Why Veronica Mars Is Still Worth Watching, 15 Years Later

Image: Warner Bros. Television

Veronica Mars has been on a hell of a ride. The beloved, short-lived TV series debuted in 2004, telling sun-drenched teen noir stories about a high school girl who solved mysteries in her spare time. Starring Kristen Bell as the eponymous troubled amateur detective, the show gained a cult following for its sharp wit, heartbreaking character arcs, and gripping mysteries—so of course, it got cancelled after three seasons. Then, in 2014, a Kickstarted movie reunited the show’s cast for what looked like one last hurrah. It was fine.

But this month, Veronica Mars is back with an all-new fourth season on Hulu picking up where the movie left off, and with the whole series now on Hulu, there’s no better time to revisit. So how does it hold up? Kotaku’s resident Veronica Mars marshmallows Jason Schreier, Gita Jackson, and Joshua Rivera re-watched the pilot this week to figure that out.

Jason Schreier: Hello, Gita and Josh! It’s feeling like Veronica Mars month, thanks to Hulu putting up seasons 1-3 in preparation of a BRAND NEW season 4 that’s going to launch on July 26. Veronica Mars, of course, is a show about a high school girl moonlighting as a private detective to whom some very bad things happen. It’s a cult classic, the type of show whose viewers have their own nickname (“Marshmallows,” based on a great quote from the pilot) and whose fans, like me, tend to scream at people to go watch it. Now there’s a convenient way to do that.

My wife and I have been rewatching season one, and it’s a good reminder of just how great a show it is. So let’s start there. You guys are both big fans, right? Without getting too spoilery, what do you like most about it?

Gita Jackson: I was trying to explain to some friends last night what about the show that pulled me in while it was airing. As much as I love Veronica and her Scooby gang, much as I am a sucker for mysteries and conspiracies, and much as I love the incredibly accurate representation of certain parts of California, the thing that hooked me in during the pilot is the premise itself.

Veronica Mars used to be a popular girl, until she went to a party, was roofied, sexually assaulted and then humiliated. Instead of breaking down, she decides to figure out what happened to her, and get some vengeance for the woman she used to be. Yes, this is also connected to a murder mystery, but that kind of fundamental fantasy is something that deeply appeals to a lot of women, especially if you’ve ever known someone who was assaulted, or have been assaulted yourself. It’s a fantasy because well, it rarely happens. You rarely get any kind of justice after an assault like that. But Veronica did (at least in this first season—they kinda muck it all up in the seasons to come but whatever).

Joshua Rivera: Yeah, I am generally a sucker for most of what the show is interested in right from episode one. I love the teen beach noir vibe, the way it uses sunbeams instead of shadows to make everything about high school life kind of sinister. I love teen stories in general, the way they are generally unafraid to be incredibly on the nose as long as they feel some conviction. And I love stories about people who have been wronged using their wits to fight back against impossible odds, which describes both Veronica and the people she puts her talents to work for. She’s kind of a superhero!

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What about you, Jason?

Jason: I love everything about Veronica Mars, from those blown-out shots you mention to the main characters’ relationships to the cheesy 2004 gags. (During one episode early in season one, Veronica has to deal with a pair of college students who love video games, and she cons them into thinking they’re going to get to see an early build of... wait for it... The Matrix Online.)

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The show does a lot of stuff really really well, but two things stand out in my mind. One is the way it balances mystery-of-the-week style TV episodic structure with overarching stories, especially in season one, which is masterful at both keeping you interested in Veronica’s weekly detective romps and drip-feeding you bits of information about the show’s core mystery—who killed her best friend, Lily Kane?—which has a brilliant resolution that I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen it. (Seriously, go watch Veronica Mars.)

