This piece contains plot points from Veronica Mars: The Movie.
The world has changed drastically in the seven years since we last saw Veronica Mars, the wisecracking teen sleuth ferreting out injustice in her wealthy California beach town, Neptune. When Rob Thomas’ cult TV show was cancelled in 2007, the financial crisis and subsequent ballooning inequality was yet to come, most people had never heard of stop-and-frisk, and the term “cloud” meant nothing more than the big puffy white things in the sky. In the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie, which premiered Friday, the eponymous heroine returns to a Neptune that has caught up with the times — meaning it’s become even darker, more corrupt, and more unequal.
The television show, which ran from 2004 to 2007, always centered around privilege and class warfare in the deeply divided southern California beach town. The “09ers,” named for the zip code of their ritzy section of Neptune, ruled the school, controlled the town’s industry and law enforcement agencies, and regularly got away with rape and murder (until Veronica tripped them up). The Neptune sheriff’s department alternated between looking the other way and actively protecting the most powerful people in town.
But in 2014, this dynamic has only become more pronounced. In one early scene, Veronica and her father, Keith, come across a police checkpoint, where a couple young men of color have been pulled over as police search their car for something to charge them with. When one of them talks back, the officer slams him down on the car and starts threatening him. Another officer tasers the second man and advances on him as he convulses. “Hey, you want some more juice, boy?” he says. “You move one more inch, I will light you up like a Christmas tree.”
The scene is especially disturbing in its similarities to the 2011 police murder of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, CA, a real-life version of Neptune, situated in the decadent and extremely unequal Orange County. Officers brutally beat the schizophrenic homeless man to death while taunting him, “See these fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up.” Even with video footage showing the whole ordeal, the officers involved were acquitted in January. Protests raged for weeks, likely around the corner from where Veronica Mars had shot on location.
Veronica Mars’ critical look at police misconduct marks a new awareness of the anger and mistrust surrounding law enforcement, which has reached a fever pitch since the show ended in 2007. But the film also notes that technology has developed rapidly since 2007, giving civilians new tools to protect themselves. Keith stops the police from further brutalizing their victims with a smartphone, warning them, “Unless you want to be a Youtube star by tomorrow morning, you’re going to let those boys go now.”
The movie also examines how such a system perpetuates endemic crime and poverty. Veronica’s old gangster friend, Eli “Weevil” Navarro, once the head of a local biker gang, shows up at the high school reunion embodying the reformed criminal ideal — he owns his own business, is devoted to his wife and daughter, and has given up the biker lifestyle completely. “I’m attending tea parties at doll stores,” he says jubilantly.
But even this unlikely success story can’t overcome the deck stacked against him. On his way home from the reunion, he comes across Celeste Kane, the “wealthiest divorcee in southern California,” huddled in her car, lost and terrified of the bikers driving around her. Weevil knocks on her window to help, only to be shot in the chest. Kane claims she was defending herself from his attack, and police plant a gun on Weevil’s unconscious body to make the story more credible. By the end of the movie, Weevil has apparently lost faith in the law-abiding life and rejoined his gang.
These portrayals of police misconduct still play sideplot to Veronica’s main mission, which is to clear her wealthy ex-boyfriend of murder charges. Yet even by simply acknowledging the damage done by out-of-control police corruption and brutality, Veronica Mars sets itself apart from other mystery-solving series.
Even as reports of police brutality grow more frequent and receive more attention, law and order dramas still tend to treat abuses as necessary evils to stop evil people. In popular shows ranging from The Following to Law and Order to Chicago PD to Cops, fictional cops (usually rugged white men) shove around the bad guy in the interrogation room, slam innocent witnesses against walls in order to force information out of them, and often end up killing their targets.
But this tough cop trope may be changing as audiences grow more suspicious of police. Even Law and Order: SVU made a clumsy attempt this season to address police shootings, taking jabs at a new mayor ostentatiously cracking down on the NYPD. Still, the effort suggests there’s a growing interest in stories of police misconduct alongside the usual tales of police valor.
Ultimately, Veronica decides to stay and try to dismantle what she calls the “rigged game” of Neptune, even as she acknowledges that it may be impossible. Hopefully she’ll get some help from other protagonists on other series that want to start a real debate about how to depict law enforcement in pop culture.