Thursday, November 30, 2006

Boom Goes the Dynamite: Scattered Veronica Mars Thoughts

How much do I love the decision to split Veronica Mars's third season into mini-arcs? Not only has the shift in format completely re-energized the show, it gives me three convenient stopping points from which to take stock of the show's progress. And, since I share producer Rob Thomas's fears about the likelihood of a fourth season, it's probably best to take advantage of the opportunity to do some guilt-free criticism while I still can.

Before I get to the criticism, however, I'd like to reiterate that the show is re-energized. After a well-intentioned but deeply flawed second season, Veronica Mars is back in top form. The show's opening plot arc was tight, tense, and compelling. The characters, even when they made choices we couldn't condone or changed in ways we didn't care for, were vibrant onscreen presences (except, that is, for the ones who didn't get nearly enough air-time like Wallace, Mac and Weevil). There are, obviously, still some problem areas: as it did in its second season, the show continues to rely on idiot plotting--sometimes dumbing down the characters (Logan brings Veronica home from campus drugged to the gills, and Keith doesn't make the connection to the campus rapist), and more often simply setting its stories in an alternate universe in which a person grows enough marijuana to supply all of Neptune for their personal use, or bone cancer can be treated with a marrow transplant--which, in a detective story, is a serious flaw, one that is more likely than any other to wear away at the audience's indulgence. There's also been an increasing tendency to use pop-culture references and mug-for-the-camera acting to get laughs, which has quickly become tedious. All that said, the third season is shaping up incredibly well, and I for one can't wait to tune in for the next arc.

All of which is not to say that the rape arc has not had its problematic aspects--in fact, it is probably the most contentious story the show has ever told, and a great deal of vitriol has been spilled over the writers' choices in depicting the various groups involved in investigating (and hampering the investigation of) the serial rapes on the Hearst College campus. Chief among the complaints is that the portrayal of the Lilith House feminists--who, in their eagerness to take vengeance on fraternity members who hurt and humiliated their friend, fabricate rapes and commit sexual assault--is stereotypical, and that the revelation that two of the five reported rapes were faked hurts the real-world cause by cementing the perception of rape victims as unreliable and vindictive.

I agree that, as a story about rape and its consequences, the third season opening arc is, at best, deeply flawed. What I don't understand is why anyone is surprised at this, since compared to the first and second season's treatment of rape, the current season's problems are almost insignificant. The date rape storyline in the first season was, by far, the season's weakest aspect. When I first heard about Veronica Mars, I was intrigued by the notion of a character who was a victim of rape but for whom that victimhood was not a defining characteristic, but the show's writers went too far in sidelining the storyline. After bringing up her rape in the pilot, Veronica proceeded to ignore it completely until an accident of fate provided her with the opportunity to solve it--this while constantly referencing the other traumatic events in her life and obsessively investigating not only Lilly's murder but also Lianne's disappearance and Duncan's odd behavior. As much as I liked "A Trip to the Dentist" as a piece of storytelling, there's no denying that it prioritizes its noir-inspired message--that Veronica was raped not by a person but by a social class and a mindset--over any sort of engagement with the issue of sexual assault and its resultant trauma. And then, of course, we have the second season finale trotting out a last minute revelation of rape as a way of further cementing Beaver's villain-hood (while simultaneously undercutting the message of "A Trip to the Dentist"). So, yes, the third season once again treats rape as a means to an end--this time that old noir chestnut, everyone is guilty of something--but it is by far a more deft and delicate treatment of the topic than the show has thus far demonstrated.

More importantly, the notion that Veronica Mars, or any television show or work of art for that matter, has a duty to advance a certain social agenda, even one that I agree with, leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. The argument has been made that it is irresponsible, given the difficulties that women still have getting law enforcement officials to believe them when they complain of being raped or sexually harassed, to tell a story in which rapes are fabricated, and in which the most voluble critics of the rapes are shrill caricatures of the worst that the feminist movement has to offer. To a certain extent, I find this argument compelling, but only until I realize that if we were talking about almost any topic other than rape, I would reject it outright. When art sublimates itself to a political agenda, we get Battlestar Galactica. I was irate at the abortion storyline in that show's second season not because it ended up espousing a political opinion that I don't approve of, but because it did so by lying to its audience. In this one instance at least, Veronica Mars hasn't lied to its audience. False reports of rape do happen. People do allow political convictions and personal vendettas to cloud their judgement to the point of fanaticism. Ultimately, I think the show's portrayal of the sexual politics on campus is a great deal more nuanced, and far more sympathetic to the feminist viewpoint, than many of its critics have given it credit for. Two of the rapes were faked, but the other three were real. Faking the rapes turns out to be motivated by the desire to avenge a brutal campaign of harassment which ended up costing a student her mental health (although, and bringing us back to the issue of idiot plotting, it should be noted that if Claire hadn't kept her mouth shut in 2003, Patrice Petrelli's family could have sued the university and gotten the greeks tossed off campus then and there), and the perpetrator of that campaign is unchastened by the assault perpetrated on him, and even conspires to enable more rapes.

