In 2004, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sunnydale imploded and popular shows like Dawson's Creek and Felicity were already in our rearview mirror, Veronica Mars arrived to fill the void. Veronica was Nancy Drew crossed with Rory Gilmore, a super-smart teen caught between the haves and have-nots in Neptune, California. And her speed-of-light pop culture banter was delightfully matched with a healthy dose of sleuthing.
Star Kristen Bell and creator/showrunner Rob Thomas fought tooth and nail to keep Veronica Mars alive, getting three seasons from Warner Bros. despite the show's continually lackluster ratings. When a third-season revamp took Veronica to college, introduced several new characters, and still failed to attract a higher viewership, Thomas whipped up a last-minute pitch to throw Veronica into the FBI for the show's fourth season. When the CW passed, Thomas pitched movie ideas. But for six years, nothing worked — until last week, when Kickstarter allowed the show's loyal fans to donate the relatively meager $2 million budget necessary to bring Veronica to the big screen.
Now that the funding is finally in place, a bigger question confronts us: Can Veronica Mars survive all the missteps and thematic makeovers that were designed to save it, but only served to move it farther and farther away from the series fans that loved in the first place? Or is Neptune, like Sunnydale, now in danger of imploding — not by magical intervention, but by the impossibly high expectations of a fanbase that's spent the past six years waiting to see Veronica again?
The parallels to Buffy the Vampire Slayer don't stop there; Veronica Mars was the second-wave version of Buffy Summers. Joss Whedon crafted his tiny, blonde heroine — a character who many would peg as an obvious victim — into the world-saving powerhouse of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Buffy, Veronica is small and surprisingly powerful — but rather than the superhuman strength of the vampire slayer, Veronica's power is a decisively human result of her struggles, which have thrust her out of fairy tale expectations and into a world of bitterness that fuels her. In the opening scene of the Veronica Mars pilot, Thomas took great pains to show that Veronica is different than the average teen drama protagonist. As the camera glided over the Camelot Hotel, the romantic literary reference was juxtaposed with Veronica's anti-happy ending voiceover:
I'm never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is. Veronica Mars, spinster. I mean, what's the point? … Sooner or later, the people you love let you down. And here's where it ends up — sleazy men, cocktail waitresses, cheap motels on the wrong side of town, and a soon-to-be-ex spouse wanting a bigger piece of the settlement pie. That's where I come in. ... But do us a favor if it's you in there. Dispense with the cuddling. This motel tryst is what it is; make it quick. The person sitting in the car across the street might have a calculus exam in five, make that four hours, and she can't leave until she gets the money shot.
Every scene in the pilot is about Veronica's maturity, brains, and power. She's no damsel looking for a knight in shining armor, and she's utterly unshackled by peer pressure. She fearlessly faces down a biker gang and earns the respect of its leader, Weevil (Francis Capra); she makes her key, series-long friendship with Wallace (Percy Daggs III) by ignoring a mocking crowd and cutting him down from a flagpole; she outsmarts the authority figures around her, including school administration and police; and as the one soft spot in her bitterness-fueled stoicism, she has a loving relationship with her father (Enrico Colantoni).
But even though she's the wunderkind child of a mentor father, Veronica's focus is on her own female experience. Before our introduction to Neptune in the pilot, Veronica's rich best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered, her father's career was ruined, her mother left town, and — at a party where Veronica tried to rekindle relationships with her affluent circle of friends — our heroine was drugged and raped. Though we see flashbacks to Veronica clad in white dresses and long, princess-like hair, she's traded it all in at the beginning of the series for a jagged, short 'do and practical clothes. She's eschewed the problems classic femininity brought her, and focuses instead on honing her idea of inner-strength while trying to figure out three key things over the course of the season: Who killed her best friend, where her mother went, and who raped her.
