On Veronica Mars

Lawless Neptune

By Alafair Burke

I owe the reader of this essay an initial disclosure. I am a compulsive, insatiable, and wholly devoted fan of Veronica Mars. I tiVo. I pause and rewind. I pre-order the DVDs on Amazon. I yearn to be BFFs with Kristen Bell and writing partners with Rob Thomas. yet despite my passion, an occasional guilty pang of disloyalty prevents me from calling myself a proud, unapologetic devotee. Why? Because, whenever I tout my fondness for all things Veronica, I find myself serving up an explanatory defense on the side.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

Friend: I’m addicted to [insert well-known water cooler TV show here: Lost, CSI, 24–whatever].

Me: Yeah, that’s all right, but the best show on television is Veronica Mars.

Friend: Isn’t that about that teenage detective?

Me:[long pause] Um, it’s hard to explain. She’s in high school. And her dad used to be the sheriff, but now he’s a detective. And she solves all these mysteries, but it’s not like Nancy Drew. It’s darker. And also funny. But really dark. It’s like Buffy without the vampires. And, hey, they actually give you answers every season, not like that other show.

By the end of the conversation, my friend is seriously questioning my judgment in show selection, and I find myself frustrated. I’m a criminal law professor. I’m a former prosecutor. I write mystery novels with sex, violence, and cuss words. And I am convinced that loving Veronica Mars in no way undermines my gritty crime-story cred.

And yet that awkward moment at the proverbial water cooler remains. Explaining Veronica to the uninitiated is awkward because the very premise of Veronica Mars sounds dubious. A high school student solving crime? At best, it might be light entertainment: a female Encyclopedia Brown solving cute little mysteries at her quaint little high school, a young Jessica Fletcher for the O.C. crowd. But a teenager solving rapes, murders, and bus explosions? The notion sounds like off-the-deep-end farce, yet it never is–not in the Neptune that Rob Thomas has created. And there must be a way to explain that to others, besides saying, “But Steve King loves it, too.” there must be a way of explaining to Veronica virgins how a show about a teenage girl detective manages to be more suspenseful, powerful, and poignant than any series about terrorist investigators, mafiosi, or the best looking set of castaways this side of Gilligan’s island.

So, there you have my disclosure in black and white: I have an agenda. So that I never again have to apologize for worshiping the best show on TV, I am out to explain how Rob Thomas manages to make a sass-talking teenage crime-solver believable.

In the real world, when girls get raped, boys get molested, and bodies get blown up, people look to the law. They look to the police, prosecutors, jurors, and judges to dole out some justice. They don’t call the high school-aged daughter of the disgraced former sheriff. The key to understanding why we believe that the people of Neptune need Veronica Mars lies in Rob Thomas’s depiction of the alternative. In Neptune, the criminal justice system is consistently either indifferent or incapacitated. Neptune, in short, is lawless.

Take a look at what we learn about Neptune in the pilot episode. Veronica first met perennial sidekick Wallace Fennel when he was duct taped naked to a pole outside the high school–his punishment for diming out members of Weevil Navarro’s gang for shoplifting beers from the Sac-n-Pac. how did the gangbangers know who dropped the dime? Sheriff Lamb brought Wallace before the glaring, bike-revving gang to question him. Wallace claimed he’d hit the silent alarm button accidentally, but to no avail. Sheriff Lamb arrested the shoplifters anyway based on a videotape from the store’s security camera, and then mocked Wallace’s cowardice for good measure. “Go see the wizard,” he advised. “Ask him for some guts.” Message: Don’t trust the cops. Like Lucy with charlie Brown’s football, they’ll screw you every time.

We also learn from the pilot that Sheriff Lamb’s insensitivity to the citizens of Neptune extends well beyond beer-run investigations and is particularly acute when it comes to Veronica Mars. Again in flashback mode, we watch a long-haired, visibly distressed Veronica inform Sheriff Lamb that she has been raped by an unknown assailant at a party. In the privacy of his office, Lamb revealed the depth of the animosity he holds for both Veronica and her father, the man who previously held Lamb’s office with competence and dignity. Using her father’s public disgrace as a backdrop, Lamb taunted Veronica with the lack of evidence, bringing her to tears. Just in case we doubted Lamb’s mean-spiritedness (or lack of originality in the insult department), he advised her to see the wizard as well: “Ask for a little backbone.” Lamb is a small man who, at least in his own eyes, lives in the shadow of his predecessor. As a consequence, he’s big on belittling Veronica at every opportunity, even if it’s on the heels of a sexual assault.