Finally, the resolution of the rape plotline more than makes up for any problems in its setup. Veronica once again needs to be rescued (although she does her fair share of fighting back, even while under the influence of GHB), but in a neat reversal of her failure to prevent Parker's rape, that rescue is effected by Parker. Even better, the people who ultimately save Veronica are not the men who know and love her, but strangers. "You actually think people would come a-running, huh?" Veronica wryly asks when Parker gives her a rape whistle, but at Parker's cry of "Rape!" the men of Wallace and Piz's floor do come running. Complete strangers to both Parker and Veronica, they stop to help when they realize that something isn't right. Even in Veronica Mars's noir universe, in which everyone is guilty, there are instances in which everyone can be decent. It's almost enough to make you believe in humanity.

What a pity, then, that Veronica is unconscious during this display of communal vigilance. The second most common criticism leveled against the rape arc is that Veronica's combative distrustfulness has gone from a winning personality quirk to downright annoying, and Buffy alumni can be forgiven for fearing that the show's heroine is being made into such an extreme version of herself that soon it will strain credulity that anyone would actually be willing to spend time with her. An equally vehement response to this complaint has argued that Veronica has always been bitchy and unpleasant, and that people complaining about her attitude in the current season have forgotten what show they were watching. To which I say: yes, Veronica has always been a bitch. And no, she's never been this much of a bitch, and never with so little justification. The third season's opening scene, after all, has Veronica behaving like a total prat. "Try not to piss anyone off this time around" she muses in a voice-over, and promptly proceeds to show off to her classmates and humiliate a TA who rubs her the wrong way.

The problem, I think--and hopefully this is where the writers are headed too--is that Veronica is still locked in the high school mindset. In that carefully stratified environment, the people Veronica met were neatly and clearly divided into those with and without power. The former were the popular kids, the rich kids, the gang leaders, or simply the people in positions of authority. Veronica was unique within Neptune High for being able to game the system--in spite of the fact that she wasn't rich, wasn't popular, wasn't a gang member, wasn't a faculty member, she had power over everyone. Coming into college, Veronica unthinkingly assumes that the rules are the same. What she doesn't realize is that her new environment is a far more complicated system, not as rigidly stratified by either class, wealth, or temporal power--it's actually a very clever play on the familiar story of freshmen unthinkingly carrying their high school preconceptions with them to college. In her new environment, Veronica is by no means the only person capable of gaming the system. There are plenty of other Veronicas on campus--the most notable ones being Nish and her cohorts, and the aforementioned TA, Timothy Foyle (who I really hope turns out not to be a villain--his interactions with Veronica have made for some of my favorite scenes these last nine episodes)--and in fact, as a freshman, Veronica is actually less qualified than they are to manipulate her surroundings, although she's certainly working hard to bridge the gap.

Being who she is, Veronica is of course not eager to let go of her established world-view. She doesn't even seem to have noticed that her 'everyone is out to get me' mindset is a little out of date, especially when one considers that in college, a new criteria for differentiating the powerful from the powerless is established--as a straight-A, curve-destroying teacher's pet on a full ride scholarship, Veronica yields a great deal more power than the average freshman. However misguided it may be, I don't think we can expect a change in Veronica's attitude any time in the foreseeable future. As Television Without Pity's Veronica Mars recapper, Couch Baron, puts it in his recap of the arc's penultimate episode, "Lord of the Pi's" (and by the way, if TWoP's go-to SF guy, Jacob, ever wants to find out how to incorporate a healthy degree of analysis into a recap without rendering it entirely humorless or unbearably pretentious, he could do a lot worse than study Couch Baron's recaps):
The reason [Veronica] was so evasive and brittle [when Piz asked her why she solves crimes in the season premiere]? She doesn't know. She doesn't know what's driving her, and this is one of the more interesting things about her character. Is it that she feels the world is a bad place and it needs all the help it can get? Is it a need to prove to people that you can't trust anyone (as the A-plot of "Of Vice And Men" would suggest?) At this point, it almost doesn't matter, because Veronica is unwilling truly to examine why she is the way she is.
As I've argued in the past, I think Veronica's unwillingness to examine herself derives from a deep ambivalence about her own nature. Veronica is painfully aware that the very qualities that make her strong and capable also make her hardened and unlovable, and fearing the weakness that might accompany any livable compromise (or the discovery that such a compromise is beyond her capabilities), she chooses to ignore the situation. Hence the insistence that nothing's changed since she moved to college, hence the conviction that everyone is out to get her, hence the tendency towards arrogance, prickliness, and downright unpleasantness. I have to believe that the show's writers are taking us down this path intentionally--there are too many instances of both the plot and the other characters calling Veronica on her misguided attitude, culminating in the breakup with Logan in this week's episode. The real question is whether the writers intend for Veronica to end up a fundamentally damaged person--capable of fixing the world but not herself--or whether they plan for her to find some happy medium between the detective and the teenage girl.

