Veronica Mars in purgatory: How we keep punishing our favorite characters

Veronica Mars in purgatory: How we keep punishing our favorite characters

Let our TV people go!

Warning: Spoilers for the Veronica Mars movie follow.

Around the midpoint of the new Veronica Mars movie, our hero heads to her 10-year high school reunion, not because she wants to but because she has to. Her friends are making her go, her boyfriend will be there, and if there’s anyone who deserves to show off a little, it’s the woman who overcame being a social outcast in high school to become a high-powered New York attorney-to-be. Plus, she’s on the trail of a new case involving a former boyfriend, and scoping out the tangled web weaved among her many suspects will be much easier at the reunion than elsewhere. Plus, it’s what the audience wants to see: Veronica descending into hell yet again to dispatch her foes.

As with so many things in Veronica Mars, both film and series, her actions are accompanied by a snappy voiceover scripted by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero and brought to perfect, sardonic life by Kristen Bell. Veronica says that 10 years after he published The Inferno, Dante went back to hell to publish The Inferno 2, in which he went back through the nine circles and revisited Lucifer just because he could. This is Thomas and Ruggiero trying to hang a lantern on the movie’s big moment, on Veronica re-embracing her destiny to follow in her father’s footsteps and right wrongs in favor of the unjustly accused and the oppressed. (The idea that she couldn’t have done this as a lawyer is mostly left unexplored.)

But it’s also an ironic commentary on what the movie—and almost all continuations of TV series long after the fact—is actually about. As Veronica surely knows, there already is a de facto sequel to Inferno: It’s called Purgatorio, and it’s about Dante going to a place where people are doomed to be stuck forever and ever, until such time as they no longer are. It’s meant to be about paying off sins on this plane, but it comes off, in many places, as arbitrary. 

In Veronica Mars, the text is all about how Veronica can’t escape her past and gets dragged back to Neptune to solve crimes because it’s where she belongs. But the subtext is all about how this movie wouldn’t even exist without the help of fans via Kickstarter. The impulse to want more from a beloved story is natural. TV series, after all, are designed to go on forever and ever in many cases, and fans of even the longest-running shows want to see movie continuations now and then. But in trying to continue stories that ended naturally, TV creators often trap their beloved characters in fan-made purgatories, where the most interesting part is seeing how their writers navigate that reality.

Veronica Mars is, like most movie spinoffs of TV shows, only a serviceable film that takes something that might have made a pretty good episode and balloons it to double its length. (Weirdly, the dramatic stakes are far higher in the movie’s B-plot—which involves Veronica indirectly taking on the corrupt Neptune sheriff’s department—than they are in the A-plot.) It tosses in too many fan-service moments, and it skews too far toward one of the series’ most important relationships (the tempestuous love affair between Veronica and bad-boy Logan Echolls) and too far away from others—like Veronica’s relationship with her dad or with her friend Wallace.

It also isn’t entirely sure how to handle when behavior that would’ve been believable from the teenage Veronica comes from a 28-year-old career woman in a committed relationship. The movie plays her ultimate break-up with her boyfriend (for Logan, of course) as a sort of fait accompli, as if it’s terrified to dig into its protagonist’s true motivations. (The few times it does are kind of terrifying: The “triumphant” voiceover at the end likens Veronica’s return to Neptune to an addict’s relapse.)

In that last weakness, Veronica Mars best engages with the artificiality of a movie continuation of a little-watched series that ended seven years ago. Veronica Mars is a character built to solve mysteries and rattle the cages of the established class system. When she does that in the movie, it’s on firm ground, and the movie sort of gets away with Veronica’s decision to return to her “addiction”—to never grow or change, in other words—by painting it as something Neptune needs, to bring down that corrupt sheriff’s department. It works, in other words, much better as a pilot for a new TV show than it does as a movie (or even as an introduction to a series of movies).

Yet there’s another, more troublesome layer that the film refuses to engage with, one that puts it in league with, among other things, the fourth season of Arrested Development, the fifth season of Community, and the second X-Files movie. All of these properties—like Veronica Mars—are about the improbable return of some old order that was thought long lost. All of these properties struggle with how to navigate the surprise resurrections, with divergent failures and successes. On some level, every one of these stories is about how weird it is that the characters still exist, that they’re forever trapped in endless purgatorial circles for our own amusement. Veronica Mars re-descends into hell. The Bluths keep being drawn inexorably back together, no matter their commitment to splitting apart. The Greendale gang can never escape its community college. And Fox Mulder is pardoned by the government under highly unlikely circumstances so he can solve a really boring case.

In some ways, Veronica Mars plays as an inadvertent sequel to the movie The Lifeguard, in which Bell plays a woman who moves back to her hometown after failing to live up to her promise. She essentially reverts to her high school self, engages in self-destructive behavior, and comes out of everything having learned something about herself and the self-pity in which she wallows. Veronica Mars would never wallow in self-pity; it’s part of what makes her such a great, iconic character. But the film version of her exploits more or less follows every other beat of that story. 

