These Questions Need Answers: An essay on the Veronica Mars pilot

10Aug09

On my writing docket this summer were three essays that I’d committed to: a write-up of my SCMS presentation on Lostpedia (which will be coming out in Transformative Works & Cultures this fall), my piece on serial form and memory, and a long-delayed chapter for an anthology about the series Veronica Mars, edited by Sue Turnbull and Rhonda Wilcox. As summer winds toward the end, I’ve thankfully finished up all three! And as I’ve taken to doing, I’m sharing a prepublication draft of the Veronica Mars essay here for feedback and dissemination.

A couple of notes: the essay, entitled “‘These Questions Need Answers': Narrative Construction and the Veronica Mars Pilot,” deals quite closely with the debut episode of the series – if you haven’t seen it, the essay will probably make little sense. Since it’s written for a series-specific anthology, there’s not much filling in of the details for novices who are unlikely to read the book without knowing the show. And I’m particularly unsatisfied with the conclusion, which more stops than concludes – any feedback would be appreciated!

I talk at length about the opening sequence – to refresh your eyes and ears, here it is:

And special thanks to my student research assistant, Ross Bell, who provided many crucial insights into the episode’s timing and storytelling strategies as I made him watch it over and over again…


“These Questions Need Answers”: Narrative Construction and the Veronica Mars Pilot

The “Pilot” episode of Veronica Mars is a remarkable piece of television. It manages to introduce over a dozen major characters and relationships, probe numerous backstories, plant the seeds for two season-long story arcs, establish a genre mixture of teen melodrama and film noir, and convey a tone combining complex mystery, snarky humor, relationship drama, and social commentary—all within a running time of just over 40 minutes. At the same time, the episode is quite typical of television pilots, presenting an encapsulation of what a series might be like on an ongoing basis while providing an exceptional degree of narrative exposition, and appealing to the dual audience of prospective viewers and network executives fishing for a hit. Pilots are at once the most atypical episodes of commercial television, and the highly conventional means by which television series get sold to both networks and viewers.

For those of us who study television and thus watch a good bit of it, pilots seem to be almost self-explanatory in their function and structure. But looking closely at a pilot episode can yield greater insight into the way that television tells stories, and how the pilot works to launch an ongoing narrative universe. Likewise for critics exploring Veronica Mars, we need to get a clear handle on how the show started and set the stage for its serialized stories and compelling characters. To offer such insights, we need to zoom in closely on the pilot’s formal mechanics and structure, detailing the strategies used by the producers to start the narrative as both a window onto the series as a whole and the broader function of pilots.

When approaching VM‘s “Pilot,” there is a further complication—the episode aired originally on September 22, 2004, in a different form than the version published on the season 1 DVD that came out a year later. The most important difference between the two versions concerns how each open: the UPN-aired pilot begins in the sunny parking lot of Neptune High, with Veronica’s voiceover setting the scene of class conflict and teen politics in beautiful Southern California.1 This scene was pushed back to after the opening credits in the DVD version, which starts instead with a pre-credit flash-forward to Veronica staking out the seedy Camelot Motel along with a highly-noir style voiceover narration, a moment that will be returned to at the 18-minute mark of the episode. Yet another version might be imagined from the original pilot script available on creator Rob Thomas’s website—this script mirrors the DVD version, although with a number of changed names like the town of Playa de Costa, or Logan Hewitt instead of Logan Echolls, a few altered plot points, and saltier language and content more appropriate for Thomas’s original pitch for cable distribution.2 Or we might seek out the original unaired pilot that UPN bought, which circulated amongst television critics and in bootleg versions online, following the structure of the DVD version, but with a few minor differences in casting and dialogue.

I’m choosing to focus on the DVD version as my analytic object, not because of its status as the “preferred” edit by Thomas. Rather, the series exists beyond the timeframe of its initial airing, and any attempt to revisit the narrative is bound to turn to the published DVDs. While certainly the original aired version set the stage for the show’s small but dedicated initial fanbase, our long term engagement with the series will by necessity treat the DVDs as the permanent lasting text. However, we can learn something from the changes. UPN’s decision to eliminate the opening flash-forward was certainly trying to make the show easier to comprehend, avoiding the temporal leap that might confuse a naïve viewer. But it also redefines the initial genre emphasis—by starting with the high school scene, the UPN version cues viewers that this will be a show about teenagers, with a brave and active heroine guiding us through the perils of adolescence. As Thomas said in an interview, “the network handed me a note that basically said that since the show is about high school, it should start in the high school…. They were sure that getting young people to watch would be too tough with the original pilot.”3 Thus even though UPN bought the show based on the original pilot, they reimagined it to better fit the genre emphasis that they felt better suited their network brand and target audience.

