The Decline and Fall of
In Season One, "Veronica Mars" was amazing. Even the most ageist critics were forced to applaud the quality writing and strong acting that gave us the most compelling and sharply-defined characters in TV history, as well as the most quotable dialogue, the most surprising plot-twists, and some tricky mysteries that even Dashiell Hammett would have admired.
It drew further applause from the youth rights community. The show offered a teenaged character who is smart and strong. She competently solves as many crimes as her private investigator father, and her father is no slouch. "Veronica Mars" was a show for and about teenagers that was remarkably free of ageist stereotypes or sermons preaching ageist double-standards.
After that first season, "Veronica Mars" ran for two more. Sadly, it could not sustain its greatness. By the time it was canceled, it was barely better than other TV shows.
One problem appears to have been a change in the writing staff. After Season One, "Veronica Mars" lost its best writer, Jed Seidel. He had written not only "Meet John Smith," the most moving episode of the show's entire run, but he had written "Weapons of Class Destruction," which was arguably the show's most youth-friendly episode. "Weapons" begins with students openly criticizing school newspapers that pander to adults rather than serve the interests of students, and it ends by acknowledging that police sometimes frame teenagers for crimes.
As Jed Seidel left, fellow writer Diane Ruggiero was elevated to executive producer. In Season One, Ruggiero had written the season's most ageist episode, "The Wrath of Con." This was not only the episode where Veronica (Kristen Bell) tries to look sexy by wearing a Catholic school uniform like someone out of a fetish porn movie, eroticizing child-molestation; it was also the episode where Veronica's boyfriend, Troy, meets her dad, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). Since Keith is a private investigator, he smugly informs Troy that he somehow found out about Troy's reservations at a hotel and canceled them. At no point is Keith punished for this intrusion into his daughter's dating life, and neither of the teenagers express any outrage at this presumptuous move. We are urged to relish Keith's smug victory over his daughter's attempt to control her own sex life; we are not encouraged to question his appropriateness nor the harm his insult might cause, nor are we asked to even imagine that Keith himself might pay a price for this intrusion by losing the love of his daughter.
In Season Two, the dialogue remained crisp and the plot twists kept coming, but the show was less interested in breaking ageist barriers. In some cases "Veronica Mars" now fell into the worst clichés.
In the same Ruggiero-scripted episode, Wallace meets the first serious love interest the show has given him: fellow high school student Jackie. She's rich and worldly and snobbish. Wallace has little chance with her because, as she informs him, "I haven't dated a guy in high school since the 8th grade." The writing, the acting, the editing: none of these ask us to feel sorry for her as a victim of old predators. Instead, this is supposed to make her seem superior, as if dating older were the same as dating up.
Portraying youth as chasing after older people is a creaky cliché that keeps appearing in stories written by older people. Sadly, "Veronica Mars" could not stay above this. Even in Season One, there was a scene where teenagers put their poker game on hold to ogle the host's mother. (Episode: "An Echolls Family Christmas." Yes, that was another Diane Ruggiero episode — how did you know?)
To the show's credit, this cliché gets reversed several episodes later when Logan breaks up with his friend's stepmother. Yes, that's right. He dumps her, not the other way around. The scene makes clear that, while she wants to use him for his money, he has been using her for sex. While Logan does not create the most positive image of youth, young viewers have to cheer the way he dumps her:
Charisma Carpenter asserts her superiority as an older woman, telling him, "You want to go back to playing grab-áss with cheerleaders that have just mastered missionary? See ya. You want things to keep going the way they've been going, I'm going to need a few things."
Logan's response: " 'See ya' was option A? Bessie, when the milk stops being free, I stop drinking."
While Logan is cold with his gold-digging sex-partner, other episodes show him to be more loving with women his own age. In later Season Two episodes, Logan dates a teenager only because Logan wants leverage against her father, who plans to testify falsely against Logan in a murder trial. But when Logan wins, and her father agrees not to testify in return for Logan breaking up with the daughter, Logan finds he cannot stay away, and he risks everything for another night with her.
In Season One, Logan dated Veronica and turned against his friends when they disliked her. Before that, he dated Lilly; and after her murder, he got ugly with those he blamed for her death, including himself. This older gold-digger who finds high schoolers icky is the only lover with whom Logan is callous.
The ground-breaking nature of this breakup scene, however, is undercut a little by an earlier scene in this episode where we are informed the age-difference between the two lovers is smaller than we had been led to believe. Apparently the writer (Ruggiero again) didn't think we would be comfortable with a teenager dumping an old chick, so Ruggiero put in a scene where teenager Duncan says of the stepmother, "She's like our age." When Veronica tells Duncan the woman is 25, Duncan replies, "Yeah, but, not really."
Just before the woman gets dumped, Ruggiero asks us to think of her as young.
Ruggiero isn't the only writer on "Veronica Mars: Season Two" apologizing for breaking ground. In the episode "Ahoy, Mateys!" we find Veronica snooping in a seedy bar. Some thugs figure out she's up to something, and they pin her down, threatening bodily harm. She is rescued, not by an adult, but by Logan!
Terminator 2, for example, is about a robot trying to kill a teenager. The teenager's mother uses an arsenal of weapons to fend off the killer robot. A good robot (Schwarzenegger) wields even more guns. But the teenager himself, the very target, is unarmed and defenseless, forced to rely on adults for his protection.
In the horror movie Tremors, a small band of humans must fend off monsters. All the humans older than 25 have guns, but the one teenager is kept unarmed. Finally, in a desperate moment, a man gives the youth a gun to help fend off the killer creatures. Then in the moment of need, the youth finds his gun is unloaded, and the man laughs in his face, having endangered the youth deliberately. That's supposed to be funny and reassuring.