Unsurprisingly, this has led many to describe Veronica Mars as a feminist show. But for all of our protagonist's progressive attitudes, the show isn't intentionally feminist; in fact, it's often often problematic. Though Veronica's focus is quite female-centric at first, this gives way to the traditional narrative of a female heroine surrounded by a sea of men. The only reliable people in her life are male: Her father, Wallace, Logan, Duncan, Dick, and Piz. Mac (Tina Majorino) is Veronica's lone reliable gal pal, and even she isn't free of the trends that befall most recurring female characters — a sexual punishment trope in which sex leads to anything from STIs and alcoholism to rape and death. There are, universally, grave consequences for the sexually active women of Neptune.
These missteps, however, are initially shadowed by Veronica's strength — until season three, when the show's questionable themes are finally too pronounced to be shadowed by the lead's charisma. To try to entice a larger audience, season-long arcs were replaced by a trio of shorter mysteries: The rapes at Hearst College, the murder of the school's dean, and a secret Skull-and-Bones-type society. As Veronica Mars shifted its cast, its location, and its narrative focus, the thematic appeal began to wane — and it was eventually revealed that all the problems started with a group of militant feminists.
Ideologically, Veronica is a lot like the girls fighting to bring an end to the campus' rape epidemic. That feminist group is justifiably angry: At a privileged frat that drove their friend crazy, at a string of unsolved rapes, and at a university that isn't interested in justice. Without the asset of Veronica's extensive detective skills, they played to their strengths: Protests and newspaper exposés. But instead of inspiring camaraderie, the feminists become an irrational, stereotypical enemy that Veronica wants nothing to do with. She dislikes this group so much that she's often on the sexist fraternity's side of the show's frequent us-versus-them showdowns, helping Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) — someone who was instrumental to the events that led to Veronica's earlier rape. The feminists are framed as a group, devoid of personal, individual signifiers, and they do some pretty loathsome things, including faking a rape and sexually assaulting an enemy. The show's earlier, thoughtful treatment of sexual assault begins to dissolve, and the thematic power is further damaged by Parker (Julie Gonzalo), Mac's inconsistent, unlikable roommate, who joins the feminist cause one moment and jokes about her rape with Veronica and Mac the next.
Veronica Mars' growing problems throughout the third season extended beyond the portrayal of feminists and sexual assault. The show's strength came from its treatment of privilege and class, which was topped with a character whose damaging experiences helped to shape her into a strong, capable, and dynamic woman. But in the third season, Veronica assimilates with privilege rather than questioning it, and finally begins to unravel under pressure. Our bitter but caring teen heroine became our bitter and desperate young woman. She struggles to trust her father, her lovers, and her friends, whether they had earned her wariness or not. Veronica's mistrust is understandable given her experiences, but it also fundamentally changed her from a source of inspiring power to a broken heroine who was continually victimized. The narrative was no longer dominated by her rising from the ashes of her trauma, but falling back into them. In "The Bitch is Back," the series' final episode, Veronica seemed to rise from the ashes again — but the cancellation left her future uncertain.
Though the Veronica Mars movie was only funded last week, Thomas has already revealed some details about its story. As Thomas now sees it, Veronica never saw on-again/off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) after the series' finale, and never worked another case. She transferred to Stanford, and then to Columbia Law School. As she interviews for jobs in New York, Veronica is pulled back to Neptune, California; Logan wants her to investigate his pop-star girlfriend's murder, which happens to coincide with Veronica's 10-year high school reunion.
So Veronica is the rusty ex-PI — a story decision that betrays everything that made Veronica Mars so special. This is no longer the story of a girl who used detective work to gain agency in her life; it's a story of someone who grew up and moved on, and is sadly forced to go back in time. Is a rusty, ex-girl detective reuniting with her high school boyfriend a theme that will live up to the standards of Veronica Mars at its best — let alone a financially invested fanbase with sky-high expectations for their heroine?
We can only hope that Thomas has learned from the missteps of the series. But if not, well — we used to love Veronica Mars, a long time ago.
Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.