What If It’s Not My Neptune?: Pondering the Veronica Mars Movie Peter McCracken University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2016)
Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way first: I love Veronica Mars, I have always loved Veronica Mars, and I will never not love Veronica Mars. I have seen the entire series probably a dozen times in my life, including the original run on UPN and then The CW. But after donating to the highly successful Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie that reached its two milliondollar goal within a day (and eventually raised over five million dollars), I now find myself with some serious buyer’s (backer’s?) remorse.
The interim between the head rush of the announcement and the realization setting in that a new Veronica Mars chapter was about to open gave me a chance to remember why I love the series so much. The characters still feel rich and nuanced, a rarity in that era of television or most any other, and especially on a tiny network like UPN. The dialogue is still vibrant and rich Watercooler Journal
while remaining accessible and enjoyable. The zingers still fly; their delivery is nearly always perfect. The show had comic moments that could last for ten minutes before dropping a David Mamet-fueled bomb on the proceedings, and time and again the actors did justice to that material. Individual episode plots were strong overall, but the writing team earned its due with larger arcs consistently unique in their ambitious vision and track record of excellence. Most importantly, in this most visual of mediums, the show made a conscious effort to use space and light not only as background elements but as integral “characters” on the show. Veronica Mars is so much more than the sum of its very excellent parts, and it holds up ten years after it first aired. But is replicating one of the greatest long-form stories from the 2000s in a ninety-minute movie really the best idea?
“Maybe the creative team is setting itself up for failure by making this movie, and maybe we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating it.” When we first see Veronica, she holds a camera in her hands, but private investigation never exactly lends itself to artistic shots. The production team decided to make up for that with gorgeous atmospherics that feel achingly abandoned. A favorite establishing shot was of the entire high school student body outside at lunch that—even with every lead and supporting character plus dozens of extras in the frame—becomes… isolating. The eternally bright blue sky seems to dominate most daytime scenes alongside the brave choice of a washed-out palette. Season three brought about a change that saw the camera aiming slightly downward as the show began to go in a shakier direction, but the ethos was still there—private investigation is a lonely business, and Neptune, CA reflected that. Which brings us to the movie’s much buzzed-about trailer. All the magic in the original cinematography that dominated the first two seasons has been replaced with a much darker palette and claustrophobic lighting. I’ve only seen the trailer, but its aesthetics have my hackles raised. The shots feel too dark and constrained. Maybe it’s a decision made to reflect the ten years that have passed, but I only see a slick, hollow version of the Neptune, CA I grew up with for three years. Blowing up a small screen project usually puts visual cues front and center, but Rob Thomas has decided to take that away from us here. Audiences clamoring for more may be sold, but I’m still hanging back. Watercooler Journal
Of course, the core of the show was never Veronica’s snarky remarks—though they remain funny to this day—but the father-daughter relationship that developed from even before episode one. Keith Mars is everything we want in a fictional dad: smart enough to provide the meat-and-potatoes banter with his daughter, devoted enough to drive several plot points, and flawed enough to drive several others. Keith goes to great lengths to protect his daughter and it never feels cheap or forced. They have a relationship that, on the small screen, isn’t only credibly established but grows in an organic way from week to week. By the time Veronica goes to college we can see everything Keith tried to do to make his daughter into a good person. The Veronica we get in the first episode has grown and changed from one tangible person into another by the last. And there’s no way to know how these characters will hold up in a shorter format when they thrived so much growing over the long term. Even the smallest of relationships on Veronica Mars never felt cheapened. It was because Veronica knew almost everyone in town that the audience eventually did, too. Small-time scumbags that appeared once or twice throughout the show’s run felt like they’d just been off-screen the entire time. The lives of more critical Watercooler Journal
Neptune residents were always nuanced with a generous helping of pathos. We got to know Logan Echolls in all his tarnished glory, we got the chance to visit the lives of both the rich and poor, and we got to see how they grew when they were off-screen. No one ever just left the frame; everyone went on living. But where does this leave us ten years later? From the trailer, we know Veronica is a lawyer at an upscale New York firm. This irritated some fans because so much of the show laid out hints that investigation and field work were Veronica’s strong skills, not lawyering. It’s a drastic and unsubtle shift that robs so much of the imagined character arc away from the audience for the sake of plot. Story lines on Veronica Mars were always the result of characters making choices that fit who they were down to their subconscious selves, not characters making choices out of the blue. Going against something that was a keystone to the success of the show is worrisome at best. This level of detail in characterization is one of the main reasons why the show’s cancellation engendered such outrage and continued demands for more. After the finale, it felt like an entire group of people you’d grown up with had vanished without a trace—no clue left to how they were living now. These weren’t just characters. They were people with lives that happened to be fictional. Maybe the creative team is setting itself up for failure by making this movie, and maybe we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating it. Veronica Mars is both an outstanding television show and a perfect time capsule for a generation riddled with Bush-era ennui and kids looking to make something of themselves. It slaps a timestamp on itself almost from the outset and remains as close to the platonic ideal of 2004 A.D. as we’ll likely ever get. Taken as a whole, the show revealed to us a place that was so patently absurd it could only be fiction—and at the same time a place so honest that it reflected reality. Maybe the Veronica Mars movie will prove that Rob Thomas knows how to deliver regardless of format. Maybe I’m being a curmudgeon. March 14th, 2014 is now a little over a month away as I write this, and we’ve been promised a “real ending,” but maybe suddenly cancelled shows aren’t supposed to give us closure—ever. Maybe they’re supposed to give us brilliance and greatness and then leave all too soon, trailing questions with no apparent answers into the sunset.
image credits, in order: image via www.tokenfemalegamer.com ÂŠTime Warner ÂŠWarner Bros. Watercooler Journal