are used without the political implications. In that film, despite the gender battle, the woman ultimately buys into the seduction of the pre-feminist relationship.

    I don't know enough about VERONICA MARS to venture a statement one way or another, but I just thought I'd share how I first encountered the term.