Hey there marshmallows! Veronica Mars is back.
I’ve been thinking about Veronica Mars. On the 12 April 2013, I blogged about the exciting news of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, in which TV creator Rob Thomas and actor Kristen Bell sought crowd funding to produce a cinema reunion film for their much loved teen hardboiled detective series. Not only did they reach their target but exceeded it, generating $5, 702, 153 from a total of 91, 585 backers (myself included).
My previous blog examined some of the ethical issues of this form of film production funding, questioning whether this is putting the power in the hands of the fans or a form of fan exploitation on the part of the studios who will receive any profits made from the film. While I still think that there are issues to consider with respect to this type of crowd funding for Hollywood films, now it is time to talk about the show and movie that generated such a fascinating response from the fans. After a year of anticipation, the film spin-off from a little TV series that was cancelled after three seasons has finally hit our screens. This seems to be worth some consideration. In the weeks prior to the films’ release, my email inbox was flooded with Kickstarter campaign updates about the film, its premier, its availability for audiences around the world. My Facebook page began to fill with comments from friends around the globe questioning where and when they would be able to see the film, would it be screening anywhere near them, plans to travel across borders (state and national) to find a cinema where it would be showing, and then discussion of the digital downloads that would be available upon the film’s release.
On Thursday 13th March 2014, my husband and I sat in a crowded cinema in Montreal for the preview screening of Veronica Mars: The Movie, hot on the heels of our having just completed the great VM Rewatch, preparing us for this event. The excitement was palpable. Bilingual audience members (Montreal is a bilingual city with a French and English population), many sporting their ‘backers T-shirts’, gathered in one of the largest cinema screens in the venue, whispering amiably about the campaign. Snippets of conversations overheard included reminiscences about the show; questions of who might be in the movie; who might not; and what would the film be like? While I have seen many cinematic spin-offs to some of my favourite cult TV shows, Star Trek (original series, Next Gen, and reboot), Firefly/Serenity, and The X-Files to name a few, there seemed to be something different about this event (and I am distinguishing here between mainstream reboots like Charlie’s Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky and Hutch which, while enjoyable in many cases, did not feature the return of original cast members to recreate their roles or were not presented as narrative continuation of an existing cult franchise in the case of the Star Trek reboot where the reboot is narratively explained). The audience did seem to have a sense of proud ownership of the film…this was the film they made happen…this was their little show that they wouldn’t let die…this was the moment that would bring back much loved characters and perhaps lead to further returns in the form of novels, web-series, and even future movies. The plan to have VM make the transition to cinema screens seemed far more ambitious when it was originally proposed as the fans did not seem as visible as the fans of Firefly for instance, whose presence is felt across a wide range of cult TV circles. Marshmallows, Veronica Mars fans, seemed much quieter about their fandom, that is until the Kickstarter campaign began. Also the series was not science fiction – a genre that has a visual style well suited to the big screen spectacle of cinema – and featured a more intimate set of characters and narrative concerns. Would it translate to the big screen and have the same punch as it did in our living rooms. Does Veronica save the universe? No. Does she battle evil? Well yes…an earthbound evil…an evil that is perhaps more subtle and insidious than the threat of assimilation or colonisation by the Borg or Mulder and Scully’s alien invaders. Veronica Mars always fought the evil of bullying, social segregation, financial exploitation, institutional racism, police apathy and corruption, and abuse in the form of rape, domestic violence or child molestation, subjects the series dealt with in frank, uncompromising fashion. Rewatching the show, I was struck that while it was largely set in a high school and aimed at a ‘teen/young adult audience’, this series was, like Buffy the Vampire Slayerbefore it, one of the most grown up shows I had ever seen, where the show’s screwball teen humour walked hand in hand of with a dark, cynical edge, making the show and its lead protagonist far more Philip Marlow than Nancy Drew. For instance, TV town sheriff Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) is no jolly Andy Griffith nor a bumbling Barney Fife, but rather a sinister political animal who is more disturbing because he is not incompetent but indifferent.
Furthermore, the heroine was a damaged woman with demons that rivalled the show’s bad boy hero Logan Echolls, suffering from the separation of her parents as a result of her mother’s alcoholism and infidelity, being ostracised by her high school peers, the murder of her best friend Lily, and the loss of her virginity as a result of date rape. Veronica had trust issues that both fuelled her investigative abilities and desire to see justice done, but also damaged relationships and lead to questionable decisions which impacted upon many of the people who loved her, best exemplified by the series’ phenomenally downbeat finale.
