I owe Rob Thomas an apology. When he announced the “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter was last March, it seemed like an ill-advised exercise in disappointment and unmet expectations. The project, a continuation of the cult TV series that was canceled eight years ago, was a historic success, reaching its $2 million goal in 12 hours, raising another $3.7 million, and breaking a few Kickstarter records along the way. But while I loved the TV show and its unlikely heroine, a whip-smart teenage private eye, I kept wishing Rob Thomas, the show’s creator, would go off and write some brilliant detective series for FX instead of making an exercise in Buzzfeed-style nostalgia, filled with call-backs to the original and a string of cameos by old friends. But I’ll admit I was wrong. The “Veronica Mars” movie, which opened today in theaters, is filled with call-backs and cameos and appeals to nostalgia. But it’s also a satisfying movie, as sharp as the original.
A decade ago, when the show was airing in the twilight days of the UPN network, “Veronica Mars” wasn’t getting Entertainment Weekly covers and major news coverage. It struggled to reach 3 million viewers, and was cancelled in 2007, at the end of its third season. But it quietly gathered a passionate fan-base, and deservedly so: This strange genre mash-up, dark and snappy and smarter than it had any right to be, was one of the best, most purely entertaining TV shows of the decade. (And remember: This was the decade that also brought you “The Sopranos,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “Lost.”) Veronica (Kristen Bell) was a petite, prickly 16-year-old who moonlighted as a hardboiled private investigator. Before the first season began, her best friend was killed; her alcoholic mother skipped town; Veronica was drugged, raped, ostracized. She emerged hardened, steeling herself against the ugly, violent world like a proto-Katniss Everdeen. Set in Neptune, a fictional California beach town split between tech billionaires and the barely middle-class, the series was an indictment of the one-percent before the term existed. Its subject matter was dark—class politics and sexual assault1 —but it played like screwball comedy mixed with noir thrills and finely wrought melodrama. The show’s audience was fervid, but minuscule. (By mid-aughts standards, that is. The finale was seen by 2.7 million people, enough to give it a secure spot on a major network these days.)
In 2007, his show on the verge of cancellation, Thomas deliberately avoided wrapping things up too neatly in the last episode; he didn’t want to “make it easy” for the network executives to pull the plug. They did anyway, and fans were left with an untidy ending: Veronica’s need for revenge had alienated her friends, screwed over her family; her love life was in disarray; in the final scene, we see her walking through a messy downpour, shivering, wet, and alone. It was one of the bleakest series finales in recent years—and one of the best, I think, striking the same ambiguous, melancholy note as fellow gone-before-their-time shows: “Freaks and Geeks,” “My So-Called Life,” “Terriers,” and “Enlightened.” Made while everyone could see the writing on the wall, these finales leave their characters preserved in possibility, on the verge of something scary and new. That was where Veronica stayed, perched at the realization that her guiding philosophy (“You get tough, and then you get even”) was no longer healthy or sustainable.
In the years after, fans clamored for resolution, but I wasn’t one of them. Sure, my “Veronica Mars” super-fan credentials were otherwise unimpeachable. I’ve lost count of how many times I’d made my way through the series, and if you make the mistake of asking, I’ll happily deliver a longwinded explanation of why Veronica is destined to end up with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her self-destructive homme fatale, not her milquetoast college boyfriend Piz. But I already had closure. Rob Thomas hadn’t written the happy ending I wanted, but the troublesome one the show needed.
In the movie, we catch up with Veronica eight years later: She’s abandoned the P.I. biz for a stable life in New York, and she hasn’t worked a case since we last saw her. Then she gets a call from Logan, the old flame who needs her help just like he always used to. Logan’s predicament—his pop-star girlfriend has been murdered and he’s the main suspect—provides the over-arching mystery and a reason for Veronica to return to Neptune; a ten-year high school reunion gives an excuse for the rest of the cast to appear. It’s a condensed version of a “Veronica Mars” season-long mystery, and after eight years, that’s exhilarating. If you’ve never seen “Veronica Mars,” you’ll understand what’s happening but miss the character beats. Then again, if you’ve never seen “Veronica Mars,” what are you waiting for?
The movie indulges a bit too often in in-jokes (a Kickstarter gag, a quip about Matchbox 20’s “other” Rob Thomas, a busker playing the theme song), as if excitedly reminding us, “Hey! We did it!” These moments might be distracting, but the show was always sly self-aware, riffing on film-noir conventions and Big Lebowski lines and the clichés of high school drama. In the first season, Harry Hamlin, the action star and People’s Sexiest Man Alive of 1987, was cast as an action star once voted People’s Sexiest Man Alive. You don’t get more meta than that. This is a story about a girl detective: As Bell says in the movie’s opening voice-over, “Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds.”
But this isn’t just a nostalgia trip. Almost a decade has passed, and the characters aren’t just older, they’ve changed in recognizable and gratifying ways. Logan is stable, trying to put his troubled past and violent history behind him. Mac (Tina Majorino), once a shy and awkward computer geek, is a confident and well-employed computer geek. And Veronica is less angry, less monomaniacal in her pursuit of justice. When Logan asks if she believe he’s innocent, she says yes; old Veronica could never have been so wholly trusting. And Neptune has become uglier in the interim, the apathy of law enforcement transformed into pervasive corruption and police brutality—just the kind of injustice Veronica Mars was born to fight.
In two weeks, the first Veronica Mars mystery novel will be released, picking up right where the movie leaves off. The writers and stars want to make a sequel, if Warner Brothers will pick up the tab this time. I have my reservations, but this time I’ll give Rob Thomas the benefit of the doubt.
If you want to fully understand the term “rape culture,” just watch “A Trip to the Dentist,” the first season’s penultimate episode.