Mars Investigations 4: What does it mean to be a tourist?
I am so glad that the moment of Troy's comeuppance has arrived. As you know from previous issues, I can't stand this dude's little sexual innuendos, his smug cockiness, or his linen pants. As Veronica would say, smell ya later!
Before we get into the episode, just some quick housekeeping. You'll notice that hosting-wise, I'm no longer using TinyLetter and am now using Ghost. One thing this means is that you can now read Mars Investigations in blog form. Just go to the newsletter's homepage and you'll find a tidy little archive. It also means that I have more options for formatting and layout, so please bear with me as I experiment and optimize. And also, last week's newsletter was the third issue, not the fourth, as I mistakenly numbered it. Baby's first official correction! Thanks so much for your patience and understanding.
Having said that, if you have feedback please do get in touch with me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, hit me up if you want to share your own stray thoughts and observations, ask a question, or chat about anything else.
Also please note: The start and end of any potential spoilers are marked with this emoji: 🤐
🔍 Intro and housekeeping (above, already happened)
🔍 Synopsis of S1E5 "You Think You Know Somebody" from veronicamars.fandom.com
🔍 Some thoughts on being a tourist
🔍 Stray thoughts and observations on cultural references (📝) music (🎼), and tech (🚀)
🔍 Next time in Mars Investigations
🔍 Synopsis of "You Think You Know Somebody"
Originally aired October 26, 2004
"In this episode, Veronica goes on the case when her boyfriend Troy Vandegraff's car goes missing and finds out some unpleasant information in the process." (source)
🔍 What does it mean to be a tourist?
In my first Mars Investigations newsletter, I mentioned the question “Does it hold up?” I keep coming back to this question because when I revisit a movie or TV show from another time—especially a not THAT long ago time like the 1980s or 1990s—I tend to focus on whether certain race/class/gender sensibilities of the era will be depicted in ways that make the thing difficult to watch, hard to enjoy, or just too irrelevant to bother with. The thing is, though, I’m starting to realize that asking whether or not something “holds up” in this way assumes that some element(s) of the thing were fine “for its time,” but now that we’ve evolved as a culture, those elements leave a bad taste in our mouths. In other words, the idea that things are “products of their time” makes sense intuitively, but more often than not, winds up being a convenient excuse to distance ourselves from interrogating what we’re seeing. “Things were just like that then” should be the beginning of the conversation and exploration, not the end.
I was thinking about this a lot as I watched S1E5, “You Think You Know Somebody.” In particular, I was noticing how Logan and his friends talk about and treat Tijuana. For these rich, white kids from SoCal, Tijuana is a personal pleasure palace—a place they can visit, make use of (for booze, sex, and drugs), and then discard until the next time they have the urge to (without consequences or care) get laid, get drunk, or buy drugs. Almost any time Logan, Luke, or Troy talk about their time in Mexico, it’s made crystal clear that Tijuana is their little debaucherous treat. This makes these 09ers the worst kind of tourists: They’re rich white Americans who experience an entire city full of people and places merely as a source of fulfillment for their desires.
It got me thinking about The White Lotus, a six-episode series that aired on HBO in July and August of 2021. Instead of teen boys in Mexico, The White Lotus is about wealthy white Americans who are guests at a luxury resort in Hawaii. Like Tijuana for the 09ers, Hawaii for these characters is not a place that has its own history or is full of people who have their own identities and stories. Instead, Hawaii, hotel staff, and the Native Hawaiians they encounter there are their little treat, their getaway, their place to be however they want to be, no matter how rude, patronizing, condescending, or disrespectful it is, because they’ve paid for that luxury. After all, they’re tourists.
