How Veronica Mars Transcended Its Many Genres

With Veronica Mars Season 4 premiering in July, we look back at what made the original show so special...

Warning: This Veronica Mars article contains spoilers for the first three seasons of the show.

Friendless, motherless, boyfriend-less, and with innocence not lost so much as ripped away and torn to pieces, the titular heroine of Veronica Mars definitely wasn’t your average TV teen. She wasn’t introduced as a high school student, for example, the first scene of the pilot placing her outside a seedy motel on a stake-out instead of in class or at her locker, and this crucial decision set the audience up for things to come. Just like the show, Veronica straddled many lines and boundaries, often unable to settle anywhere at all; middle-class in a town – Neptune, California – resolutely split between the haves and the have-nots.

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And for those who caught it during the 2004-05 season, it was love at first sight. The television screen was a duller place after the glory days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, teen dramas had become unimaginative and immature, and Veronica blasted onto UPN with an infectious attitude and defiance. It’s a shame, really, that the show debuted at the same time as zeitgeist-capturing shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives. Eyes were, maybe quite rightly, drawn elsewhere, and UPN’s little experiment languished unseen and (commercially) unloved on a network not previously known for anything, let alone its quality cult television.

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Buy The Complete Third Season of Veronica Mars on DVD

But critics noticed, praising the series for its strikingly brave tackling of contemporary race, class, and gender issues, all in a snarky, entertaining, and compelling package that recalled Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks and, yes, Nancy Drew as much as it did its petite, blonde, vampire-slaying predecessor. It was nothing less than a revelation for critics who sampled it, with big names like Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith and Stephen King all clamouring over each other to champion the series. This factor probably kept it on the air longer than it would have been otherwise, eventually lasting (almost) full-length three seasons, now soon to be four

What was all the fuss about? Surely a good show, if on the air for three whole years, would have been watched by more people? The exact reasons for its relative failure are complicated and unknowable but, for once, it doesn’t seem to be the network’s fault. Understandably proud of a great series to call their own (they had previously adopted Buffy and Roswell from the WB), UPN championed the series and secured its renewal when it combined with the WB. If anything, Veronica Mars wouldn’t have existed were it not for the somewhat identity-less channel—too young for cable networks like FX, HBO, and Showtime, and too dark for its more natural home on the WB.

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Only small tweaks were made to creator Rob Thomas’ original vision, initially conceived as a novel with a male teen sleuth called Keith Mars; a small miracle when you consider how risky a premise it was. In the pilot, we find out that Veronica’s best friend was bludgeoned to death, class tensions in Neptune largely involve spoiled rich white families versus an Hispanic biker gang, our heroine has been made an outcast due to her father’s targeting of the most powerful family in town, and Veronica was drugged and raped at an 09er (the haves) party, only to be told by the new Sheriff to “get some backbone.” Not exactly rainbows and puppies.

Each of these factors shape the rest of the series, with Lilly Kane’s murder and Veronica’s rape forming the two central mysteries of Season 1. Thomas and his writers conceived the show as a “case-of-the-week” format with a central, overriding mystery woven through for Veronica to solve. It was a brilliant decision, and the show managed to make each and every episode interesting, with or without the clues relating to Lilly’s murder. The twisted nature of Neptune helped to generate new and interesting plots each week, with the best episodes centring on the downtrodden members of the community, some injustice done to them by the town’s seemingly untouchable upper-class. 

But Veronica had once belonged to that group of privileged teens, shunned by her friends as soon as the town collectively turned against her and her father. There was Duncan Kane, the ex-boyfriend and brother of Lilly (who, through an illicit affair may also have been Veronica’s half-sibling) and Logan Echolls, the “obligatory psychotic jackass” who eventually became a fan-favorite and a star of the show. Various others, like Dick Casablancas and Madison St. Claire, popped in and out of the frame throughout Veronica’s high school career but, as proven by Logan’s shifting characterisation, there were no black and white villains here, and everything was colored in grey.

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If Season 1 was about Veronica’s own unsolved mysteries, the second season was much wider in ambition and scope. With the set-up of a bus crash that killed many Neptune High students on the way back from a school field trip, tensions between the different classes opened up in an increasingly volatile way. With Logan accused of murdering one of the PCH bikers, and the rich kids rendered immune from the tragedy via a private limo ride, Veronica was tasked with finding out how and what had really happened. While the arc should be praised for its good intentions, aspirations and execution, it was hard to care as much as we had about Lilly, simply because Veronica didn’t care as much.

Season 1 showed the protagonist willing to do absolutely anything to piece together the clues, and the second outing didn’t measure up in quality. It was about the whole town and the social injustice inherent to places like Neptune in real-world America, but it just couldn’t generate enough adrenaline to last 22 hours. The same applies to the troubled and little-loved third season, which was the victim of both network meddling and an apparent confusion with what fans wanted. Far too much focus was given to Veronica’s relationship with Logan, rendered unrecognisable in the process, and taken from her connection with her father, once the shining beacon of safety and trust in her life. 

