Gone But Not Forgotten TV: Veronica Mars
The comic and the tragic lie inseparably close, like light and shadow. – Socrates
Number of Seasons: 3
Veronica Mars is a unique look at high school as a greater symbol of society, where the population is divided by haves and have-nots. The rich kids are over-privileged and think they can get away with anything, while those with very little are constantly looking for a break. As the series continues, the line starts to blur and alliances form (temporarily most of the time). The only one willing to walk among both is the title character, Veronica, played by Kristen Bell. She was once a popular kid, although not particularly wealthy, who is now hob-knobbing with the have-nots after being outcast by her former clique. Her new sassy attitude doesn’t help keeping friends, but her very unique set of skills allows her to help out peers from both sides of the track. It is essentially Rian Johnson’s Brick meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the tv series.The first season was structured as a “case of the week” style show with an overarcing mystery serving as a backbone. This same structure would carry over to the second season but not the third. The first season’s mystery surrounded the death of Lilly Kane, the daughter of one of the wealthier families and best friend of Veronica. This pulls double duty not just as the mystery arc but also the backstory to Veronica’s current social standing. Her father is the sheriff which allowed her family a certain amount of leeway in terms of which side of the tracks they fell on. Over the course of the investigation of Lilly Kane, the sheriff was convinced that the family, namely the father, had something to do with it. When a seemingly unconnected person came forward and confessed to the crime, the sheriff, and by extension Veronica, was made a social pariah by the “powers that be.” He was forced to step down as sheriff and start a private investigation firm where Veronica works and learns the trade applying it to her unusually complicated high school years.
How much tragedy can happen to one group of people? Well, its not even close to being over. Before the murder even happens, Veronica’s boyfriend (who happens to be the brother of Lilly Kane) avoids her like the plague leaving her no back-up when all her peers turn their back on her. After the murder, she shows up at a party to spite them all only to be drugged and raped. Her drug-addled behavior, which she doesn’t recall, has earned her a “slut” label from all the “mean girls,” and this all happens before the events of the first episode. What follows is a what-what of tragic elements involving date rape, statutory rape, alcoholism, assassination, drug trafficing, incest, bombings, and suicide. It is pretty hardcore stuff for what seems like a show that is geared mostly to tweens. What elevates it to a different standard is the quality of writing and acting which is bar-none better than any other tween show on television. I wish more tween shows could take a cue from Veronica Mars. They usually waste good premises on sophomoric writing and soap opera acting. Then again, they either had or are having full successful runs and Veronica Mars was cancelled after 3 seasons and was never a ratings darling. So what do I know.
The tragedy depicted in this show is not what makes it great. What makes it great is it has found the perfect balance between tragedy and comedy. I started this post with a quote from Socrates because I felt it was very appropriate. Tragedy and comedy were once the only 2 genres of storytelling (thus the theater being represented by the sad and happy masks). Both have their roots in human suffering; it is how we perceive that suffering that creates either tragedy or comedy. They have a yin yang relationship. Tragedy, for instance, is chaos. It is when we don’t see that suffering coming, and it hits us like a ton of bricks. In a perfect world, parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. They are supposed to watch them grow old and become successful guiding them when need be. That doesn’t change the fact that through the complete randomness of the universe children sometimes die. This same kind of randomness is what leads Veronica to be raped. She never expected her best friend to be killed or her boyfriend to ignore her or else she wouldn’t be alone. The drugs weren’t intended for her, but she got dosed by coincidence. She never put any pressure or did anything wrong to her attacker, but the attacker was still driven to violence and sexual insecurity by outside forces. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances. Nevertheless, it is a tragic event that redefines Veronica as a person for the remainder of the series, specifically her inability to let people in emotionally and her hero complex to stop these kinds of acts from ever happening again.
Those are pretty run-of-the-mill tragic flaws for your average hero. Spider-Man, for example, both suffers and finds himself empowered by the grief, anger, and sadness he feels in lieu of his uncle’s death. And like Spider-Man, Veronica translates these feelings into comedy, a sort of security blanket to keep people at arm’s reach and to distract people from her almost superhuman abilities of detection. She strikes up these really great relationships based on fast-paced quirky dialog with the few people she can call friends. These friends are capable of giving as good as they get. Nothing trumps the relationship with her father though. Her father, Keith Mars (played exceptionally well by Enrico Colantoni), is grandfathered in before her arm’s reach only agenda making their relationship the most dynamic.They have this brutally honest relationship that is based on a level of trust not normally seen on television parent-child relationships. Veronica is forthcoming with all of her adventurers which pays off when she has to keep something from Keith and simply say, “trust me.” This is intertwined with the usual antagonistic relationship parents have with their teenage siblings. He is constantly embarrassing her with his old school music choices and out-dated sense of humor, while she keeps him on the edge of his seat when her curiosity and youthful foolhardiness gets the best of her. It makes for some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments of the whole series. All the while her dime store novel narration plays over the events like a watchful cynical eye dispensing justice in the form of hilarious insults and asides as if we are reading her mind in that very moment. Narration can be hit or miss in this medium, but here it so perfectly relieves the tension. That is how comedy works best, as a sort of catharsis to the chaotic nature of tragedy. Laughing in the face of randomness strips it of its power. You are taking control of your emotions and not allowing the universe to manipulate you. And without comedy, we would never care if these characters continues to suffer or not.
Comedy and tragedy are the building blocks to great storytelling because they are the filter on which we perceive events. Reality is messy and chaotic and disorganized. The absurd lurks around every corner looking to deliver darkness or light, and we don’t get a say in which one. A lot of stories seem to understand this. Dramas always come with comic relief. Comedies always come with a tragic narrative function, but never have I seen the perfect marriage of the two concepts than Veronica Mars.