When we talk about the TV renaissance, we should talk about “Veronica Mars.” The 2004 “high school noir” show’s extraordinary first season mixed weekly casefiles with a season-long arc—two arcs, actually. Veronica starts the show as a suddenly bereft and embittered California teen: Her best friend has been murdered, her father lost his sheriff’s job when he fingered a local corporate bigwig for the crime, she lost all her friends in the aftermath, and when she tried to show defiance by going to a party where most of the people hated her, she was roofied and raped. Our tiny blonde sleuth spends the first season trying to solve her friend’s murder and her own assault.
Veronica (Kristen Bell) is half Philip Marlowe, half Buffy Summers. But she’s Marlowe without the isolation—her relationships, especially her warm and (mostly) trusting relationship with her father (Enrico Colantoni), are central to her character—and Buffy without the self-pity. She’s a wisecracker whose cynicism covers up a “marshmallow” heart of empathy and longing. The show’s first season explored the spiraling consequences of seemingly minor sins; the callousness and confusion which allow crimes to be committed right under everybody’s noses; and the way kids cope, or fail to cope, with parental legacies of violence and despair.
The next two seasons couldn’t sustain the psychological acuity of the first. Season Two has some great moments (the stadium demolition intercut with gang leader Weevil’s sacramental confession is a highlight for me) but a deep streak of stupidity and caricature; those problems only deepened in Season Three. The show’s final episode is the only good episode in the third season, but it’s pretty great: an achingly sad portrayal of perseverance, defeat, and failure in both the eyes of the world and the court of one’s own conscience. (Uh, spoilers? It’s noir, it doesn’t have a happy ending.)
Veronica’s fans were fierce, and clamored for more Mars. Hence this new movie, in very select theaters (it’s only playing in one location in D.C.) due to a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t really mean it as a criticism when I say that the movie plays as a much longer version of the final episode: In an age of TV that feels like a movie, the “Veronica Mars” movie feels like TV.
That’s true of the style—Veronica’s voiceovers, the opening recap which really should have been done as a “Previously, on ‘Veronica Mars’…”, the repetition of suspects’ names in case we came in at the commercial break, the cliffhangery lines (“I know what happened”) which aren’t actually cliffhangers because the movie just keeps playing. It’s a bizarre style which plays with our desire for familiar tropes and touches.
But reunion and recapitulation are the movie’s themes, as well. Veronica does go to her high school reunion; she collides once more with ex-nemesis, ex-boyfriend, ex-“obligatory psychotic jackass” Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring); she’s pulled back into the grimy underworld of sunny Neptune, Calif. The movie hits this key noir theme hard: Nobody escapes the past. You can move across the country, join the military, change your name, dye your hair, but Neptune will find you and drag you back under.
That’s a pretty grim way to interpret fans’ love for the familiar! We get plenty of the fun side of recapitulation as well, like cameos for almost all of our favorite bit players, from sleazy PI Vinnie Van Lowe to harried Principal Clemmons. We get updates on the larger cast—fans of sidekicks Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III) will probably want more than they get, but people like me, who always preferred Weevil (Francis Capra) and father-bear Keith Mars, get some satisfying and poignant character development. Logan chokes back tears, which is a skill I hope Jason Dohring lists on his LinkedIn. Callbacks and shoutouts abound. I don’t think this movie would be your best introduction to Veronica Mars; it’s a little too fannish for that. As a fan, I found it basically satisfying: comfort-food discomfort.
One fascinating cultural note, by the way: The movie’s view of masculinity is ultra-retro. Women can do whatever they want, but men should hit one another and protect women. The show took this line too; it kept disclaimering and trying to escape it (and was often honest about the costs of masculine violence) but kept returning to punches as proof of love. The movie keeps both the disclaimers and the eventual surrender to trad-masculinity’s rough charms.
“Veronica Mars,” the TV show, gave us self-aware, suspenseful, class-conscious, hopeful in the face of constant disappointment, brave in its portrayal of sexual violence (if we forget that Season Three ever happened), and surprisingly humane noir. “Veronica Mars,” the movie, hits the romance too hard but keeps both the humanity and the noir edge.