The mention of Logan brings me to the third most common complaint against the rape arc, which is that his character has become boring. I have to say, if an interesting Logan means a return to last season's parade-o'-torture, then I'd rather see Jason Dohring off the show. I do agree that Logan hasn't had enough to do so far this season, but what little we've seen of him has been nothing short of marvelous. Yes, Obligatory Psychotic Jackass Logan is fun, but as the second season taught us, he gets tedious in a hurry. The Logan we've been getting has been less flashy and amusing, but in his moments of emotional honesty--confronting Veronica about the unevenness of their relationship in "Witchita Linebacker" and "Lord of the Pi's", gently and broken-heartedly ending their relationship in "Spit and Eggs"--he has been no less intense, and great deal more interesting, than that tortured class clown ever was. Now that he and Veronica have broken up, I hope Logan gets his own storyline, and maybe starts finding his own path in life rather than defining himself by his relationship to others.

When I wrote about Veronica Mars's second season last spring, I concluded that the show's greatest challenge was finding a way to balance a detective story with a coming-of-age drama. Were Rob Thomas and his staff writing a mystery, I asked, or a story about a girl who happens to solve mysteries? At the end of the third season's first plot arc, I'm not sure that the writers have come to a conclusion, but I do think they have managed to successfully incorporate the dilemma into the show itself by highlighting the insufficiency of either answer. Veronica the person can't be happy as regular drone, playing by the rules and keeping her head down, but gaming the system carries a cost, and may mean that she can never achieve true happiness. As the third season rape arc closes, Veronica is maybe being confronted by the realization that a compromise between the two possibilities is necessary for her to be a good person, but for Veronica Mars the series, the compromise seems to have already been achieved--and the result is a very good show.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very thorough. Thanks!

- Hannah

Andrew Stevens said...

Excellent post, Abigail. I always love reading you on Veronica Mars. I don't see how anybody can rightly complain about the stereotypes of feminists in Season 3 unless they're also willing to complain about stereotypes of class in Seasons 1 and 2 or, for that matter, the equally ridiculous stereotypes of the Greek system in Season 3. I'm not complaining about any of them since it's been clear to me since the middle of Season 1 that Thomas intentionally writes in caricatures to serve his fiction. Whether this works or not is a different debate.

I was amused by Veronica's line about rape whistles. When I was in college, I heard exactly one such whistle and (after running down three stories) eventually had to deliver a lecture about the boy who cried wolf to the young woman who had just been given it at some sort of campus safety meeting and was playing around. So I too was deeply gratified when people did respond to Parker's cry. Of course, I do believe in humanity, but I know this makes me unhip.

Curiously, I didn't really notice that Veronica has been more unpleasant this season (except for the opening scene of the third season where you're clearly right). Of course, Veronica is a woman after my own heart. Sure, she's prickly, arrogant, and downright unpleasant, but these are often just pejorative ways of saying "yes, I know she's right, and I hate her for bringing it to my attention." Her shaming her father into doing the right thing was brilliant, cutting through his carefully conceived rationalizations ruthlessly and efficiently, exactly what Keith needed at that time. Oddly, the last line of that episode seems to indicate that Veronica thought she had done wrong by both Logan and her father, but I'll take Veronica's side on both issues. They might hate her for it, but Veronica is making both of them better people by demanding that they live up to basic standards of decency. You don't sleep with a married woman; you don't risk lives by running from a burning building because you don't want to face the music. Maybe that makes her a bitch, but it also makes her the person I want in my corner. Certainly it would be nice if she were less cynical, a bit more forgiving of human frailty, and much more polite, but nobody's perfect.