The second is her relationship with her dad, Keith Mars. On most teen shows, the protagonist would be keeping her hobbies and activities hidden away from her parents, but Veronica Mars isn’t like most shows. She helps out her dad’s private detective agency, and often, she winds up needing to enlist his help for her schemes, which make for some of the best moments of the show thanks to their dynamo chemistry. I just rewatched an episode in which (for good reasons!) she pretends to be pregnant and Keith pretends to be her angry father, and it is just perfect.

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Gita: Keith Mars the GOAT.

Keith Mars in the new season of Veronica Mars.
Photo: Richard Foreman (Hulu)
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Joshua: Enrico Colantoni, who plays Keith Mars, is a tremendously understated asset to this show. He’s extremely good at being the corny dad who has his daughter’s back, but also, like Veronica, is still picking up the pieces from this trauma that completely upended their lives—Lily Kane’s murder. In fact, that’s one of my favorite things about the pilot—it introduces you to Neptune, and all its different factions—rich jerks like Logan, the Chicano bikers led by Weevil (I have a lot of Weevil feelings) and the misfits Veronica falls in with. And then you find out it wasn’t always quite this way—Lily Kane’s murder just made everyone worse. Or maybe just more themselves.

Jason: Man, yeah, the pilot is one of the strongest episodes that Veronica Mars has ever done - it’s a master class in how to weave plot threads together, introduce all (well, most) of the central characters, and deliver a consistently entertaining standalone story. Even if my film school teachers would have gotten snobby about the voiceover. (Film school teachers hate voiceover.)

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Fun fact: Francis Capra, who plays Weevil, is a big gamer. He and I have talked a bit - he’s really into StarCraft. What are your Weevil feelings, Josh? He’s quite a character.

Joshua: I think Weevil and his gang are one of the few things that rankle me about the pilot—it’s just exhausting to have a show set in southern California and have every one of your Mexican characters in a biker gang. I love Weevil mostly because of what comes later in the show—he’s pretty much a stereotype here, and a painful one, but he becomes an actual character as the show grows, and Capra has this really empathetic presence that the writing takes a while to catch up with.

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Jason: Yeah, he also has this weird sexual creep vibe in the pilot that, fortunately, goes away pretty quickly. It’s definitely a show from 2004, and as Kirk and I discussed a bit on this week’s Splitscreen, there are some problems that arise as a result of that. A couple of things not handled quite as deftly as they might be in 2019.

Gita: There are a lot of things that happen later in this show that dilute the power of its writing, and many of those things are present in the pilot. It’s a good pilot, and ultimately a good show, but upon rewatching it, you see the seeds for the troubles to come, especially in regards to how it treats its characters of color, and how it handles rape.

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Jason: Like what?

Gita: Even in this first season, Veronica ends up replicating the system that she hates so much. In the town of Neptune, she says early on that you’re either rich and white, or you work for them. Veronica doesn’t end up rich, exactly, but she asks a lot of her friends—especially her friends that are people are color—and does not really give anything back to them. She may not be rich, but she still exploits the labor of those who are already seen as expendable labor within the town.

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These people call her out, but the dynamic never changes. The rape stuff is, well....... you really get sick of characters saying “rohypnol” after a while!

Jason: Yeah, throughout the series that becomes an ongoing story point, and one of Veronica’s major character flaws—she takes and takes from friends like Wallace and Mac like a beautiful blonde vampire squid, asking them for favor after favor while offering only the occasional big gift in return. It’s something I’m very curious to see addressed in this upcoming new season, which I know nothing about but am extremely excited to watch unfold.

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Gita: It’s one thing to put a lampshade on it, and another thing to try to address it and change the dynamic. It becomes really uncomfortable to watch Wallace become more an employee than a friend, especially when his entire life seems to revolve around Veronica.

Joshua: It’s so wild that there’s going to be a new season, because like you said, it brings up all these troubling ghosts the show had. In 2004, long-game plots were still extremely rare on broadcast TV, and Veronica Mars got a lot of credit for having one about something so raw and troubling and real.

