Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Long Time Ago We Used to Be Friends: Review of Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations Into Veronica Mars edited by Rob Thomas

Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars
Rob Thomas (editor) with Leah Wilson
Dallas, Texas: Benbella
Smart Pop series
no index,
213 pages, US$17.95, Canada$22.95, UK£17.95 (paper)

I blame the recent tsunami of academic publications on American television on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There were, of course, publications on television history, economics, and culture prior to 1997, the year Buffy came on the air. There was that slew of “scientific” books on the impact of TV on viewers in the 1940s and 1950s. There was Erik Barnouw’s multivolume history of American television and Horace Newcomb’s work on television as a cultural form in the 1970s. There was David Marc’s work on TV comedy in the 1980s. There was Robert Thompson’s exploration of “quality TV” in the 1990s. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s there has been an ever increasing number of academic books on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (easily the leader here with host of academic books, hundreds of academic articles, and an academic website devoted to it thus far), My So-Called Life, Stargate SG-1, The Sopranos, CSI, Farscape, Alias, Angel, Firefly, Sex and the City, Charmed, The Gilmore Girls, Desperate Housewives, and Lost.

Several publishers have led the TV Studies charge prominent among them I.B. Tauris, Wayne State University Press, McFarland Publishers, Lexington Books, and Benbella Books. What makes the recent wave of television studies different from much of the earlier academic analysis is that many of these recent works bring to TV Studies what has been prevalent in literary and film studies since the late 1960s. There are exceptions to this trend, of course. The publications of the Dallas based Benbella Books, for instance, generally take an approach to TV “texts” that emphasises close critical readings TV texts in order to discern authorial intent. The recent Benbella publication of a collection of essays on the TV show Veronica Mars is, by and large, no different.

But first, a little backstory on the show itself. Veronica Mars , the creation of veteran TV writer, producer, and show runner Rob Thomas (he was the creator of the TV show Cupid in both its incarnations), debuted on the UPN network in 2004 and moved to the newly created CW network in 2006. The show was cancelled in 2007. Veronica centres around the trials, travails, loves, hates, and detective abilities of the title character, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell). Veronica is a high school student when the show begins and a freshman in college (at the appropriately named Hearst College) when it ends. She lives in the unincorporated town of Neptune, California near San Diego (she describes it in a voiceover in the first episode as a town in which you are either a millionaire or you work for one) with her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni).

Veronica and Keith live a marginal limbo life in Neptune. When the show begins Keith, the former sheriff of the town, has been recalled from office as a result of his accusations against the town’s mega millionaire computer baron (the appropriately named) Jake Kane (Kyle Secor) that he killed his daughter Lilly (Amanda Seyfried), and is now operating a private investigation firm with a little help from Veronica. Veronica, like her father has also been marginalized by her classmates and by Neptune’s youthful social circles because she stood by her father. Her best friend Lilly Kane is dead. Her ex-boyfriend (who may be her half-brother), Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), brother of Lilly, doesn’t want to have much to do with here. Her mother has left both her and her father. She is being harassed by the town’s “psychopathic jackass” (every town has one snaps Veronica at one point) Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), son of Neptune’s resident mega action movie star Aaron Echols (Harry Hamlin) at almost every turn. And she has been raped at a school year party shortly before the programme begins by someone, who, she is not sure. Both Keith and Veronica quickly learn the lesson that when you mess with money and power you find yourself an outsider in a community that is grounded in both.

Veronica Mars, like Buffy (one critic aptly described Veronica as Buffy meets Bogart), is a novelistic TV show. It is a show with episode arcs, seasonal arcs, character arcs, and series arcs (we may never learn what these latter were thanks to the CW’s cancellation of the show). During the first season we follow high schooler Veronica as she solves several different crimes—sometimes with the aid of her father, sometimes not—usually by the end of each episode. At seasons end she solves the mystery of who murdered Lilly (it was Aaron Echols) and who had raped her (it turns out she wasn’t raped at all). During the second season Veronica continues to solve the mysteries of the week and by seasons end solves the mystery of who blew up a bus full of Neptune High School students in the first episode. By solving that crime she also solves the mystery of who raped her (it turns out that Veronica was raped) the year before (Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas did both). The third season during which Veronica heads to college was a bit different—I chalk this up to the interference of the new CW and its overriding interest in higher ratings at least in part. The show continued to have its mysteries of the week each of which Veronica would solve. And it continued to have overriding mysteries though the first of these was solved about half way through the season and the second at seasons end.