A close look at the DVD version, following the template of the script and unaired original, reveals a vastly different genre tone, starting with a dire proclamation via Veronica’s voiceover far from the terrain of high school drama: “I’m never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is.” The style helps set the tone, with the mellow bassy groove of Air’s instrumental “La Femme D’Argent” (a music cue Thomas iterated in the original script) accompanying a slow crane up on the nighttime scene outside the Camelot Motel, highlighting the red neon glow of the “No Vacancy” sign. The visuals cut to a shot of a draped window with a silhouetted couple having sex, while the voiceover says, “Veronica Mars, spinster. I mean, what’s the point. Sure, there’s the initial primal drive. Ride it out.” For the first-time viewer, the impulse is to try to piece together the emerging story information from the scatter textual cues. All we know is that we’re listening to Veronica’s voice, but don’t have much to gauge where we are and who Veronica Mars is. Might she be the long-haired passionate woman seen atop her lover in this shadowed shot? The language of “primal urge” and “ride it out” suggests a link, while Veronica’s emotionally detached vocal tone suggests a more observational role.

Our hypotheses shift along with the camera, as a continuous shot pans right to follow a man in an ill-fitting feminine bathrobe walking by the window and descending the stairs to fill his ice bucket. Veronica continues, “Better yet? Ignore it. Sooner or later, the people you love let you down. And here’s where it ends up: sleazy men, cocktail waitresses, cheap motels on the wrong side of town. And a soon-to-be ex-spouse wanting a bigger piece of the settlement pie.” This sequence refocuses our attention away from the shadowy lovers and toward the larger significance of the Camelot—Veronica cues us that these people are merely stand-ins for a larger situation of adultery and distrust, thematic signifiers rather than actual characters. The continuous camera movement helps establish a broader narrative impulse toward mystery and problem-solving, as we seek answers to questions that are then redirected and reframed, often away from red herrings and misleading dead-ends. And the sequence helps us rank the relative reliability of the different sources of information: we trust what we see, but Veronica’s voiceover appears to be more authoritative in helping us interpret and prioritize the images. Thus we view the visuals as objectively true, but the voiceover provides the preferred subjective approach toward the action that orients us as among Veronica’s intimate confidants.

The next sequence solidifies this relationship. The visuals jump to a reverse angle nestled in the C of the neon Camelot sign, with the other side of the No Vacancy sign centered over the deserted street, save for four parked cars. The camera slowly zooms in, but after only one second, it cuts to a medium shot of one of the cars, continuing the zooming pattern in a somewhat disorienting jump edit. The voiceover ties the action to our protagonist: “That’s where I come in.” This clichéd bit of dialog evokes film noir, although it might be more tied to the noir-influenced television crime show Dragnet—the line appears in the 1967 episode “The Big LSD,” but probably appears in at least one of the hundreds of opening sequences during the show’s 1950s run. Veronica’s line clearly sets up her authority as expert on adultery and betrayal, an expertise that will later be revealed as more than a professional knowledge, and activates all of the previous film noir cues into a clear generic identity: the sleazy motel, surveillant gaze, tawdry affairs, and cynical worldview. Just 40 seconds into the series, we already have a clear genre demarcation and an evocative persona for our titular narrator, who thus far seems exceptional primarily for being a woman in a masculine-dominated genre.

What we don’t yet know is that Veronica is in high school. The next shot highlights this aspect of her persona, as we enter the car on a close-up of a book entitled Calculus of a Single Variable. The book’s connotative meaning will matter more later, as we learn of Veronica’s dual attributes of being a singular free agent and having a talent for problem-solving and puzzling calculations—in fact, “Calculus of a Single Variable” would be an evocatively apt title for the episode as a whole. For now, it serves as a small enigmatic detail in an otherwise genre-consistent storyworld. As the shot drifts from the book toward a camera, Veronica continues, “$40 an hour is cheap compared to the long-term financial security sordid photography can secure for you. Your offspring. Your next lover.” We are still deep in the milieu of noir, as Veronica reaches for a steel thermos—a concession to the teen drama, as were it a hard-boiled adult noir, she would certainly be drinking whiskey out of a flask. The first bit of Veronica we see is her right hand, which is adorned with an ornately designed thumb ring. When paired with her anti-marriage proclamation, the thumb ring instantly marks Veronica as a non-conformist with her own personal style, contrasting to the feminine norm of rings used to mark a coupled status. Veronica’s ring highlights her status as a single variable.