With Sheriff Lamb set up as our antagonist, it was our heroine who wore the proverbial–and no doubt fashionable–white hat. She negotiated a deal with Weevil: Lay off my man Wallace and I’ll make sure your boys get their shoplifting charges dropped. Manipulating her knowledge of when so-called “random” locker searches took place, she whipped up a little Veronica magic and pulled off a switch-a-roo in the sheriff department’s evidence room. Abracadabra. At the gangbangers’ trial, instead of the Sac-n-Pac video tape, the judge was treated to the sight of one of Lamb’s deputies enjoying a little afternoon delight in a squad car. hey, as the song says, when it’s right, it’s right.

Only because of Veronica’s black-market intervention was the judge able to see an important truth–one that had nothing to do with shoplifting and everything to do with Neptune’s inept and boorish law enforcement. Message: While the cops are getting their shields polished, Veronica’s dusting off a little old-fashioned justice. And sometimes, in this lawless world of Neptune, justice is something negotiated between Veronica and a gang leader, beyond the callous eye of law enforcement.

But the concept underlying Veronica Mars relies on more than just its depiction of cops as either bumbling or cruel. Its portrayal of the criminal justice system is not just an indictment of the individual personalities entrusted to execute the law. Rather, it is a challenge to the power of law itself. At each possible turn, Thomas subtly reinforces our doubts about the ability of formal legal systems to remedy the very real problems we witness on the screen.

When Wallace’s mother, Alicia, was stuck with a tenant that made Pacific Heights’s Michael Keaton look like friendly Fonzie in the cunningham garage apartment, a sheriff’s deputy told her the best he could do was oust the creep in sixty days. Veronica’s father, former sheriff Keith Mars, did the job himself–illegally and by force–telling Alicia (and us), “i know how the law works–slowly” (“Like a Virgin,” 1-8).

Thomas depicts the law as working not only slowly, but rigidly. True justice, in contrast, is flexible and discretionary. If punishment must be doled out, we want the dealer to have good judgment and character, and to dole only after fully considering the surrounding context and mitigating circumstances. But when the father of a working-class Neptune high student harassed a pampered 09er to level the competition for the prestigious and plentiful Kane Scholarship, his son learned that in Neptune there is no room for mercy: His father would be arrested and prosecuted unless the spoiled 09er dropped charges (“Kanes and Abel’s,” 1-17). We viewers might debate the level of wrong in the fa-ther’s conduct, but Thomas’s point is that the automated response of the law leaves no room for debate. Because the law’s response is inflexible, the son paid for the sins of the father and was forced to withdraw from consideration, and Veronica ultimately wondered if perhaps the truth would have been better left undiscovered. “Life,” as Veronica reminded us in her narration, “is fundamentally unfair,” at least when life’s clumsy approach to justice goes unshaped by Veronica.

Time and again, Thomas uses the juxtaposition of the law’s ineptitude against Veronica’s savvy to convince us of our heroine’s power. When Veronica served as a juror, at first only one Latina juror was willing to believe the word of a Mexican alleged prostitute against two white 09ers. But even after that sole hold-out made her point, she relented, offering to cave if the rest of the jury disagreed. It took our little pain-in-the-butt Veronica to cast the determinative vote to continue deliberations and to come up with the winning arguments that the police and prosecutor had overlooked (“One Angry Veronica,” 210). When another 09er framed Veronica for knocking out fake ids, Lamb responded on auto-pilot, searching her locker, finding the ids, and charging her with a felony. It fell to Veronica to prove who did it, sending Lamb to fetch himself a new fake id in a controlled buy while she alibI’d herself in his office, “chillin’ like a villain” (“clash of the tritons,” 1-12). Indeed, even attorney cliff Mccormack regularly comes to Veronica to help him get what he wants for tawdry clients like exotic dancer Loretta cancun. Mccormack is no Barry Zuckercorn. he may have flunked criminal law, but he knows how the system in Neptune works.

But wait a second. If formal law is so corrupt, slow, incompetent, and inflexible, why doesn’t my friend at the water cooler instantly believe that Veronica and Keith could be the ones to save the day? After all, if this is really our perception of the law, then we in the real world should also look to extra-legal actors to bring us our justice. The answer is that in the real world, we continue to trust the legal system. We trust it because in most cases, the legal system–despite some occasional doubts about its promptness, precision, and proficiency–is good enough.