Veronica was never that successful ratings wise. It rarely garnered more than two million viewers an episode. It did, however, acquire a devoted fan base (Mars Investigations is a wonderful website run by some VM scholar fans) and received critical acclaim from critics, writers, film and TV makers, and even academics. Both the critical and the academic interest in the show is evident in the collection of essays on the series recently published by Benbella Books, Neptune Noir.

The essays in Neptune Noir—some by critics, some by writers, and a few by academics—explore various aspects of the series. A number of essays try to delineate exactly what Veronica Mars is. For Evelyn Vaughn VM is femme noir. For Lani Diane Rich it is camp noir. For Deanna Carlyle it is teen noir. Others look at aesthetic aspects of the show. Geoff Klock looks at the storytelling art behind Veronica while Lynn Edwards reveals why see prefers Veronica Mars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still other essays explore various themes running through the show. Alafair Burke explores the portrayal of law enforcement agencies in the show. Amy Berner and Joyce Millman look into the various father-son and father-daughter relationships in VM. Amanda Ann Klein investigates how class plays out in the show. Lawrence Watt-Evans looks at what the automobiles Veronica’s characters drive tell us about them. John Ramos and Kristen Kidder explore what Veronica’s lies and vigilantism tell us about her. Judy Fitzwater and Heather Havrilesky analyse how Lilly Kane’s murder, Neptune’s reactions to Keith’s accusations about Jake Kane, and Veronica’s mother leaving her and her father in the midst of it all led to Veronica’s loss of innocence and growing world weariness opening her eyes, in the process, to the inequalities of life in a Neptune she once perceived as edenic. Misty Hook, looks at the dynamics of the major romantic relationship at the centre of the show, that between Veronica and Logan.

Few of the essays in Neptune Noir are either groundbreaking or eye opening though they are, for the most part, interesting. A few of them, however, are important. Geoff Klock’s “Story Structure and Veronica Mars” urges those of us interested in narrative TV to pay attention once again to the character arcs, exposition practices, pacing, “beats”, act breaks, plottings, and sequencings that make up the art and practice of television storytelling. Samantha Bornemann’s “Innocence Lost” nicely places Veronica Mars in the genealogy of teen drama shows that preceded it—the first wave teen drama My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994-1995) and the second wave teen drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003). Lynne Edwards’s “On the Down-Low: How a Buffy Fan Fell in Love with Veronica Mars” points up (I don’t think she intended to do this) the fact that crystal ball textual criticism (the text as revelatory of a host of social and cultural factors to experts in the know) in general is value laden and ideologically driven.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Neptune Noir, however, are the editorial comments by series creator Rob Thomas. Thomas reminds us that American television operates within specific institutional and narrative contexts, that TV’s creators have to negotiate their way through these multiple contexts, and that chance occurrences can sometimes take a television show in directions it creator or creators hadn’t foreseen. Thomas discusses how difficult it is to get a show on the air (pp. 1-7), how he wanted action to define character in the Veronicaverse (p. 34), how budgetary factors affected VM (p. 34), how suggestions from network and studio executives can be positive as well as negative (p. 46), and how he wanted Veronica to achieve realism in its characters motivations, reactions, and behaviours (p. 94). He notes that the chemistry between Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring and the acting skills both brought to the show were factors that led VM’s writers to develop the sometimes tortured romantic relationship between them (p. 170). All of these are worth keeping in mind anytime one is analyzing a TV show. They certainly point up the fact that if we really want to understand American TV we have to go beyond the text as crystal ball (I owe this metaphor to my colleague Jonathan Nash) perspective and explore institutional practices, authorial intent, chance, and the dynamics of the acting craft.

Neptune Noir is definitely worth investigating (pun intended) particularly if you have any interest in contemporary American television, contemporary noir, contemporary teen drama, or Veronica Mars itself. For the moment it is the only book which explores one of the seminal TV series’ of the mid-2000s.

As for the show, I watched VM for most of its run. I particularly enjoyed Veronica’s first season where its mix of noir, teen drama, Buffy, and Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991) works quite well. There was, in my opinion, a marked decline in the quality of the show in the second and an even further decline in the third season. With respect to the inevitable Veronica/Buffy comparison, I consider Buffy more illuminating, more thoughtful (the existentialist feminism that undergrids the show is, in my opinion, fascinating and quite compelling), more moving, more emotionally intense (Whedon and Company, in my opinion, give Bergman a run for his money here), and more narratively complex than VM. Don’t let my slight criticisms stop you from watching one of the better shows on recent American television, however. Few American shows have paid as much attention to how class plays out in an American community and it is worth watching for this reason alone. And now that all three seasons of Veronica are available on DVD watching VM couldn’t be easier.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Rob Thomas’s Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 28.3 (August 2008), pp. 433-435.

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