Sadly, the series was cancelled after only 20 episodes of the third season were aired, and before the 2014 movie, crowdfunded on Kickstarter, fans were left with the worst kind of cliffhanger. Veronica essentially ended up the same way she started, Keith-less, loveless, and having alienated most of those closest to her. It was an anticlimax to beat all that came before, with a new format eradicating the season-long mystery in favor of two shorter ones and five odd episodes to finish. For a show that so gracefully worked towards a season-ender reveal twice before, it was not only disappointing for long-time fans but failed to gather the new, casual, audience for which it was intended. 

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Despite the fascinating context present in each and every episode of the show, fans were tuning in for its heroine, an ingredient more popular procedural series often seem to forget. Veronica is an enthralling character, combining vulnerability and strength, revenge and justice, in a way hardly ever attempted on mainstream television. She’s complex, and never became less so (as was probably tempting) once many of her life’s mysteries were solved. She’s often wrong, her anger-fueled actions usually have dire consequences to follow, and she walks a dangerous moral line, stopping at nothing to uncover the truth. Kristin Bell was magnificent in the role.

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The supporting characters were also written as fully-rounded players in their own right, with a staggering number of students at Neptune High fleshed out and explored in each of the 44 episodes spent there. Some were more important than others, obviously, chief among them Weevil, Wallace, and Mac. Wallace is the first to befriend Veronica after her various pre-series ordeals, enlisting her to help him out of a debt with the PCH bikers during the pilot. Theirs is one of the few purely male-female platonic relationships on television, and is a treat for anyone tiring of the endless pushing together of characters devoid of romantic chemistry. It’s another of the big minus points of later seasons that an element of Veronica and Wallace’s relationship was lost. 

Mac may have been a reaction to network fears that Veronica was hanging out with too many boys and, with her chief companions including Duncan, Logan, Wallace, Weevil and her father, they may have had a point. Initially a guest role used for any technical issues Veronica might have had, her role expanded in Season 2, and she soon became Q to Veronica’s Bond. It was a gamble that paid off with Mac playing a vital role in the second season’s overriding mystery, even getting a love interest of her own. Sadly, she was another casualty of Season 3, when the writers paired her with anyone and everyone, creating a convoluted love triangle that fans couldn’t really invest in.

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Weevil was probably the most complex and shallow character on the show, sliding from one extreme to the other over three seasons. Starting out as an antagonist for Veronica, she soon saves his bacon over some stolen credit card fraud and a grudging respect is generated between them. It never really went away, but Weevil and Veronica’s relationship couldn’t really be described as functional. He was probably the only person in Veronica’s life who straddled the moral line so often, and their similarities, along with Veronica’s occasional sense of superiority, caused problems throughout the show. It was one of the more fascinating relationships, especially when viewing them as a potentially romantic pairing.

But the third corner of the show’s love triangle was occupied by Logan Echolls, and hooking up with her dead best friend’s ex-boyfriend didn’t really help Veronica in her first season investigation. Unlike a lot of triangles on television, it was quickly clear which relationship was winning out in popularity, and Veronica and Logan’s troubled romance (dubbed LoVe by fans) became the reason a lot of viewers were tuning in each week. The writers did their fair share of messing with the pair, but writing out love rival Duncan and putting Logan back on the rails after a couple of tumultuous years allowed the crazy kids to convincingly be together, before being separated by necessity again and again. 

More important than anyone, though, was the catalyst for Veronica’s misfortune: Lilly Kane, played by Amanda Seyfried. Lilly was the most direct influence on the show from Twin Peaks, with the ghost of our heroine’s beloved companion haunting her throughout the first season, willing her to solve the most vital mystery. Vivacious, wild, and reckless, Lilly was everything Veronica didn’t dare be in the misty, watercolor flashbacks we were dealt in early episodes. Her death transformed her into a more powerful person, as well as closed-off, vengeful, and unwilling to trust. The audience’s perception of Lilly is built over time and open to interpretation, but Veronica’s love for her never wavers despite the secrets she uncovers.

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Veronica Mars was one of those examples of a show that started out strong, only to later lose a portion of its soul in a desperate bid for ratings. Fans might be too quick in dismissing later episodes, but the fan-funded film and this year’s Season 4 revival on Hulu just proves how beloved this show remains.

It’s sad that more people didn’t watch the show when it aired, and that there’s more chance that teens these days best know Kristen Bell as the voice of Anna from Frozen, though that may change come Season 4. Regardless, the title character’s influence can be seen everywhere on network television, with ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars essentially the love child of Veronica Mars and 90210, borrowing liberally from its predecessor and managing to mould it into a ratings winner that ran and ran. Veronica’s story was an original and daring example of quality television, and few shows achieve as much as Veronica Mars did at its best. Fingers crossed that Season 4 lives up to what came before.

Veronica Mars Season 4 arrives on Hulu on the 26th of July.