In the essay “‘The White Lotus’ And The Limits Of White Self-Critique,” writer Brooke Obie talks about shows like The White Lotus, Succession, Arrested Development, Big Little Lies, The Crown, and others of their ilk. In other words, shows about wealthy white people who are morally bankrupt and pathologically self-obsessed, but oftentimes conflicted or sad about who they are and the lives they lead. The characters’ awfulness mixed with their ambivalence allows them moments of reflection and redemption both small and large. Obie talks about how these shows gesture at critiquing aspects of racism, classism, colonization, and tourism, but don’t really say or do anything that challenges the viewer (especially the white viewer, in my opinion) to think about those things in new ways. Nor does their very creation or existence do anything to challenge existing structures of power in the entertainment industry. According to Obie, despite the performance of grappling with issues of place, power, and identity, what all of these shows are most interested in exploring is simply “the humanity of rich and powerful white people.”
Of course, Veronica Mars isn’t a perfect analog for the shows Obie writes about. Veronica Mars is not trying as hard nor as singularly to portray the lives (and inner lives) of wealthy, white people who are oblivious, racist, and messy. But it is clear that one of the projects of Veronica Mars is to offer some point of view, some critique of issues of race and class privilege and inequality.
To that end, we see time and again throughout the series rich white people being racist, entitled, patronizing, classist. Oftentimes it’s this behavior that fuels Veronica's desire to punish or humiliate them (allowing her to be the hero, but that’s a whole other newsletter). Sometimes I think we’re meant to cringe at their behavior and think “god they’re awful.” Other times, I have to say, I think the white viewer, in particular, is being invited to laugh along a little bit with the 09ers. But either way, what does watching the portrayal of wealthy white people behaving awfully ask of viewers, especially white viewers?
In the end, doesn’t it mean that, as Obie says about The White Lotus, the “Real Story” is the humanity of those in power? Sure, we’ve gotten to know Weevil and Wallace a bit. But will they and their stories and inner lives be centered in episodes to come in the ways that we’ve seen of Veronica, Logan, Duncan, and Lilly? Will we see a critique of the 09ers that originates with, say, Weevil or Wallace? Who is being portrayed in all their messy fullness, and who isn’t? Who will have realizations about their place in the world and be allowed redemption?
These are questions worth thinking about not so that we can decide whether a character is “good” or “bad” or whether the show “holds up,” but so that we can think about whether it’s enough for our entertainment to depict these dynamics (oftentimes in the same ways we’ve seen them depicted time and time again). Perhaps we want something more meaningful, something that mines new territory or raises deeper and more challenging questions. Do we see ourselves as tourists—visitors who have don’t have a responsibility to do anything besides enjoy the destination? Are we meant to take what we want, and go home? Or should we expect more of ourselves?
🔍 Stray Thoughts and Observations
- In this episode, we get the first big fight between Keith and Veronica. A consistent theme at this point in the series is the messiness of the boundaries between Keith and Veronica, which is related to the messiness of boundaries between their work lives and their home lives. Keith tries to maintain some dad authority but when it comes to active investigations, often treats Veronica like a peer. She is allowed to help investigate cases but is forbidden from pursuing Lilly's murder. She is allowed to pry into clients' private lives, but not her father's. It's a great depiction of how confusing and dislocating it can be when boundaries—particularly the ones between adult authority figures and kids or teens—are inconsistently enforced.
- One morning, Veronica makes herself a bowl of "Vital 100" cereal. Sounds like something Hank Zigman would stir into a blender bottle before doing bicep curls.
- "The best way to dull the pain of your best friend's murder is to have your mother abandon you as soon as possible. It's like hitting your thumb with a hammer, then when it's throbbing so badly you don't think you'll survive, you cut the damn thing off." I LOVE a rich analogy. This is a great bit of voiceover.
- I am officially claiming Hank Zigman, owner of Zig Zag Sports Club, as another minor Jewish character. A Jewish bodybuilder noch!
- Speaking of Zig Zag Sports Club, shout out to the location department and set dressers for this episode. There are all kinds of gyms out there, but what we see in this episode is exactly what a gym run by a broad, be-ponytailed bodybuilder would look like: barbells, unpadded dumbbells, a poster of a lady in a bikini, and more than one dude on the floor doing bicep curls.