Rob Thomas, in contrast, nimbly convinces us that in Neptune, our suspicions about law’s occasional inadequacy are in fact the prevailing, everyday norm. how does he manage to pull that off? Part of the trick is Thomas’s decision to exaggerate the occasional shortcomings and to flesh them out in full in every episode. But that move wouldn’t work on its own. A smart viewer would say, But in the real world, law works better than that. We know that in real life, when rich, attractive white girls get murdered, and when busloads of kids are blown to bits, the cases don’t get short shrift. In real life, the law enforcement A-team steps in.

The key to understanding why we believe in a lawless Neptune is to look at the kinds of crimes Thomas uses to define the context in which these other high-profile, season-defining crimes take place. The big mysteries tackled by Veronica (Who killed Lilly? Who blew up the bus?) may be headline stealers, but the smaller ones wrestled with on an episodic basis are not. In his choice of crimes for the episodic mysteries, Thomas reinforces our perception of a lawless Neptune by focusing on crimes that are routinely ignored, not just in Neptune but everywhere. Specifically, he uses the old classics of race, gender, and class to remind us in each episode how much we distrust the criminal justice system.

In credibility contests between 09ers and the regular folk, guess who comes out on top? When it’s the word of a white guy against a group of Weevil’s Pchers, again, guess who wins the pissing match? And speaking of the Pchers, they cause an awful lot of trouble for both themselves and others, and yet the police never seem to touch them. It’s no coincidence that this echoes the real-life gang violence that is infamously difficult to prevent and prosecute. One exception to the Pchers’ invulnerability was Weevil’s heartbreaking arrest, just prior to the moment his devoted grandmother was set to see him graduate from high school (“Not Pictured,” 2-22). But even this exception demonstrates the rule. Weevil is of course the most sympathetic of the Pchers, helping Veronica out repeatedly with a devilish smile and penetrating double entendre. And when Weevil did go down in season two’s finale, it was for opening up a long-delayed, well-earned six-pack of whoop ass on the traitorous thumper–who’d managed until then to literally get away with murder, thanks to the bumbling Sheriff Lamb.1

Thomas is particularly artful in his use of realistic depictions of crimes against women and children to persuade us that Veronica lives in a lawless Neptune. From the disclosure of Veronica’s own rape in the pilot episode, we know that Sheriff Lamb couldn’t care less if a passed-out party girl loses her virginity to an unknown assailant– especially when the girl is Veronica. And we believe it, because we know in the real world that date rapes are routinely ignored and unprosecuted. But Veronica is no typical victim. She may be the ultimate outsider–provoking the sheriff to taunt even a rape victim–but she has the ultimate insider’s knowledge. combining modern high-tech high jinks with the old-fashioned know-how she picked up from her father, cagey Veronica scouted, spied, queried, and hoodwinked until she discovered the truth about that traumatic night on her own.

When we were temporarily convinced that Veronica was not in fact raped, but instead had succumbed to a roofie-induced but consensual moment with Duncan (“A trip to the dentist,” 1-21), Thomas again reminded us of the commonplace role of date rape in young lives, law enforcement’s flawed response to it, and Veronica’s wily ways by having ex-beau Troy face false accusations of raping a co-ed while visiting the hearst college campus (“the Rapes of Graff,” 2-16). Lamb treated the case as open and shut, relying on Troy’s presence with the victim before she passed out and then awoke with a shaved head. despite Veronica’s own doubts about Troy, she wasn’t satisfied. After some nimble legwork involving a sob story to a wig shop and a little breaking and entering, Veronica managed to clear Troy’s name and lay the blame at the door of hearst’s bawdiest frat house. Importantly, though, even with Veronica’s intervention, the real rapist eluded detection. Sometimes even a demi-goddess can only do so much.

Thomas reminds us of law’s failures not only in cases of sexual violence against women, but also physical violence and psychological terrorism. When Veronica suspected that the pregnant woman upstairs was being battered (“The Girl Next Door,” 1-7), neither she nor her father even thought to call the police. Of course they didn’t. That’s because everyone knows the police can’t do anything. It’s precisely because we accept this powerlessness as a given that we actually rooted for the loathsome Aaron Echolls when he erupted in a violent explosion against daughter trina’s battering boyfriend, beating him with a belt, patio furniture, garbage, a tiki torch, and just about anything else he could lay his vengeful hands on, all to the soothing accompaniment of “that’s Amore” (“hot dogs,” 1-19). As Logan said in the immediate aftermath, “Father knows best.” this was arguably Aaron Echolls’s single decent moment, as he stepped in to fill a gap we all know exists in the formal justice system.