Anonymous said...

> I'm not complaining about any of them since it's been clear to me since the middle of Season 1 that Thomas intentionally writes in caricatures to serve his fiction. Whether this works or not is a different debate.

But it isn't a different debate; it's kind of the exact same debate. Few of those with problems with the feminists would argue that dealing in caricatures for whatever end would excuse the use of caricatures so you circle back to the original point.

S

Andrew Stevens said...

S:

Oh, I see where you're coming from. Yes, I agree with that, as long as it's consistent. All I'm saying is that his caricatures of feminists does not imply an anti-feminist agenda. He caricatures everybody.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure I'd say that Thomas caricatures everybody, Andrew. For that matter, I think you're mistaken to conflate writing that relies on stereotypes with the kind that can be describes as caricature.

A stereotype is a preconception about a certain group. A caricature is an exaggerated depiction, sometimes to the point of inhumanity. Your character's definition can be rooted in stereotypes without its depiction being caricatured, and vice versa.

For example, Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck is a character rooted in many stereotypes about how strong women in traditionally male roles behave - she's butch, sexually aggressive, emotionally retarded, and has a history of abuse. The rendition of the character, however, is nuanced enough to be believably human, so that, even though I resent BSG's writers lazy construction work on the character, I can still like her as a person (and anyway, there's been a lot of movement away from the more egregiously stereotyped aspects of the character over the last season).

It might be possible to argue that, in his writing for Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas trades in stereotypes of class and ethnicity. But it wasn't until he introduced the Lilith House feminists that he started turning his characters into caricatures - not just one of them, either, but an entire group. Which is why I find that aspect of the rape arc disappointing.

LCB said...

Have you heard about Thomas's possible plan to do away with the big mysteries for the final arc of the season and just do stand-alone episodes as a possible test for (fingers crossed, knocking on wood, saying a silent prayer) season four? I think it's a sound plan, but I wasn't sure how you would feel about that.

But it might help Veronica find that happy medium you speak of.

Oh, and excellent analysis, as always.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ms. Nussbaum: there is an excellent chance you're correct here, but forgive me if I mount a (relatively) brief defense of my position. I should state for the record that A) I grew up poor, raised by a single mother, B) the only fraternity I've ever been a member of is Phi Beta Kappa, which is an honors fraternity, not a social one, and C) I'm obviously not even a woman, nevertheless a militant feminist. (Certainly I'm a feminist by the dictionary definition. But, as Richard Nixon might say, we are all feminists now.) Rob Thomas has, therefore, never gored any of my oxen yet. I hope, if and when he does, I'll take it with good humor.

I found the idea of militant feminists faking rapes to get revenge as entirely implausible, a rather silly plot twist. I found the whole story about the Pi Sigma fraternity tormenting some poor woman with the apparent cooperation of her sorority to be entirely implausible as well. I found almost all of Seasons 1 and 2 in which the town's rich perpetrate a ruthless war of oppression against the town's poor to be entirely implausible. Moreover, no high school in America (or probably anywhere else) features the level of cruelty that Neptune High did. (There might be some middle schools that have such pointless cruelty, but almost all kids have grown out of it by high school.) In Rob Thomas's world, people are more evil than they are in reality, more willing to do things that real people draw the line at. Most of the rich people from Seasons 1 and 2 had, apparently, no consciences at all. There is nothing "human" about Dick and never has been. People like him don't exist. I wonder how anyone can swallow Dick, but not the Lilith House feminists. Beaver gets molested as a child and grows up to be a homosexual mass murderer? That's okay and this isn't?

I'm not criticizing Rob Thomas. I enjoy his overdrawn world and I think it works as fiction. Its connection to reality is tenuous and there's nothing wrong with that. After all, I'm a Doctor Who fan which is about a man who travels through time and space in a police box, changing his appearance as his body wears out.

But I'm a bit baffled by the claim that the Lilith House feminists are caricatures and the grasping, evil, self-absorbed wealthy of the first couple of seasons are just stereotypes. What I am convinced of is that Rob Thomas doesn't believe in any of these characters; Thomas's world is highly stylized. He is simply skewering gender politics the same way he did class politics. Since I am an ideologue on neither subject (and I do not mean ideologue pejoratively), this doesn't bother me at all. Your mileage may vary.