- A few of Veronica's classmates as named by Lianne in a flashback: Garrick Fisher, Kenny Housemen, Travis Kittlemeyer, and Boris. Simply Boris.
- If I was going to invent a fictitious prep school for my television show script, I'd 100% call it Pembroke and place it in Connecticut. And if I was inventing a Catholic school, I'd call it St. Mary's and place it in Boston. I really like this show's attention to detail!
- We get a couple more looks at Veronica's code of ethics, as well as her taste for righteous punishment. First, as she tells Luke, she does not help dealers find their lost product. And in helping him out, she punishes Hank, turning him over to border patrol. Second, she absolutely shreds her classmate during the interview exercise in Ms. Dent's class. Granted Ashley was kind of provoking Veronica, but Veronica's reaction was very murderous t-rex vs. a frisky cat. And then regarding Troy, Veronica has decided that Troy withholding information about his past was Wrong. But when Veronica confronts him about this, Troy does make a pretty good point:
Maybe after I'd known you for more than a month, I'd tell you my deep dark secrets. Or is that too much of a character flaw? Waiting for the girl to like you before you tell her the things you're not so proud of? I don't have to tell you that. You're Veronica Mars. You know everything.
- I was trying to get a sense of how big a haul $8,000 worth ($12,000 in 2022 dollars, by the way) of steroids is. I couldn't find the street price for steroids in 2003, but this 1996 New York Times article Anabolic Steroid Use Grows, Legal or Not does give a bit of context: "They are sold on the street in this country for anywhere from $1 to $10 a pill...Bodybuilders often ''stack'' the drug—that is, take enormous and frequent doses that can cost them $1,000 a month and more." So I guess the piñata had between 800 and 8,000 pills? So it is a substantial loss for Hank who's either a small-time dealer or a big-time user. Or maybe a medium dealer and moderate user!
- On the other hand, is $8,000 worth of drugs a big enough haul for a rich kid like Troy to plot this whole gambit over? He also plans on coming away with the Beamer though, so that makes it a decent haul.
- We get so little Wallace and Weevil in this episode. They're both on screen simply to push the story forward (In Weevil's case to literally, physically move Veronica forward) which is a buzzkill. There's one egregious example of Wallace's instrumentality: Veronica and Troy are talking about Troy's predicament and Wallace appears literally from behind a tree where he was standing and says "I don't get something. Why are your parents sending you off to prison school in Albuquerque? Seriously. What's wrong with a good old-fashioned grounding?" As soon as Troy responds, Wallace walks off screen. This should plant the seed for Veronica and the viewer that something about Troy's story doesn't add up. Thank you for the tip, Wallace. But you deserve better.
- 🤐 We get a few more instances of Veronica and Logan interacting. There's a bunch of sniping of course, but when Veronica drops Logan off after the night in Tijuana, they have a relatively low-hostility moment of real flirtation. Finally, there's one long shot of Logan kneeling at his locker and we watch as Veronica approaches him from the background, slowly coming into focus. 🤐
- Major progress in learning more about Lianne's disappearance. Veronica finds out she was being stalked and believes this is linked to her mom bouncing. We also find out that Lianne has received one of the burner phones is out there, somewhere.
📝 Cultural references
- Hank says to Luke mockingly, "Nobody's kicking sand in your face." This is a reference to the famous bodybuilder Charles Atlas. He said that his journey to bodybuilding started when a bully kicked sand in his face at the beach, which was Atlas' inspiration to get absolutely ripped. That backstory became a foundational part of his ad copy.
- Luke is distraught that he has to sell his Barry Bonds baseball because "You have no idea what it's going to be worth when retires." He ends up selling it on eBay for $2,800. Today, an autographed Barry Bonds baseball goes for a couple hundred bucks on eBay. Did the foofaraw around Bonds' performance-enhancing drug use impact the value of his memorabilia? I don't know! Then again, if Luke has an autographed baseball that Barry Bonds also hit for one of his famous home runs (which would make sense because Luke says "You have no idea what I went through to get this ball.") then it would be more valuable. The ball that Bonds hit for his 756th home run (the homer that made Bonds the all-time home-run leader) sold for $752,467.