Instead of playing it as dark comedy, Veronica Mars plays all of that as a triumph—not just for Neptune (which gets a hard-headed and impressively smart woman to fight for its lower class) but also for Veronica, who is painted as having given up a potentially better life in favor of the more satisfying one. But the film is uninterested in dealing with the wreckage left in the wake of a 28-year-old choosing to do this instead of an 18-year-old. Her boyfriend disappears from the movie after having broken up with her. Her father, after questioning her decisions, gets hit by a car and spends the rest of the movie in the hospital. That law job was with a big firm that mostly gets “frivolous” lawsuits against corporate clients dismissed, so it’s easy enough for Veronica to toss aside when the time comes.

The tension here isn’t between Veronica and the criminals; it’s between the film and its protagonist. Veronica doesn’t really want to go back to Neptune, but she keeps getting drawn in ever more deeply. Why does this happen to her? Pretty much just because she’s Veronica Mars, and we wanted to see a movie about her, to the tune of nearly $6 million in Kickstarter dollars. Yeah, the film pays lip service to many of the things that made the series special—like that bond between father and daughter or its intricate examinations of the California class system—but it’s more interested in the inevitable recoupling of Logan and Veronica, to the detriment of just about everything else. It has the bones of something interesting about how we, as people, can fall into old, self-destructive patterns or about how we, as audience members, often want to see our favorite characters go through their endless cycles of misery for our enjoyment. But it’s scared to go there, because the whole reason for its existence is antithetical to what the film seems to really be about. (Thomas has said that his initial idea for a film—involving Veronica working a particularly tough FBI case—went out the window with the Kickstarter money, because fans would want to see all of their favorite characters.)

This problem isn’t unique to the Veronica Mars movie; of the properties talked about here, The X Files: I Want To Believe did the worst job of pulling Agents Mulder and Scully back into service because the fans needed them to be out there. The story was shoddy, the characters felt limp, and the whole thing, again, felt like bloated, feature-length episode of the show. Other movie continuations of TV series, like the Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation films or Serenity, haven’t had to deal with this problem as much, because the premises of those shows were much more elastic. But of that list, only Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Serenity feel like essential parts of their original canons. The most successful unlikely resurrection was likely the fifth season of Community, which dealt with the twin factors of an unexpected renewal and the even more unexpected rehiring of former showrunner Dan Harmon by putting everything out in the open in the first episode, then mostly just going back to making a funny sitcom.

Arrested Development’s fourth season—messy as it could be—really grasps the kind of hell that being trapped in these sorts of cycles must be for the characters. In it, the Bluth family tries to split apart after the end of the series’ run in 2006, but events (and a renewal by Netflix) keep drawing the individual members back together, to ever-increasing misery and misfortune. In particular, the fourth season focuses on how George Michael Bluth and Maeby Funke—the show’s two teenagers—have grown into young adults who are irreparably scarred by the family they grew up in. The season’s enormously powerful final image is of George Michael punching his father in the nose, both because they’d been sleeping with the same woman and because it was Michael Bluth who kept dragging his kid down into this shit, over and over again. The Bluths, as surely as Veronica Mars, were trapped in a purgatory of someone else’s making, and any way out they might have found was closed off to them long ago.

Most effective writers—particularly of serialized fiction—come to think of their characters, on some level, as real people. It can sound a little bit crazy to listen to them talk about how, say, the character told them to do something or insisted upon something, but well-developed characters really do suggest possible routes forward, just because they’re so sharply defined and drawn. And all but a handful of TV series have ended in ways that suggest potential future chapters. (The series finales of Veronica Mars and Arrested Development are both enormously satisfying—but they’re also unplanned series finales with muted cliffhangers just begging to be picked up down the road.) There are plenty of shows where it’s theoretically possible to check in with what everybody—or most of everybody—is doing years down the line. But if you’re one of those writers who tends to think of their creations as independent beings occupying some fictional universe, couldn’t it start to seem like a punishment to rope them in from whatever promising new horizons they’ve headed off to, in favor of the same old ones they always operated within, just because that’s what the fans expect?

It would be presumptuous to tell fans not to want continuations of beloved TV series that ended too soon or, in many cases, simply ended but remained beloved. (Lots and lots of people would love a Friday Night Lights movie; is there any good reason to have one? Not really.) We come to love the characters from our favorite shows like friends, and a chance to spend another couple of hours with them every few years can seem like a wonderful thing. (Hell, I’d shell out for the Slings & Arrows movie today.) The problem is that the twin engines of good mainstream Hollywood storytelling are conflict and change—the first to give the protagonist something to fight against, the second to give her something to work toward. Endless resurrections, whether prompted by fans or creators or actors who just want to revisit the role that made them famous, cheat those characters of change and rob the properties of essential drama. It leaves those characters trapped in an endless purgatory, punished not because they were wicked in their first lives, but because they were precisely the opposite.

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