By Rowan Kaiser
I must admit that I have some wariness about talking about the better female characters of the past for the purposes of laying the groundwork for female characters to compete with the masculine anti-heroes who dominated discussion of “quality television.” It’s not that I don’t want there to be more, better women in important roles on television, but instead that I don’t think female characters have lagged all that far behind men on the best shows of recent years.
However, I do think that the way we define “quality television” indicates a bias that leads towards critics thinking that those masculinity-examining shows are the best. They’re all serious dramas, they’re all on cable, and they’re all (with the exception, perhaps, of The Sopranos) in more traditionally acceptable genres. If we expand out definition of quality to include shows with strong comic elements, shows that aired on networks or netlets, and shows occur in less highbrow settings, things look a lot different. Generally speaking, we can many more fantastic, quality televisions series that feature stronger women than The Wire, etc. Specifically, that criteria opens the door for Veronica Mars to be considered one of the great series of television.
After all, Veronica Mars aired on UPN, a network not historically known for its critical acclaim. It balanced drama with humor, with plenty of quipping as well as some ridiculous premises. And it was about a private investigator who worked in a high school, navigating social strata and relationship drama. It’s also one of the most intelligent shows I’ve ever seen, with one of the strongest protagonists, male or female, in television history.
Three things make Veronica Mars a stellar character: she’s strong enough to be respected, she’s vulnerable enough to be human, and she’s played marvelously by Kristen Bell. Certainly, the show’s writing and supporting cast add to it, but it’s Veronica’s show, even beyond what you might expect from her name adorning the title.
Veronica’s strength comes from her intelligence. It’s technically not super-human, although it does seem like it, since she’s two or three steps ahead her rivals, up to and including forcing them to read “Veronica Mars is smarter than me” in order to learn the facts she’s already deduced. She’s also resourceful, doing what it takes to solve her mysteries, like playing on clerks’ class anxieties in order to get rental car records. She will occasionally utilize her looks and flirtation skills, but they’re merely one of many tools in her arsenal.
Yet hyper-competent people like Veronica Mars aren’t much fun unless they also have weaknesses. First and foremost, Veronica is an underdog. In the strictly class-segregated society of her home town, Neptune, Veronica’s on the wrong side. She has boyfriends from the upper crust, but she’s constantly fighting against the hierarchies of her lower class. More than that, Veronica is consistently forced to confront the ethical issues of class in Neptune — doing the right thing at an individual level may not be the right thing in terms of combating structural oppression. The show’s depth gives the character depth.
Veronica is also too confident in her abilities, which makes sense for her as a teenager, but can get in her way, especially as it adds depth to her wonderful relationship with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), an experienced former policeman and current private investigator. She’s also not supremely physically able – she’s smart enough to avoid physical danger the majority of the time, but when she’s threatened, it’s tense. She often has a taser or Backup (her dog, naturally) but it’s a consistent reminder that Veronica Mars is not a superhero. She’s just awesome.
It’s also an important reminder that Veronica Mars could only be a female character. It’s not a show that would work if the main character was simply reassigned to a differently-gendered actor. Veronica thrives on that underdog status. She needs people to consistently look down upon her, in the most obvious literal sense as well as the conventional metaphorical sense, in order to be so effective. There’s also a darker side, though, as revealed in the show’s pilot where Veronica describes how she was drugged and raped, apparently as revenge for upsetting Neptune’s power structure. Rape, of course, is a dangerous tool in storytelling, but Veronica Mars handles it with sympathy and focuses on Veronica’s experiences.
This all would, of course, fall apart if the actress chosen to play Veronica wasn’t perfect for the role. Kristen Bell embodies it, utilizing superb comic and dramatic acting, as well as bucketloads of charisma. Her post-Veronica Mars career has largely consisted of fans complaining that she’s taken roles she’s too good for, something which must be confusing to anyone who didn’t see Veronica Mars with Bell in her ideal role.
A show described as being about a quippy blonde detective solving mysteries in high school on the UPN isn’t the kind of show that’s usually considered among the greats like The Wire and Breaking Bad. But that demonstrates much more about the people making those judgments than it does about the shows themselves. Because Veronica Mars the show is one of the smartest and most entertaining shows of recent years, thanks in large part to Veronica Mars the character.