- Brigadoon. OK, so Logan not only quotes the Beatles and Barbra, but he also casually references Brigadoon, the Broadway musical that premiered in 1947.
- Milkshake, from the 2003 song "Milkshake" by Kelis.
- The Passion, aka The Passion of the Christ. According to IMDB, each day before production started, writer and director Mel Gibson had a priest lead the Traditional Roman Catholic Latin Mass of the Apostolic Rite. Sounds like a fun set.
- "Dude, where’s your car?" is a reference to the 2000 movie Dude, Where's My Car? which btw, has a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.
- "God, it must have been a huge cereal box." That's actually a pretty good one, Logan. And it is a reference to the little toys and prizes that used to be in cereal boxes which, I guess isn't a thing anymore. Source: The Real Reason They Don't Put Toys In Cereal Boxes Anymore
- Wallace subscribes to MAD Magazine, the classic humor/satire publication that was founded in 1952 and ran until 2018. You may recognize its mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and his catchphrase "What, me worry?"
- The Scooby-Doo characters Daphne, Velma, Fred, Shaggy and the catchphrase "ruh roh," a fave of Scooby as well as the Jetsons' dog, Astro
- Kim Jong-il, the former supreme leader of North Korea
- "Deleting the records of Black voters of Florida" is a joke in poor taste from Troy and a reference to the 2000 U.S. presidential election. That vote-counting shitshow is now considered the kickoff to the current wave of GOP-lead voter disenfranchisement efforts. If you don't know much about this, I recommend reading How the 2000 Election in Florida Led to a New Wave of Voter Disenfranchisement by Ari Berman for The Nation.
- The scene in which Luke is running through backyards as Hank Zigman chases him is reminiscent of a similar scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which Ferris races through yards and houses to get home before his sister and mom do.
- Nancy Drew, the fictional teen sleuth created in 1930 as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boys.
- A Good Times Van, according to the article "Good Times custom vans," was a van converted into a stylish, customized pleasure craft. One of the most popular companies doing these conversions was Good Times, Inc. From the February 1, 1975 issue of D Magazine:
Getting there is half the fun, but getting there in a flurry of funky fun is even better. One way to get it on is in a Good Times, Inc., customized van...The vans (Fords, Chevys or Dodge) are dolled up to suit the owner’s taste – anything from plush GT unit featuring carpeting, waterbeds, [ed. note: emphasis mine] stereo, etc., to a sedate Stadium Van ideal for family outings.
- The soundtrack budget is BACK, baybee. Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" plays not once but twice in this episode. I actually have truly no idea how much it costs to play songs in TV shows but my understanding is that if the song is popular, it can get pretty expensive. Granted, this song was no "In Da Club" by 50 Cent (the top song of 2003) but "Such Great Heights" did peak at 21 on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles that year, so that's something. Like Troy, I dig this song.
- Troy's dad's car is a BMW 740i. The 2022 model goes for $87k.
- A landline with a coiled cord hanging on the wall. I miss how we used to hang our phones on walls!
- "Anti-theft homing device" on the Beamer
- At the Mars residence, a cordless landline with an answering machine. An answering machine!
- On the dossier Keith leaves for Veronica there's a label that reads TROY VANDEGRAFF in a blocky font that can only be described as Labelmaker Sans Serif. I've never seen it in any other context.
🔍 Next time in Mars Investigations
For the next issue, we'll be rewatching S1E6, "Return of the Kane." This is the episode that gives us our first in-depth look at Duncan. 🤐 Duncan is controversial as a once and future love interest for Veronica, and that's something I'll at least touch on. 🤐 I might have a grand unified theory on Duncan Kane coming up, too, but I'm going to be discovering that as I go. Let's see what the rewatch brings.
Edited by Andrea Lynch. Tech support by Jen DeMarco. Mars Investigations logo by Amber Seger.