Mars Investigations 1: That bungling sheriff was my dad.
Hello and welcome!
You’re reading Mars Investigations, a Veronica Mars rewatch newsletter. In this newsletter, I'm going to dive into the characters, storylines, and themes of Veronica Mars, the California-noir-teen-murder-mystery-dramedy that ran for three seasons from 2004-2007. This newsletter is for anyone who's seen the series (or most of it) at least once and really wants to spend some more time in the world of Neptune, CA.
In this first issue, you’ll find:
- A little housekeeping about this newsletter
- A synopsis and quick recap of S1E1
- A deepish dive into some of the issues raised in the pilot
- Some miscellaneous observations and stray thoughts.
- A few notes on the music, cultural references, and technology that popped up in this episode
Housekeeping and what to expect
Revisiting any piece of media from Another Time is a tricky project. The first thing I wonder is "does it hold up?" even though nothing particularly nuanced or meaningful can come from such a binary question. At the same time, a lot has happened in these united states since the show aired almost 20 years ago. So a big part of what I am interested in as I revisit it, is how it portrayed and dealt with, for example, race, class, and gender. But I'm also really interested in how the show dealt with bangs, bootcut jeans, misunderstood antiheroes, dads, and a lot more.
I hope that this newsletter will be a fun companion to your own re-watch or a way for you to reconnect with one of the best television shows of the 2000s. Regarding spoilers, I envision this newsletter as a re-watch companion. So, I will be thinking about talking about the show from the perspective of someone who knows what's coming and who's already spent a LOT of time thinking about it, which means it will be difficult for me to do what I have in mind without some light spoiling of themes and storylines. However, I know there are first-time watchers out there as well as people who haven't rewatched in a long, long time who'd like to be a little surprised. So, I will always let you know before I talk about any major plot spoilers. Of course, you need to trust my definition of "major plot spoiler," but I promise to practice "better safe than sorry" spoiler law. If you want to come into Veronica Mars pristinely unspoiled—you have not and will not watch a "next on" or a trailer, etc.—this newsletter isn't for you.
Before you proceed, I want to let you know that this newsletter contains discussions of race, anti-Black and anti-Asian racism, a mention of suicide, and mentions of rape.
Let's get into it.
Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot" originally aired September 22, 2004
Synopsis (from veronicamars.fandom.com)
Veronica Mars begins her junior year at Neptune High trying to re-adjust her life after her boyfriend, Duncan Kane, left her and after the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane the previous year. While helping her father, private investigator Keith Mars of Mars Investigations, investigate the possibility Jake Kane, father of Duncan Kane and Lily Kane, is having an affair with another woman, Veronica discovers more clues related to the Lilly Kane Murder Case. Veronica decides to find Lilly Kane's true killer and discover who raped her a year earlier.
It's tough for me to think of another TV show that did as much with its pilot as Veronica Mars was able to do. After 40 minutes (on Hulu, where I'm doing my rewatch, this episode clocks in at 39:43) in Neptune, we get who Veronica is and we also have a good overall sense of her world and the people in it.
After this episode we know, for example, that Veronica, once a member of the clique of rich, popular students called 09ers (they live in the illustrious 90909 zip code), is now a pariah in her high school, having been cast out when her father, acting as sheriff, accused local billionaire Jake Kane of murdering his own daughter Lilly (Veronica's best friend). We know Veronica is book smart, street smart, a real wiseass, and seems to be both reveling in and resentful of her new social status. We know that her ex-boyfriend (and Lilly's brother) Duncan dumped her last year without an explanation. We also know that Lilly's former boyfriend Logan is Duncan's best friend and Neptune High's "obligatory psychotic jackass,” as Veronica refers to him in an early voiceover. We know that new kid Wallace is decent and good but not a pushover. And that he’s someone who knows better than to trust what he's heard around school about Veronica. We know that Eli "Weevil" Navarro is a tough guy, but a funny tough guy who leads a motorcycle gang and is someone who's as good to have as an ally as he is bad to have as an enemy. Finally, we know that Veronica and her dad Keith have a playful, close relationship, but one that's carrying the weight of Lilly's murder, Keith's and Veronica's dual expulsions (Keith from his role as sheriff, Veronica from her social circle), the disappearance of Veronica's mom, and more.