The shot continues to follow the thermos as Veronica pours herself a cup of coffee. A seven-second pause in the narration accompanies our first glimpse of Veronica’s face, giving us time to drink in the close-up sight. Certainly she is young, but we cannot be sure of an age yet—actress Kristen Bell was 24 at the time of the show’s debut, but easily passed for younger. She is looking off-screen to her left, and the pause in narration gives us time to do the spatial calculations to gather that her viewpoint is the perspective from the first shots, surveilling the lurid action at the Camelot. The earlier voiceover, point-of-view shot, and facial close-up cements our perspective as Veronica’s, making her our guide to this still-emerging narrative universe.

Bell’s youthful beauty stands in contrast with her cynical, cold narration that continues as she pours and drinks some coffee: “But do us a favor if it’s you in there: dispense with the cuddling. This motel tryst, it is what it is. Make it quick. The person sitting in the car across the street might have a calculus exam in five… make that four hours, and she can’t leave until she gets the money shot.” This sequence helps narrow down the possibilities of Veronica’s narrative status. Her glance to the car clock as she corrects the timetable for her exam grounds the voiceover within the present-tense thoughts of the character, ruling out a retrospective commentary on the action. The mention of the calculus exam identifies her as a student, although she could be either advanced high school or college, and strengthens the link between the textbook and character. Most importantly, we realize that Veronica leads a double life—private eye by night, student by day—setting up the tension between the dual worlds that will dominate the series.

At this point in the teaser, our first question has been answered in a cursory manner—who is this voice lecturing us about marriage?—but deeper questions are raised about the character: who is this Veronica Mars, why is she so bitter, and what’s the deal with her double roles as student and P.I.? Any further pondering is interrupted by the off-camera sounds of revving engines and a musical shift into a more driving and faster synth groove. Veronica looks up and we get an eyeline match of a band of motorcycles driving down the deserted road. The editing pace quickens to match the music, with 11 cuts in 15 seconds reversing between Veronica watching the bike gang and the bikers turning around to park in front of the hotel. The shots emphasize the contrast between the bright vehicle lights and the dark night streets, with the lights reflected off Veronica’s car and mirrors. This shift in music and visual style changes the show’s television cop show allusive frame of reference from Dragnet to Miami Vice, with the latter’s glossy style masking something dangerous and sinister beneath the surface. Veronica deadpans, “Well, this can’t be good,” suggesting a calm exterior but raising doubts about her future safety.

The next sequence begins with a shot tilting down the length of the vertical Camelot Motel sign, ending on street level as the lead biker rolls to a stop in the center of the frame. A series of reverse angles show Veronica staring down the biker, who removes his helmet, beckons her to roll down her window, and then menacingly says, “Car trouble, miss?” We end with a shot of Veronica inhaling as she ponders her next move, as we cut to the credits, starting with upbeat music and a much different shot of a smiling Veronica sitting in the sun. In just under 1:40, the teaser has set-up a great deal of information and context for the episode and series as a whole. We have established the title character as a savvy and brave young woman, juggling life as a student and paid private investigator. The neo-noir style serves to set a cynical and world-weary tone, with clever narration encouraging a more sophisticated take on conventional crime stories. The frank sexual content signals a level of maturity unexpected in a program that will later be shown to be based around a high school. And the cliffhanger ending suggests that suspense and action will be a prime ingredient of the dramatic action.

It’s not hard to see both why Thomas might have preferred this opening to his pilot, highlighting maturity, unconventionality and suspense, and why UPN forced the more typical opening at Neptune High to appeal to its core teenage target audience with a familiar milieu, style, and set of characters. These two openings highlight a core challenge of any pilot: demonstrate how the show will feel both freshly distinct and familiar enough to be recognizable and comfortable, the delicate balance between similarity and difference that structures commercial television as a format. The UPN opening starts with the familiar and slowly complicates it with intrigue and genre mixture, while the DVD version puts us in the midst of something unconventional for television, a young female-centered film noir, and then links it to the more conventional facets of teen drama.

