I tried a few light mentions, name-checking her with the diffidence I reserve for any opinion that might be dorkier than I realize.
“Who?” “Oh, yeah. Never watched that.”
Crushed, I shut up. Nobody was going to share a grown woman’s sudden, overwhelming love for a long-ago teenage tv show that felt like Nancy Drew with an edge. I had skipped the show, too; came to it only last year, when, after a couple bourbons, a dear friend confided that it was one of his favorite. Shows. Ever.
Because this friend can quote Richard Feynman, knows Byzantine history, writes poetry, and if his morals slipped, could probably hack into the NSA’s computer system, I took him seriously. Especially when he said one of his good friends named his daughter Veronica because of the show.
A few days later, a slim Amazon box showed up on my doorstep: a Veronica Mars dvd. “Just try it,” my friend urged when I called to thank him.
I waited until my husband was busy prepping a lecture upstairs, knowing an eye-roll would snap my open mind shut. Then I popped in the show, propped up my feet—and was hooked.
The show is teenage in a way that takes you right back to all the angst, idealism, feverish passion, and blithe fun. But it is also a noir crime drama that in many ways feels quite grown up. Veronica is refreshingly cynical and independent, with a sharp eye and plenty of insight into human nature. She is a good and loyal friend. She knows how to dig for information. She rebels at the right times and for the right reasons. She is avenging a friend’s mysterious death and shattering the teenage social hierarchy along the way, simply by seeing the outcasts as worth her time.
A CNN piece lists “TV Teen Queens Who Broke the Mold” and “got it right,” showing young women as whole, interesting, thinking creatures. Veronica would be my choice, I think, but no doubt she is passé, Kristen Bell having moved on to The Good Place. Still, I scroll, hoping, hoping—and there she is: “This teen detective (Kristen Bell) is witty, clever and a whole lot of fun to hang out with. Aided by the sometimes dark tone of the show, Veronica is a teen with layers and an antidote to the one-note Queen Bees that so often pop up on teen shows.”
Yes. This gives me the courage to search online, see how the show fared generally. I find more vindication than I expected. A scholarly article: “Robin Hood Goes to Neptune: The Collective Social Bandit in Veronica Mars.” Books: Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations Into Veronica Mars; Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series; Veronica Mars and Philosophy.
“Although not a ratings success,” begins the show’s Wikipedia entry (an understatement; it ranked a measly No. 148 out of 156 shows), “the series was a critical success from its first season.” Stephen King adored it, and he was as bemused by his own response as I was: “Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.”
The show is one of the hundred chosen in Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time. In his blog, director Kevin Smith admits he and his wife binge-watched Season One in a single night: “This is, hands-down, the best show on television right now, and proof that TV can be far better than cinema. The cast is pretty uniformly excellent, and the dialogue crackles.” In The Boston Phoenix, Joyce Millman called Veronica Mars “a character study masquerading as a high-school drama.” In PopMatters, Michael Abernethy called the series “a lesson book for the disenfranchised.” In TIME, James Poniewozik (now chief tv critic for The New York Times) rated it “one of the six best dramas on television.”
He even made me feel better about hating violence but loving crime dramas when he remarked, “Growing up means sleuthing out the mystery of who you really are.” Or who other people are. At any age.
By its third season, Veronica Mars was only at No. 138 and still had only 2.5 million viewers. But those 2.5 million viewers were staunch. One group hired a plane to fly over the CW offices streaming a “Renew Veronica Mars” banner; others coordinated delivery of more than ten thousand Mars bars to CW. Six years after the network canceled the show, still-loyal fans donated $2 million to a Kickstarter campaign in less than eleven hours, then another $3.7 million, enough to persuade Warner Brothers to make a Veronica Mars movie. Five years later, a fourth season was released on Hulu, which did not order a fifth.
Why did this show struggle? The first three seasons were slotted against Fox’s American Idol, back when AI was living the dream. The third season was interrupted, the episodes put on hiatus after the February sweeps so CW could air a new reality series, Pussycat Dolls Present (whose name alone would do its marketing). Veronica Mars was tough to pigeonhole—noir but tender, witty but focused on crime, not girlfriends or goofy fun. And adults recoil from teenage shows (and sometimes from teenagers). Nobody I casually tested admitted to more than a vague recollection of the title Veronica Mars, and the way they said they had never watched it sounded like they were disavowing Abba.
Were it not for my half-drunk friend, who rarely comes out about his love for Veronica Mars but was sufficiently soused to evangelize that night, I would have done the same. And I am still puzzled by the way I dove in, eager for each series, so disappointed to watch the last show. I barely ever watch television, and get hooked only when something feels really, really good. This felt more like ice cream after a breakup—good but more important, comforting, even four decades after it would have been age-appropriate.
It is the relationship between her and her dad that forms, Smith writes, “the heart and soul of the show.” Keith Mars manages to combine fatherly concern and firm ground rules with teasing banter that respects his daughter as an equal player. He is bursting with pride, knows full well how smart and brave she is, but he keeps her grounded, humble, and sufficiently practical to survive. Their love for each other is palpable but never icky; you just want to be in the room with them, relax into the possibility of this sort of bond.
And with that, the truth leaps out at me. I love the way the show pokes holes in the mystique of popularity and shallow wealth, guts pomposity, injustice, bigotry, and stupidity. I love watching a tough, gutsy young woman do stuff I never would have dared. She is plucky—that word we never use anymore—and so help me God, I felt braver after three seasons’ immersion. But it is not Veronica I adore. It is her dad. I grew up without one, and Keith is the exact sort of dad I would have wanted. None of my friends had dads like that, and none of the other tv dads ever touched that empty place inside me. They were too cardboard, too perfect, too stuffy, too gooey. But Enrico Colantoni plays this dad to perfection—and I wonder if he knows what a psychological service he is rendering.
Guilty pleasure analyzed, I feel marginally less embarrassed.
What is pop culture, anyway, if not wish fulfillment?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.