I do understand where critics are coming from. Thomas can be criticized for perpetuating the idea that rapes are faked more frequently than other crimes. I similarly get annoyed when TV shows show fathers molesting their own daughters, way out of proportion to reality. (The most common molester of a young girl is the boyfriend of a single mother. Men rarely sexually abuse their own daughters.) For that matter, the Beaver storyline perpetuated the idea that young boys molested by homosexuals are more likely to become homosexual themselves. This doesn't appear to be true. The reason why the statistics show it is because many molestations of teenage boys are consensual and the sexual orientation was prior to the molestation. (It should hardly surprise us that many teenage homosexual boys would consent to sex with older men, considering that this is clearly true of teenage heterosexual boys and older women.) And don't even get me started on Catholic priests who, in reality, molest boys less frequently on average than school teachers. I've always been forgiving of fiction for such transgressions. I have to be because I see them everywhere. If I viewed television as reality, I'd be convinced that very close to 100% of married people have affairs, close to 50% of husbands abuse their wives (did you know that the rate of violence in lesbian relationships is about the same rate as in heterosexual relationships and that wives are victims of assault much less frequently than either men, highest of all, or single women?), and all sorts of other obvious falsities.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

LCB:

I've seen that interview, but I'm reserving judgment until the final result makes it to the screen (as I understand it, this is still just an idea of Thomas's - I doubt the scripts have even been written yet). I can think of implementations of the standalone format that could work for the show, and others that would be disastrous, so we'll have to wait and see.

Andrew:

Once again, it seems to me that you're shifting the goal posts. The issue isn't whether Rob Thomas's portrait of society or social classes is realistic, but rather whether his portrayals of groups and individuals are either stereotyped or cartoonish. As you say, it's possible for a satisfying story to be entirely unrealistic in either its setting or its underlying premise - you give the example of genre shows, but I think most doctor and lawyer shows are just as inherently unrealistic as either Doctor Who or Veronica Mars. Even within those fantastic settings and premises, however, characters can be either believably human, or hopelessly caricatured, or somewhere in between.

While I do agree that there are instances of characterization in all of the show's seasons that lacks nuance and is intended to elicit disgust in the audience - Dick Casablancas is a good example, and there's also Celeste Kane - I think for the most part Thomas writes human characters. Sherif Lamb is almost cartoonishly incompetent (although I certainly wouldn't call the notion of an elected official who makes up for his professional deficiencies with a deft handling of the press and carefully orchestrated smear campaigns against his opponents unbelievable, if for no other reason than that it's a fairly accurate description of my own town's mayor), but he reads like a real person, and on at least one occasion has demonstrated character traits beyond assholishness and stupidity without - and this is a major accomplishment on Thomas's part - instantly being turned into a pitiable character. The same level of nuance wasn't achieved in the case of the Lilith House feminists (or, for that matter, the Pi Sig brothers), which, given the prominent part they played in the rape arc, and the fact that the two groups were portrayed as caricatures en masse, without individual exceptions, weakened the story as a whole.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ms. Nussbaum: I can't say I disagree with you on anything you have to say. I only object to the idea that I'm "shifting goalposts" as if this were a game to be won, rather than a discussion. If you can convince me of your position, I will more than happily concede defeat. And, to a large extent, you have done so. I can easily concede, for example, that the caricatures of the rich I was talking about were (with exceptions like Dick and Celeste Kane) almost all a sort of formless mass previously, without being fully characterized (except for throwaway characters) and that he has generally done a good job with his specific individual characters in the past. You are certainly not wrong that this time Rob Thomas made those caricatures into recognizable (and prominent) individuals and I can agree that it is not unreasonable or inconsistent to complain about it, now that I've read your explanation for your position. We do have a bit of a boundary problem here, but it doesn't seem to me that you disagree with that entirely.

I appreciate you're taking the time to discuss the issue; it's always instructive to read your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

> It might be possible to argue that, in his writing for Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas trades in stereotypes of class and ethnicity. But it wasn't until he introduced the Lilith House feminists that he started turning his characters into caricatures - not just one of them, either, but an entire group.

There were the Irish characters who were introduced in a bar decked out in Irish paraphenalia who assaulted Veronica and threatened to disfigure her face with a green clover. Who only have names like Padraig and Cormac and Liam and Molly and Danny Boyd. Who, when talked about, were rendered almost exclusively in terms of their Irishness and criminality, if the two weren't being out-and-out conflated. Who were the butt of not-clearly-coded-as-wrong racist jokes from Logan and Veronica.

The feminists were afforded a measure of sympathy; Thomas should be ashamed of how he dealt with the Irish.

Post a Comment