Could the film make the transition between TV and cinema, and bring with it the intimacy and subtlety of the parent series? Would it satisfy the fans who made it happen and yet bring in sufficient new audiences to make it financially successful enough to warrant future instalments? The verdict is still out on the latter question. Time will tell. Will first time viewers be drawn to Veronica Mars on the big screen? Perhaps the film’s simultaneously release via digital download services will encourage more audiences to engage as this format will segue nicely to watching the TV series, easily available on DVD or via Netflix.
But the screening I attended suggested that the movie did hit the mark with the fans. As Veronica walked out onto a New York street with Stosh ‘Piz’ Piznorski (Chris Lowell), having just learned of the murder of fellow Neptune high graduate Carrie Bishop and bad-boy ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls’ (Jason Dohring) implication in the case, to find a busker playing an acoustic version of the series iconic theme song ‘We use to be friends’ before the film titles rolled was met by applause. Veronica was back and she may not have known it then, but she had a crime to solve. From then on, the audience members laughed, cried, gasped and held their breath at all of the desired moments. This film produced by the fans, made by cast and crew who love the show like fans, was definitely made first and foremost for the fans. This Canadian, and the Canadian audience with whom I watched the film, was particularly pleased to the shout-out as a group of guys in Team Canada hockey shirts lovingly butchered the national anthem in a Karaoke club – Enrico Calentoni who plays Veronica’s ever supportive father Keith Mars is himself Canadian.
The high school reunion narrative allowed for a return of a delightful array of both starring and recurring characters from the original series — Wallace, Mac, Logan, Weevil, Dick, Gia, Madison, Piz, and Principal Clemens all turn up within the narrative and are given key moments to reprise familiar roles and actions within the series narrative as well as occasionally surprising us with how they have evolved. Veronica’s unofficial investigation into the Carrie’s murder also brought such grown up regulars of the series to the fore – such as public defender Cliff McCormack, rival P.I. Vinnie Van Lowe, Deputy Sacks, and former Deputy Leo D’Amato. The casting of Jerry O’Connell as Sheriff Dan Lamb, older brother to the show’s Sheriff Don Lamb, who met an unexpected end in season 3, was an inspired choice, bringing to the role a nasty edge that channelled the ghostly presence of his TV sibling and reasserted the film’s Noir origins. Neptune continues to possess class corruption in its very core. But these character appearances did not simply feed fan interest but were carefully integrated into the murder mystery that drew Veronica back to her much-loathed home town of Neptune California, merging satisfying allusions to the series with a self-contained murder mystery. As a fan there is much to love about this film…many moments to savour and enjoy. But there is much to appreciate for the newbies to the dark and violent world of Veronica Mars. Significantly the film taps into the show’s narrative underpinning which is Veronica and Keith Mars’ painstaking attempts to represent the unrepresented within the class divided world of Neptune – like fellow cult TV investigators from Angel Investigations (Angel 1999-2004) they strive to Help the Helpless.
[Spoiler warning] Veronica may return to Neptune to help super-rich Logan beat a murder rap, but it is the social division and disregard for the have-nots of Neptune that inspires her to stay as she watches Weevil (Francis Capra) step away from the secure family life he has built for himself and return to his gang roots, in response to racial prejudice and social police corruption. Her friends may tease her that she is an adrenaline or drama junkie, and that it is her attraction to Logan that drives her actions, but fundamentally the film concludes that Veronica’s journey back to Neptune is not in search of romantic wish fulfilment (regardless of audience’s Team Logan/Team Piz allegiances – I’m team Logan all the way) but to rediscover her feisty and justice-driven identity.
Like most hardboiled detectives, Veronica gets pulled into the narrative somewhat against her will, or perhaps her ‘better’ judgment, but it is her indelible need for justice and desire for resolution that forces her to see the case through to the end and in so doing to rediscover her identity, an identity that has made audiences love her and makes her a fresh female presence on television and in our cinemas. This is a fan-produced film that will hopefully foster new fans (spread the word, Marshmallows) and bolster existing fans even further, reminding us that ours is an epic love story….spans years…continents….lives ruined….bloodshed. We used to be friends and I guess we still are…today and always. Welcome back Veronica.
Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007) and Angel: TV Milestone (2009), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013). She is also the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010) and General Editor of the Investigating Cult TV series at I.B. Tauris.