Veronica did the same for Carmen when her future ex-boyfriend tad went all Sizemore on her and couldn’t accept their break-up (“M.A.D.,” 1-20). When it was clear that his pleas for reuniting had failed, tad dropped all airs of Peaches and herb sweetness and threatened Carmen with the release of a video of her getting nasty with a popsicle in a hot tub. The ploy worked, forcing poor, manipulated Carmen back to tad the cad and his wife-beater tank top and gay jokes. her only alternative, as she so eloquently explained to Veronica, was to “end up a downloadable national joke . . . right up there with Paris hilton or that Star Wars kid. . . . Just google ‘popsicle girl’ and there I’ll be for the rest of human history.” Most importantly, Carmen recognized, “And I can’t stop him.” if the law does little for women who are beaten by their boyfriends, it does even less for the Carmens of the world.

Veronica, however, didn’t miss a beat; she knew immediately that the solution to Carmen’s problem would be found not with formal legal actors, but in a partnership with Veronica. She told Carmen her only choice was to get something “that would ruin tad back. you know, get your own A-bomb and it prevents him from launching a first strike. Mutually assured destruction.” When Carmen worried that boring tad had no dirt to uncover, Veronica assured her, “Leave that to me.” With some creative role-playing, photoshopping, and audio dubbing, Veronica armed Carmen with a Web site entitled “Our Precious Secret,” convincingly dedicated to tad’s (non-ex-istent) gay romance. And so Veronica’s plot for justice was hatched: if homophobic tad was going to release Carmen’s cold throat video, he could do it under threat of his own greatest fear.

Perhaps Thomas’s darkest forays into the law’s limitations are found in his depictions of violence against children. When we watched Aaron Echolls force Logan to select the leather belt that would deliver his barebacked beating while mother Lynn sipped her drink in what appeared to be blissful ignorance, we wished for–but knew we could not have–some semblance of justice other than Logan’s public charitable pledge of half a million bucks on a surprised Aaron’s behalf (“Return of the Kane,” 1-6). We believed that Logan had no other recourse because we know from our own experience that the word of a celebrated celebrity like Aaron Echolls–think tom cruise before the sofa-jumping–would outweigh the word of a trouble-making teenager who webcasts bum fights. (hello? Michael Jackson anyone? And harry hamlin’s work is far less creepy than MJ’s, and Logan has way more baggage than that Neverland kid.) the costs of law’s tendency to undervalue children’s reports of abuse is perhaps most transparent in cassidy Casablancas. Beaver would not have developed into the criminal mastermind that he became if he thought anyone would possibly believe that Woody Goodman was a serial child molester. his name might’ve been Woody, but come on, who’d buy a guy as smiley as Steve Guttenberg as chester the Molester?

Thomas reminded us again about the law’s inability to protect children after Veronica and Duncan learned that the pious Manning family was locking cute, helpless Grace in the closet (“Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner,” 2-7). Unfortunately, they had to break into the Manning home to make their discovery, and Mr. Manning turned the tables on them by calling Sheriff Lamb. Lamb’s decision to release Veronica and Duncan–and the suggestion that Lamb’s own father was abusive–is Lamb’s most sympathetic portrayal in the series. Note, though, that his beneficence results not from a decision to enforce the law against Mr. Manning, but rather from his decision not to enforce the law against Veronica and Duncan. Only by neglecting the expectations of his office is he able to do the right thing. The law, Thomas is telling us, is an impediment–not a vehicle–to justice.

In episode after episode, law and the people who enforce it prove unhelpful–until, of course, Veronica gives the system a little shove. Ultimately, Thomas’s masterful and believable depiction of formal legal systems as inadequate is the grounding that makes the rest of the show work. Without this context, Veronica’s many witticisms, the multi-layered plots, and the best father-daughter relationship on television wouldn’t fly. It’s precisely because cops, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges are credibly depicted as lazy, reactionary, and/or powerless that we satisfied viewers can swallow a series based on a high school student solving not just little mysteries about fake ids and missing dogs, but also weighty ones, like murder, molestation, and mass violence. We would never buy the notion of Veronica’s importance if she existed in a world with meaningful governmental response. We believe in her importance because she lives in lawless Neptune.

  1. As of this writing, we all wait to see what will become of Eli “Weevil” Navarro in season three.

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