“Un-American Graffiti ”/“Debasement Tapes” S3 / E16-17
- B+ Community Grade
“Un-American Graffiti” (season 3, episode 16; originally aired 5/1/2007)
Veronica Mars’willingness to confront difficult real-world issues in its third season deserves plaudits, but it may cause more problems than its worth. “Un-American Graffiti” is an example of this fearlessness (going along with the Hearst rapist story and Bonnie's aborted pregnancy), as the episode explores mid-2000s anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, while also touching on Arab-Jewish relations as well as male chauvinism in Arab culture. It all comes together in a way that’s either provokingly ambiguous or a chaotic mess.
With Keith working as acting sheriff, Veronica is holding down the fort at Mars Investigations. She’s hired by an Iraqi woman to investigate the anti-Muslim vandalizing of her restaurant, Babylon Gardens. Her daughter, Amira, went to Neptune High with Veronica and isn't fond of her, so Amira goes to her father in order to get Veronica off the case.
The father, Rashad, ends up being the key character in the story. He eventually comes around on Veronica’s usefulness, but he also wants to disown Amira when he discovers that she’s dating a Jewish guy. He gives a passionate speech about what America means to the vandal, but then turns around and has his employee, Nasir, deported for handing out flyers that Rashad disagrees with, apparently without confronting him. He also ends up forgiving his daughter, and sighing “I guess I should meet this guy?”
Most of my ambivalence about the episode comes from its portrayal of Rashad. Initially, he appears to be a too-proud jerk, but his character arc indicates that he softens (and becomes more “American” in his tolerance)—a fairly common arc on television. But his final, vindictive deportation muddies things again. He says he was upset by the cartoon distributed by Nasir—but, since free speech is an American virtue, deporting the guy in a fit of pique is excessive. If this is Rashad’s redemption story, are we supposed to believe that this is his redeeming act? Or is he still a jerk, despite his impassioned speech about his adopted homeland?
Part of my issue is that the inflammatory cartoon is actually pretty mild—unless you believe that saying the Iraq War made America weaker was virtually treason in 2007. It’s also a silly thing to be handing out. Most political flyers worth handing out tend to be, well, not just reprints of annoying political cartoons. Nasir’s behavior elsewhere—taking pictures of Amira having sex—is a more viable reason to have him deported, but that’s not what we see on the screen. So I’m not sure what to think. There are three seemingly equal interpretations: that Veronica Mars writers believe that the cartoon is worth ruining someone’s life over; that Rashad is a complex character who can be petty and vindictive; or, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens and there is no moral.
Keith’s storyline in the episode is more straightforward: After an accident, he tries to crack down on college bars serving alcohol to minors. Along the way, he discovers Wallace and Piz using fake IDs, and uses them in order to discover that his deputies are corrupt, or at least lazy. This leads to the best scene in the episode, when he gives Wallace and Piz their absurd new fake IDs. “Biggie Smalls? We don’t all really look alike, Mr. Mars.” “I know that. Come on, let’s all go out and get our drink on.”
The episode culminates at Parker’s birthday party, held by Logan in his hotel room. They browbeat Veronica into joining, and once there, all the relationships start to fall apart. Mac meets Max, the recurring test-seller, and discovers that he’s got more in common with her than Bronson does. Wallace tells Veronica about Piz’s feelings for her, which leads to awkwardness, then kissing. Logan sees the two kissing, making both him and Veronica appear to have second thoughts. Everyone loses here. Without a new central mystery, Veronica Mars seems to be using its serialization for personal relationships. But it’s a little bit too early to judge…
“Debasement Tapes” (season 3, episode 17; originally aired 5/9/2007)
…Because “Debasement Tapes” is all about the fallout from those events. It even begins with Veronica and Mac getting in a metaphor war over their difficult love lives, which is a cute scene, even if it does go a little bit too far in treating Mac as simply existing for relationships. Veronica’s still concerned about Piz, which makes things awkward when they start working together. But, talking it out, and succeeding in their case, leads their relationship back down a romantic path.
I recognize that this might be heresy among a vocal section of Veronica Mars fans, but I enjoyed this. Piz has terrible hair, don’t get me wrong, and he lacks the sheer magnetism that makes Logan so great. But he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s sweet, and he’s interesting, which makes him entirely appropriate for Veronica to date. I’m not sure he’s a fantastic long-term relationship option for her, but they work well together in the short run. The way Veronica threaded her hand into his during the climactic concert felt honest—moving, even.
Mac makes her choice in “Debasement Tapes” as well. From the first we see of her in the episode—exhausted, after trying to play Ultimate Frisbee with Bronson—it’s clear that this isn’t going to work. After spending the day with Logan, working on a business plan for class and bringing Max in, she breaks up with the boy. This didn’t feel as honest as the developments in Veronica’s love life—I’m not sure I buy that Mac has such strong breakup skills—but that wasn’t the important bit. The important bit was Mac, working with Logan, Dick, and Max in order to build a website. This isn’t the character’s strongest episode, but it dies serve as a reminder of what makes her great.
But what truly makes “Debasement Tapes” a gem of an episode is its casting. Specifically, Paul Rudd as Desmond Fellows, half of the once-proud band My Pretty Pony. Rudd’s gift for effortless charm makes him the perfect actor for playing a depressed former rock star. This changes Fellows from a painful stereotype into a pantheon one-off character. Consider this exchange, after Veronica and Piz discover that Desmond has had his pills stolen: “What are you taking pills for?” “Eh, you know. Life.” This is ridiculous and cliché broken-rock-star material, and Rudd doesn’t just make it tolerable, he makes it magnificent. It gets even better when he starts trolling Keith about The Beatles for entertainment while he’s in the drunk tank.
Most of the the episode focuses on Veronica and Piz assisting Desmond, while the other half zeroes in on… Logan and friends making a website about butts? These are great combinations, and that makes “Debasement Tapes” my favorite episode of the season so far, on pure entertainment terms. Without a central mystery, Veronica Mars can relax and have a little fun. If only this had lasted.
- “Your fly’s open.” “I know. Party ritual.” Dick Casablancas, suave motherfucker.
- The college-radio trivia contest for which DJ would get the interview was perhaps the most insufferable yet probable thing I’ve seen about college-music snobs. I love/hated it.
- “You gave up bad boy but you keep asking for samples of good boy.”
- Always nice to see re-deputized Leo.
- “Which bothers you because making out with you is supposed to be a life-changing experience.” Wallace, perhaps, with a meta-conversation about the supposed importance of main characters’ relationships in teen dramas.
- The big serialized revelation in “Debasement Tapes” is that Vinnie Van Lowe is running against Keith for the sheriff job. While this gives Vinnie something interesting to do, the show already had one election that wasn’t very interesting.