Whew, that’s a lot. But even though the show was able to cram a ton in, the pilot rarely feels expository or overloaded with discrete pieces of information we need to track. Instead, thanks in large part to the use of Veronica's narration and flashbacks, the worldbuilding feels not only rich but seamless.
So, what else do we get from this pilot besides locations, characters, and storylines? Vibes. Big vibes. True crime vibes. Teen drama vibes. California noir vibes. dELiA*s' vibes. In short, Veronica Mars vibes. The reason it's worth pointing this out is that it's not uncommon for TV shows to seem like one thing during their pilot episodes and turn into another by the next episode or as the season progresses. Some post-pilot changes happen abruptly—like New Girl's character Coach simply not being in the show anymore starting with the second episode of season one (till he returns in season 3, of course). Other shows kind of have a season-long pilot and the changes happen over time—like Parks and Rec spending its entire first season figuring out how and why Leslie Knope was likable and funny and essentially rebooting in season two. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer being a low-budget monster-of-the-week, well, mess, arguably for its first one or two seasons till it evolved into a much better show in its third season. What I'm saying is, pilot episodes are often first pancakes. We expect them to be a little weird or wonky or just not quite 100% work, even with shows we end up loving and thinking are great.
As far as I'm concerned, Veronica Mars skipped the first pancake. The pilot is a fluffy short stack with a melty pat of butter on top. It does what a first episode of a show needs to do—it sets up the world and makes me want to keep watching. The pilot is not just a good episode of this show but is also a very good episode of television.
Having gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the ways in which this episode feels dated and cringey. I'll just pull out four pieces of dialogue that all come from different scenes in the episode. Transcript from here.
WALLACE: I guess we're even now. Right?
WEEVIL: [Aggressively] You get what boy? You get that you're a dead man walking, is that what you get?
VERONICA [to Weevil]: What? What seems to be the problem. I'm on a schedule here, vato.
WEEVIL [to Veronica]: Why you care so much for that skinny negro anyway. Things I heard about you, you must really lay the pipe right, huh.
WEEVIL [to Veronica]: You get lonely out here remember, Weevil love you long time. [Smacks kisses]Let's start with Weevil's dialogue. He calls Wallace, who is Black, "boy." Weevil also refers to Wallace as a "skinny negro." In that last line above he references the line spoken by the actor Papillon Soo Soo playing a Vietnamese sex worker in the 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, "me love you long time."
I think that all but the Full Metal Jacket reference (which I'll get back to in one sec) are demonstrative of something that Veronica Mars ended up doing a lot, which was conflating the act of presenting or acknowledging a societal issue (in this case, race and/or racism) with the act of constructively commenting on race and racism, or representing it in a meaningful way that invites the viewer to learn or notice something they might not have otherwise thought about. I think that the intention of this dialogue is to show us that racism is a real thing in the lives of these characters.
We're being shown that this is a world where everyday life is characterized by unfairness, inequality, and racial bias. As viewers, we're being told that this isn't going to be Bayside, California or even Chippewa, Michigan. In "a town without a middle class," allegiances are carved up along race-based and socio-economic lines, best friends get murdered, Latine students are criminalized, protagonists get sexually assaulted and law enforcement is callous and uncaring, and the absurd bubble of privilege that the rich white kids live is portrayed in all of its toxic awfulness. "I don't see color" is way too naive a sensibility for the characters in the show and for us as viewers.
Seventeen years and lots of thoughtful criticism about representation later, I don't think that either the writer of the episode, Rob Thomas, or its director, Mark Piznarski, both white men, were knocking it out of the park. But their attempt to create this kind of world in 2004 isn’t nothing. Well, ok, it's not nothing to me, a white viewer, who grew up on portrayals of the American high school where the (usually rich) white kids were not only not toxic and awful but were the heroes of their own stories and schools, which, by the way, were places where racism either didn't exist or was merely a problem between individuals and one that could be resolved in a single episode versus a structural problem that pervades every aspect of everyday life.