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Fifteen years later, we’ve learned a lot! It’s comforting to me, personally, to look back and say “damn one of my favorite shows was so insensitive about brown people and class dynamics” even though it was trying so hard. I like knowing we had those blind spots, and they’ve gotten narrower. I still like the show lots, but it weirdly makes me nervous about the new stuff! I hope Veronica has grown as much as me, you know?

Jason: It’ll certainly be fascinating to see how they approach it! Are you guys planning on rewatching all of the old seasons? It’s been a blast to revisit because despite all of these warts, which are very fair to bring up and wonder about today, there’s so much good stuff in there. Even the insignificant side characters are unforgettable, like Cliff, the public defense attorney whose incompetence is the butt of many wonderful jokes. (“Do you know a good lawyer?” “I know A lawyer.”)

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I had a very fun moment earlier this week when I was watching the third episode, which involves a kid named Justin whose performance is just... horrendous. (Some of the actors in this show are fantastic, but others—Duncan Kane, most notably—are straight-up hard to watch.) I was wondering if the actor behind Justin had done anything else since 2004, so I looked up his IMDB page, and... he plays Vaan in Final Fantasy XII! The worst actor on Veronica Mars is also the worst actor in Final Fantasy.

Gita: Oh my god, Duncan Kane as an actor is just abysmal. By far the worst part of that first season.

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Joshua: Cliff, however, is immediately gold.

Gita: I would love to rewatch all the old seasons of the show, but I’m a bit afraid of what I’ll find there. The first season largely holds up. It knows the ending its building towards, and gets there deftly. The finale, in particular, is perfect. It fulfills all the cynicism and hope as any noir movie would, just this time with high schoolers.

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Then I start thinking about the third season, where Veronica is off to college, where there’s been a string of—you guessed it—rapes. In a roundabout way, the show ends up placing some culpability for this series of sexual assaults on the feminist group on campus. Do I want to revisit that?

Jason: So to those readers out there who haven’t watched Veronica Mars and are curious to check it out, what would you each recommend? Stay away? Just watch the first season?

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Joshua: Oh man, what a tricky question!

Gita: I have long told people that Veronica Mars was sadly canceled after one season, but that’s not really fair. It’s worth watching those later seasons, at least as an academic exercise. Sometimes, you wanna know just exactly how the milk curdled. That said, I’m going to be watching season 4, so count me in as a total fucking hypocrite. I just love Veronica too much.

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Photo: Richard Foreman (Hulu)

Jason: I wouldn’t conflate seasons two and three. Season three, in which Veronica goes to college and runs into a series of segmented mysteries that are convoluted and often problematic, is a mess all around. Even the biggest Marshmallows would agree on that end. But season two has some incredible moments. “Donut Run,” a season two episode that’s impossible to describe without spoiling, is one of my favorite episodes of television ever. The finale is remarkable, and the villain is truly tragic. Plus: Steve Guttenberg!

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Gita: I take such an issue with the finale of season 2 for its handling of sexual assault, but if we dig into that we’ll be here all day.

Joshua: Yeah, I would say know what you’re getting into! The first season is great but a little rough, and it’s got a season-long mystery involving rape. That’s tough! It’s also integral to understanding Veronica and her world. If you’re cool with that, please watch it. It’s so clever and really knows how to turn mundane scenes into total ringers with a single sight gag or quip or gut punch.

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If you’ve got time, I also think the next two seasons are worth it, (I don’t like season three, but I do get something out of understanding how good shows fall apart.) I think you could probably get by skipping them to check out the new stuff. The cool thing about Veronica Mars is the way that it maintains that everyone is always a mess at all times, and one of the things that separates lousy people from decent ones is your willingness to work through that mess, and be compassionate towards the messiness of others. Which the show isn’t always good at! But I think that’s why I can’t wait to watch more Veronica Mars: because she, like everyone in Neptune, is a human-sized hurricane, uprooting everything in the hopes of helping others, just as likely to mess shit up as she is to save the day.

