Veronica (Kristen Bell) is a brilliant girl attending an exclusive high school in Neptune. She’s part of the 09ers – a group of popular, wealthy students – and her life seems perfect. Until her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), gets killed. Her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), Neptune’s sheriff, follows a wrong lead about Lilly’s killer and is forced to leave his position. As a result, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) – Lilly’s ex-boyfriend – is mad at Veronica, Duncan (Edward Wilkers Dunn) – her boyfriend – breaks up with her, and the 09ers cut her out. She then starts investigating her friend’s death by herself while trying to solve another conflict between Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), two other students who will become her friends. Veronica Mars‘s plot is a blend of teen drama and crime, with shades of comedy and neo-noir.

Veronica Mars | Neo-noir shines in teen drama - Pic 2
Image courtesy of Silver Pictures

Veronica Mars’ origins

Rob Thomas originally wrote the story as a young-adult novel, with a male protagonist. Just after he got his first television job for Dawson’s Creek, he returned to the script idea of a teenage investigator. Inspired by strong female characters as Buffy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sydney Bristow (Alias), he changed the protagonist’s gender.

Other girls on television, like Buffy or Alias, they could literally kick a**. I felt like Veronica’s superpower could be that she just doesn’t give a s*** what people think about her.

Rob Thomas, Breeanna Hare for CNN, 2014

Veronica Mars has been a prominent show for young generations of the early 2000s’, as well as serialized narration. When it debuted, except for rare cases, a teen drama was nearly soap opera; female characters’ stories focused on romance or their dependence, a constant need for help. Veronica was different: realistic as an actual real-life teenager, but talented and unpredictable as a magic fighter.

“I’m a triple threat.”

Veronica works part-time for the private investigation agency her father opened after he lost his work as sheriff. “I’m a triple threat,” she explains to a skeptical client at the beginning of her career. “A girl, a teenager, and a private detective. Barely fits on my business card”. Each episode follows a stand-alone case, while every season solves a more horizontal, complex mystery. When she’s not investigating, Veronica tries to live as a normal teenager. She keeps moving in a not-so-perfect society where there’s no place for middle-class families. Even in the high-school microcosm, students are split between rich 09ers and those whose families work for them.

In Neptune, there’s no teenager like the ones portrayed in Freaks and Geeks; Neptune’s students come from the middle-class and – although in different ways – they are the “unconventional” ones. It’s rather a society that looks like the one shown in The O.C., exposing wealthy families and how their lives change after the arrival of a girl from the slums. So, Veronica lives in a rich society she doesn’t belong to. She keeps balancing between the two worlds, somehow impersonating different characters in order to find Lilly’s killer.

Noir acting as teen drama

Veronica Mars‘ general structure follows the same scheme as other crime shows, such as C.S.I. or Bones. Three parallel storylines run together: the first one is the “week’s case”, which gets solved within the episode. Then there’s the main mystery, which develops all along the season (or for several episodes) and works as a narrative thread. Other than these two, a third one made of personal relationships results in connecting different seasons. While the first two storylines descend directly from mystery, the latter links the series to drama. Therefore, Veronica Mars becomes a show in which neo-noir elements act in a teen drama structure.

As in David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive (2001), there’s no solid division between roles: Veronica impersonates both the detective and the femme fatale. She is an anti-hero with a dark past, who found her lethal weapon in her own reaction to trauma. That force comes from the awareness of being underestimated. Like many noir detectives, she’s not always fair: cynical, impulsive and driven by ambiguous ethics to get a result.

A double-faced show

Led by a need for justice and Lilly’s flashbacks, she becomes whoever she needs to be to find the truth. Just like Veronica, locations seem double-faced, too. Neptune, a sunny Californian fictional town, becomes gloomy and dark at night, under the neon lights. As perfect families reveal dysfunctional sides, so the town shows a hidden reality.

The show mixes mystery and horror with humor and romance, balancing investigation and police work with teen crises, school, and love. The soundtrack reflects those two aspects as well: the series’ theme song, We Used to Be Friends by The Dandy Warhols, creates a connection with pop music. This alternative rock group was very successful at beginning of the 2000s and some of their songs were selected for other series as The O.C. and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the other hand, composer Josh Kramon wanted a noir sound and themes, declaring he took inspiration from Air and Zero 7.

Veronica and Neptune need each other in order to evolve. Her job as a young detective doesn’t only solve cases; it solves inner and past conflicts. It allows her to overcome trauma and find love, new friends, and her own morality: “You get tough. You get even”.

The movie campaign

The show proved it was possible for teen dramas to face hard issues such as rape, racism, and pedophilia. A large audience soon grew fond of Veronica and her fresh but thoughtful gaze on reality. Despite its success, though, CW canceled the series after season three. In 2013 Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce a film. Reaching the total amount of $5.7 million, the campaign became one of the most-backed campaigns in Kickstarter’s history.

It was not the first time a successful TV show was canceled. But it was the first time the audience managed to bring it back on the screen. Moreover, ten years passed: during this time social media exploded. Those gave the Marshmallows (as Veronica Mars‘ fans call themselves) the possibility to team up.

When people have a story that they want to see, now they have a voice.

Jason Dohring to The Guardian

A fourth season to come

Dealing with a movie-to-be that wasn’t only desired, but entirely financed by fans, its creators were worried about disappointing their expectations. In sync and timing with social media, teen dramas evolved a lot. Modern characters such as those of The End of the F***ing World or Euphoria, are more mature and multifaceted than the previous ones. The story’s tone detaches from soap opera style, facing more complex problems. So, Thomas decided to do a step forward; the film starts some years after the end of season three. Veronica is no more a teenager, but a young woman. Following its success, in 2018, Hulu officially confirmed a revival season, taking place some years after the movie events.

After nearly twenty years, Veronica Mars can still attract new audiences for its ability to mix teen drama and noir, but also to keep up with social and generational change through having a strong female protagonist.