‘Veronica Mars’ Television Club: Race, Class, Sexism And The Outsiders

Welcome to the Veronica Mars television club! As I’ve written here before, I grew up as a devoted reader of Rob Thomas’s young adult novels, particularly the exemplary Rats Saw God and Slave Day, but not as a television watcher. By the time I had television and a cable subscription for the first time, Veronica Mars was off the air, and when I began remedying the gaps in my television education, I prioritized shows that were still running, like Mad Men, or whose creators were currently working on projects that I’d need to review, like The Wire and Deadwood. But now that the Kickstarter to fund a Veronica Mars movie has been so successful, and has opened up such interesting questions about funding models for cult hits and the role of fans as investors, I’m pleased to have a chance to catch up. As I mentioned when I announced this project, we’ll be doing two episodes on Mondays and Fridays. So let’s start with the pilot and the second episode of the first season. Be cool, Soda-Pop…

“This is my school,” Veronica explains at the beginning of the pilot. “If you go here, either your parents are millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires. Neptune, California. A town without a middle class.” It’s a phenomenal thesis statement for a show, even without the murder mystery and private eye schtick that follows, given the class homogeneity of most shows about teenagers, whether it’s the overwhelming wealth of the kids on Gossip Girl, the kooky security of the families on Suburgatory, or even the cookie-cutter comfort of The Neighbors. And there are other intriguing details that Veronica offers up. “The day the company went public, Jake Kane made a billion dollars,” she explains of her ex-boyfriend’s family. “Everyone who worked for him, down to the secretaries, became millionaires.” The sudden transformation of working people into the extremely wealthy is a major change for a community to go through, particularly one with such sharp inequality.

But through the first few episodes, that’s a bit more thesis than a paper that’s ready to turn in. Veronica’s dad may joke that they can eat steak like “the lower-middle class to which we aspire,” but Neptune is a town where even poor teenagers have cars or motorcycles. Veronica tells us that her mother left after her father lost his recall election because “The loss of status, the loss of income, was too much for her,” though the show doesn’t really have time to show us what their lives were like before and after the election, and it’s hard to imagine that the sheriff’s job actually lifted the family up into the upper-class, given that we’re told that a respectable middle class doesn’t exist. Rich kids may use a code* to set up their parties to avoid infiltration by people outsider their clique, but they end up drinking on a beach in Eli’s neighborhood rather than doing something that would be genuinely inaccessible to the teenagers they want to exclude. Rich people in Neptune may have captured the sheriff’s department, but through the first two episodes, given the ease with which Veronica and Wallace subvert the sheriff’s department, the show’s set up a fairly equal contest. It’s not clear what inequality actually means for life in Neptune yet.

The most interesting application of Neptune’s stated class politics is in their intersection with race in the second episode in the credit card fraud case. “How difficult is it to find good help these days?” Logan tells Caitlin Ford (the casting of Paris Hilton in this role has to be an all-time great on any cameo list) after accounts are opened in his mother’s name, and Eli’s grandmother, who works for Logan’s family, is accused of the crime and fired. “We have to let her go. Can’t trust your domestics, don’t feel safe in your own home.” Whether race and class align consistently in Neptune is an open question at this point in the show, but I’d expect conflicts like this one, where one student holds power over another because the former’s parents employ the latter to run rampant in a town that’s truly stratified by class. And the show’s attempts at intersectionality are intriguing, even if at this point, the racial politics of Veronica Mars feel slightly on the nose.

The show’s other attempt to draw connections across categories comes in the form of a recurring conversation between Veronica and Eli about their respective reputations. Eli first brings up Veronica’s reputation for sexual promiscuity after she cuts Wallace off the flagpole, telling her, “Why you care so much about that skinny Negro anyway? From what I hear about you, you lay the pipe right.” And he brings it up again when she’s trying to prove that he’s been framed for the credit card fraud. “My reputation?” he asks her. “Well, then, I guess what everyone says about you is true, too. That you like it a little freaky. That you spy on Duncan Kane. That you send him pictures of yourself.” In effect, Eli is suggesting that the reputation Veronica got after she was raped is the equivalent of his reputation as a criminal.

The problem is, those two things aren’t really the same. “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I,” Veronica tells us. “I don’t know who handed me the drink. I wish I did. Turns out it was your basic rum, Coke, and Roofie.” When Wallace tells her, “Girl, you should hear what people say about you,” he’s describing a reputation Veronica got for, as far as we know at this point in the show, doing literally nothing at all. It’s not clear that she’s ever had consensual sex, and the show lays the imagery on heavy: when Veronica is roofied and raped, she’s wearing a white dress and white panties that would be appropriate at a cotillion. Eli, on the other hand, has committed crimes. “What do we have here?” he says when he finds Logan smashing out the headlights on Veronica’s car. “Vandalism? Oh no, no. The only vandalism in this town goes through me.” His grandmother pulls a Brianna Barksdale in her pragmatic assessment of Eli and his gang’s prospects, telling Veronica that because he’s a juvenile without a record, “Eli can do four months in jail,” to take the rap for his cousin, spreading the consequences out across their family. It’s absolutely unfair and racially tinged that Eli’s a suspect when things go down in Neptune, but being a rape survivor and being Latino and a gang leader are not actually equivalent experiences even if they have some similarly frustrating outcomes.

But however rough the show is around the edges of its big issues in these first two episodes, it’s such a relief to see in Veronica Mars a recognition that teenagers have real issues in their lives, that questions of racism, sexism, and class don’t suddenly descend on people once they reach the age of maturity, having been kind enough to hold off until then. The thing that’s challenging me the most so far? I’m not sure I’m convinced by how the show’s handling what’s supposed to be the biggest ongoing trauma in Veronica’s life, the murder of her best friend Lily. I understand that this is an ongoing mystery, so I don’t need all the details of how she was killed, or how she was leaked. But I feel like I need to see more of her friendship with Veronica than talks about pep rallies and the sight of Amanda Seyfried at a car wash. And I need to understand more about why Veronica’s father accused Lily’s father of murdering her, because if he walked out of an interrogation and accused Jake Kane with no followup investigation, it’s hard to sympathize with him, and to understand Veronica’s decision to side with him. I’m happy to be along for a mystery, I just want to feel the same sadness about Lily, our season-long whodonit, as I was at the sight of Eli’s cousin at Caitlin’s window, begging her “This is it. It’s time to go. It’s what we talked about.”

See you on Monday for episodes three and four!