Gita: Well said, Josh.

Jason: You’re a marshmallow, Joshua Rivera.

One other thing we haven’t yet mentioned: Logan (Jason Dohring), the abusive psychopath turned bad boy with a heart of gold whose chemistry with Kristen Bell no doubt changed how the showrunners approached his character—and his relationship with Veronica—throughout the course of the show, the movie, and then the books (which, I should say, are very fun summer reads). Are you guys on team Logan? Or do you ship Veronica and Officer Leo?

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Gita: Veronica Mars needs to date herself for a while.

Joshua: Man I wanna FIGHT every ship on this show hahaha.

One of the funniest things about Veronica Mars is that Logan, to me, does NOT read as a bad boy. He is a bad boy in a town where no one gets punched but dads will sue each other for their kids.

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Screenshot: Warner Bros. Television

Gita: It is amusing how the show tries to make Logan more likeable after a ton of the horrendous things he does early on in the show, like organize bum fights. I actually like him more as a character when he’s awful—his interactions with his equally awful father made me feel such empathy for him. You can see how, for him, his now dead girlfriend Lily was the only thing holding him together in his horrible abusive household, and after she’s gone, he loses it. Jason Dohring plays this role excellently. I just want him to get therapy before he starts dating anyone else.

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Joshua: Okay I will give it to Jason Dohring, who never really clicks with me: He has like one extremely brief scene in the pilot that takes place shortly after Lily Kane’s murder and it’s devastating, and makes his shctick so sad.

I still think he looks like a human frosted tip.

Gita: Hahaha!

Jason: He does, complete with that classic 2004 shell necklace. Throughout season one, you start to realize that Lily, that one stabilizing factor that you mention Gita, was also pretty awful to him. Everyone he loved was abusive or betraying him in some way, including his horrible sister (Alyson Hannigan!) who pops in for an episode or two every now and then. I remember first watching the show and hating Logan’s guts for being a typical tortured spoiled brat, then gradually realizing that he had nobody. His family and even many of his friends backstabbed him at every turn. It’s hard to imagine empathizing with a rich kid who makes racist comments toward Hispanics and pays homeless people to box for the amusement of him and his rich friends, but this show does pull it off, sometimes to a manipulative degree. Logan has his funny moments, too. He and Weevil get some excellent opportunities to banter.

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Joshua: Yeah, Veronica Mars is at its best when it’s empathetic to everyone, which it gets a lot of mileage off of thanks to its private investigator hook—you’ve got a main character whose job is assuming the worst, you know?

Gita: I think one of my favorite episodes is the one with Adam Scott in it. You know the one I’m talking about, right?

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Jason: “Mars vs. Mars!”

Joshua: Oh that’s an all-timer.

Gita: I don’t want to spoil the twist, but it’s a good example of how Veronica’s role as a cynic leads to her to being right, but also blinds her from obvious truths.

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In that episode she was right to be skeptical about the claim being made—but also, ultimately, her skepticism lead her to defend a pretty awful person, and she only realized too late.

When this show is good, it just sings, man.

Jason: And that’s one of the main reasons so many people still cherish it, all these years later. When it’s at its best, Veronica Mars is really special.

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Gita: I don’t think there’s been a show like it since. A show as fearless, even when it was clumsy or messy.

Jason: Clearly you haven’t watched The Newsroom, Gita.

Just kidding.

Joshua: Now go watch Rob Thomas’ other show, iZombie!

Jason: Also, Party Down!

Joshua: God, Party Down.

Gita: Jason, did I ever tell you my idea for a TV show like The Newsroom, but with games journalism?

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As far as problematic shows, that one would be crowned the winner.

Jason: And it’s just a room full of people arguing over whether the new Call of Duty is an 8 or an 8.1?

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Gita: The highest amount of pressure, but the lowest amount of stakes—just like high school.

Jason: The slogan: Low stakes, hot takes.

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