The earliest Nancy Drew novels depicted the teenaged sleuth as a 16-year-old who occasionally carries a pistol. When middle-agers complained, the editors took away Drew's gun and also made her 18 so she would be less threatening to adults.
When Logan uses a gun to save Veronica Mars, it's a special moment. But in the next moment, the writers apologize for it. As Logan tries to comfort Veronica, she explodes in anger, not at her attackers, but at Logan. "A gun, Logan?! A GUN? What are you doing with a gun?" In more than one episode, Veronica's father has pulled out his revolver, and our heroine has never voiced objection. But when Logan uses a gun to save her, she is suddenly outraged. The writers here make her the voice of an ageist double-standard.
Logan responds by assuring her, "Look, it's not even loaded." What a surprise. There is absolutely no reason for Logan to carry his gun unloaded. Not in the plot. Not in the theme. Not in Logan's character. The writers put that in for one reason only: to assure ageist viewers.
Such ageist stumbles continue through the end of Season Two. When we learn the answer to the big mystery — who caused the deadly bus crash? — the resolution is an attack on victims of child abuse.
Despite these issues, "Veronica Mars" continued to be a good show for youth, depicting young heroes who are as competent as the older heroes on other shows, who solve problems and hold their own against enemies young and old. But like most sequels, "Veronica Mars" Season 2 was not as good or as bold as the original.
Third Time: Losing the Charm
In "Un-American Graffiti," a surprisingly preachy episode, Keith Mars is sheriff again. This is a big moment. For two and a half seasons, viewers have been told that Keith Mars was once a great sheriff, wrongly recalled and replaced by someone crooked and incompetent. Viewers waited two and a half years for the day when Keith Mars would finally regain his rightful job and clean up the county.
So now, as Keith regains the Sheriff's Office, he promptly takes on a mission that gives him the chance to show what he's made of. He learns a 19-year-old got drunk at a bar, then stumbled into the street and got run over. Keith decides to crack down on the crime that clearly caused this injury. No, not reckless driving — that would be blaming the adult. Not jay-walking or public drunkenness — that would mean enforcing laws that apply to adults. No, he decides to vigorously enforce the one ageist law involved: under-aged drinking.
When he finds Veronica's friends Wallace and Piz at a bar, he takes away their fake ID's. Not only do the college students accept this, they, incredibly, agree to participate in a sting operation to help him crack down on bars that don't discriminate.
The writers didn't want any sympathetic character expressing an opposing view, so all the major characters here agree that ageist drinking laws must be enforced. The closest we get to an alternate view comes from a deputy we've never seen before: Gills. He derides this crusade as a "waste of time" while he obediently goes through the motions of carrying out Keith's mission. The writers never let Gills make an actual argument supporting his view — even as they have Keith keep preaching that under-aged drinking leads to injury. Gills is simply presented as not taking things seriously enough.
The writers let no one voice the opinion that ageism might be wrong. No character points out that a 21-year-old can get drunk and get injured just as easily as a 19-year-old. No character suggests that the desire to defy ageism makes drinking attractive to teenagers, and therefore cracking down on under-aged drinking will just encourage more of it.
The writers certainly don't let our heroine voice such views. Young Veronica's only response to her father's ageist crusade is to apologize to him for having supplied her two friends with their fake ID's. Yet again this character, once embraced by young viewers, is made into a mouthpiece for ageism against the young.
Keith fires Gills and three other deputies for failing to crack down effectively on egalitarian bars. This is presented as Sheriff Mars heroically cleaning up the Sheriff's Office. We're never asked to question his choice. In fact, the writers have Gills challenge Keith with, "You don't have the stones [to fire me]" so that as Keith does fire him, viewers will admire his "stones."
Having cleaned up the Sheriff's Office by firing those four deputies, Keith, in the very next episode, re-hires Deputy Leo. In Season Two, Leo had been fired for stealing from the police evidence locker and causing a murderer to go free; but at least he never turned a blind eye to egalitarianism!
"Un-American Graffiti" was produced while there was great suspense about whether "Veronica Mars" would get a fourth season. I assume this episode's endless sermon against under-aged drinking was an attempt to suck up to those viewers and network executives who disliked the program showing so much respect for youth earlier, those viewers who constantly cried, "It's a show about a teenager solving crimes. How can I take it seriously?"
This pandering failed to win over those who disliked the show, while it disappointed the show's most loyal supporters. As Troy would say: Smooth move.
On a Good Note
After it was announced that Season Three would be the last, "Veronica Mars" went out with a bang. The last two episodes were, by any measure, the best of Season Three, and the only ones that could match the quality of Season One.
In one of these two episodes, "Weevils Wobble But They Don't Go Down," the producers almost apologize for the drinking episode. At least Keith gets a little comeuppance for his ageism.
Running for re-election as sheriff, Keith debates his opponent on a call-in radio program. A caller asks Keith, "Let's say you got two calls at the same time. One was for, let's say, a kidnapping — in progress — but the other involves a twenty-year-old having a beer. Which call would you take first?"
Keith is clearly on the defensive, and his opponent, Vinnie Van Lowe, goes for the kill. When an attempt is made to change the subject, Van Lowe jumps in, "I, for one, think we should hear his answer." Keith reluctantly assures the caller that he would respond first to the kidnapping.
This does not counter-balance "Un-American Graffiti." Vinnie Van Lowe is a character played for laughs, and when he slams Keith's priorities, this is depicted as pandering. ("Know what laws I plan to enforce?" Van Lowe tells the listeners. "The important ones, like murder and terrorism." The town has just enough murder to keep this mystery show going, but no terrorism.) It is enjoyable, nonetheless, to see Keith finally taken to task for his ageism.
Before the show disappeared, it won back the love that will make fans miss what had once been television's greatest program.