This generosity can’t be extended to Weevil's "love you long time" line which doesn't really tell us anything meaningful about who he is or what he believes besides that he's picked up on this popular, oft-quoted denigrating turn of phrase and, like many a teen boy would have is using it in a misogynistic way. It's just standard anti-Asian sentiment and it really does not earn its place. I recommend reading Thuc Nguyen for Esquire on how this phrase and variations of it have been used over the years to dehumanize and denigrate women of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
The only other thing I will mention is that it should also not escape our notice that when it comes to the portrayal of race and racism as realities, our heroine Veronica calls Weevil "vato" in a way that's meant to make her seem tough and cool while Weevil is given the lines that make him seem, well, racist and misogynist. We will see Veronica behave in an...overly familiar way with non-white characters throughout the series, so this is something we'll talk about more in future Investigations.
I'm not bringing up this dialogue because I want to revisit every single instance of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. in this show. If I did that, that's all this newsletter would be. But what I will do is dive into some of these things when doing so would tell us something important either about the characters and in the world of the show, or about thoughtfully and critically consuming art and media.
- This episode establishes the color palette that we'll see several of the characters stick to at least for the first season: Veronica in lots of pink and pink with green, Logan in lots of orange and brown, Duncan in blues. We also see Keith in a lot of blues. It’s too early to draw big conclusions from these color schemes, but we’ll revisit later in the season and see where we’re at.
- Neptune has a laundromat called Suds 'n Duds and a convenience store called Sac and Pac. Thanks, I love it.
- One of my all-time favorite relatively minor characters in a TV show? Cliff McCormack, a public defender in Neptune who sounds and looks like he'd also be a great auction caller or local news anchor. I love him.
- Veronica and Keith have a fun playful relationship but there are some times when their banter feels almost...flirty? I think what we're seeing is that Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni, who plays Keith, have an on-screen chemistry that didn't get flagged or reined in. The "who's your daddy" thing? I hate it!
- The high school lunchroom is one of the most important sites in any TV show or movie about teens. At Neptune High, the lunchroom is more of an alfresco patio and is no less crucial a place in this show. I can't wait to talk more about it.
- There's a strip club in Neptune called The Seventh Veil. The Seventh Veil is a 1945 British melodrama about a pianist who tries to end her own life and a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to treat her as she recovers. According to Wikipedia, "The film's title comes from the metaphor, attributed to one of the fictional doctors, that while Salome removed all her veils willingly, human beings fiercely protect the seventh and last veil that hides their deepest secrets, and will only reveal themselves completely under narcosis." And for anyone else who, like me, had to google "narcosis," it means "a state of stupor, drowsiness, or unconsciousness produced by drugs." The secrets people hide from each other and themselves is an idea the show will explore repeatedly over the course of season one. Going further, we know from Veronica's narration that she herself has experienced a state of stupor and unconsciousness caused by drugs. She was drugged and raped. I would be seriously misrepresenting my qualifications in literary criticism if I said I knew what all of this means. But it's interesting and worth pointing out and keeping in mind.
- This episode introduces a theme that the show comes back to frustratingly often: rape as a backstory. Things get even more muddled and annoying in future episodes and seasons when the show revisits various sexual assaults and accusations of sexual assault. We'll get to those, I'm sure.Music
This episode? Full of great tracks. A few bangers you should listen to ASAP:
- Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba
- Weak Become Heroes by The Streets
- La Femme d'argent by AirTech
- A digital SLR camera
- A camcorder
- A CD-R (aka a blank CD you could record onto)
- Mac Powerbook G4
- A courtroom sign reading "turn off your pagers and cell phones"
- A dial tone
- Streaming video
- A high school computer labCultural references
- "An Essay on Man: Epistle I" by Alexander Pope
- The South Park movie
- People magazine
- Entertainment Tonight
- The Outsiders
Next time in Mars Investigations
- I’ll look at episodes 2 and 3 of season one, “Credit Where Credit’s Due” and “Meet John Smith,” respectively.
- Veronica starts making headway on Lilly’s murder, so we’ll talk a little about murder, mysteries, and murder mysteries.
- We’ll either talk about or avoid talking about how these two episodes attempt to grapple with Relevant Social Issues. Stay tuned to see which way that one goes!
Hugely special thanks to Caroline Moss for her editing and guidance!