To further analyze the Veronica Mars pilot, we could continue such a slow-motion replay of the episode, highlighting how each shot, sound, line, and sequence adds to our understanding of the storyworld and sets the stage for the series. But the length needed for such an analysis would turn this essay into a book, along the lines of Roland Barthes’s S/Z! Instead, we can zoom back a bit and look at some broader trends and strategies that play out across the entire episode, and consider how they work to teach viewers how to view the series as a whole. Such an account builds on a model of narrative comprehension explored by David Bordwell for film, exploring how a text draws upon both external norms (like genre and stylistic conventions) and intrinsic norms unique to the film itself to cue viewers how to construct the story in their minds and posit answers to ongoing narrative questions.4 For a television series, a pilot is the primary site for establishing intrinsic norms for the ongoing series, and making clear connections to the relevant external norms of genre, narrative mode, and style.

One aspect that quickly becomes apparent is that Veronica Mars will tell its story using complex narrative techniques. One major trend in television storytelling over the last decade has been toward narrative complexity, using self-conscious devices that call attention to themselves and make the process of decoding a narrative more challenging to encourage active participation from viewers.5 The pilot contains a number of hallmarks of such narrative complexity—the teaser highlights the show’s direct address voiceover narration, which is common in a range of series across genres, from comedies Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle to dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. The frequent flashbacks and jumps in timeframe are similar to other narratively complex programs like Lost, West Wing, and Alias. Most centrally, the pilot establishes long-term mysteries and story arcs that will traverse the entire season and beyond, comparable to innovative serialized programs like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All of these techniques clearly situate Veronica Mars within the mode of narrative complexity within minutes of the pilot’s opening.

We must look more closely at how the show uses narrative complexity to establish particular intrinsic norms that will guide viewers throughout the series. After the opening credits, we are brought back into the storyworld not at the moment of cliffhanging suspense, but into the sunny parking lot of a high school. Veronica’s upbeat voiceover, in stark contrast to the world-weary cynicism of the first scene, quickly sets the scene for the moments that opened the pilot as originally aired on UPN: “This is my school. If you go here, your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires. Neptune, California: a town without a middle class.” The DVD version adds a bit more exposition to explain the temporal shift—a caption reads “20 Hours Earlier” as Veronica continues, “So how does a girl end up surrounded by a motorcycle gang at four in the morning on the wrong side of town? For that answer, we’ll have to rewind to yesterday.” Thus we are reoriented to the story going forward, with the two versions becoming mostly identical for the rest of the episode.

Starting an episode midstory and then flashing back to reveal how the characters got to that point, a device nicknamed “How We Got Here” on the useful TV Tropes wiki, is a common technique in narratively complex programs, featured on a number of West Wing episodes (most notably the first season finale, “What Kind of Day Has It Been”) and frequently on Alias, including its pilot.6 However, the use of voiceover on Veronica Mars allows the explanation of the temporal jump to be more obvious than typical on these other shows—while Alias and West Wing normally use only captions to reset their timelines, Veronica’s narration explicitly notes that we are rewinding the story, making sure that audiences can follow the complex plotting. More interestingly, the narration frames the rewind as a question, explicitly asking how she got there and providing an answer through the narrative logic. This explicit framing of the story as a series of questions and answers, or “erotetic narrative” as termed by Noël Carroll, is a vital aspect of the show’s narrative structure, a thematic dimension that is repeated throughout the episode (and one I will return to later in the essay).7 By framing this temporal shift explicitly and self-consciously, Veronica Mars informs us that it will employ some complex storytelling techniques, but suggests that it will try to keep us oriented through a range of devices, aiming for comprehension over confusion.

This opening rewind is not the only example of temporal complexity in the pilot. The episode contains eight flashbacks that run approximately nine minutes in total, accounting for more than 20% of the pilot’s running time. While flashbacks remain an important part of the show’s narrative toolbox, the pilot uses them far more extensively than almost any other episode. In large part, the use of flashbacks in the pilot are expository, providing backstory on the characters and situations that precede the present day timeline. These flashbacks are quite important to set-up the show’s major plot arcs, as they posit the three key questions that will motivate the narrative for the season: Who killed Lilly Kane? Who raped Veronica? And why did Veronica’s mother leave the family? All of these major narrative events occurred long before the series begins, so flashbacks serve to build mystery about the storyworld’s past events, a storytelling strategy that creates a great deal of depth and richness about the narrative universe.

Just as the opening rewind is explained clearly and redundantly, the flashbacks are all highly cued and demarcated as narratively distinct. The first flashback comes at the episode’s 5 minute mark, with Veronica sitting outside in her high school courtyard, introducing her classmates via voiceover. In telling of her previous status within the “in crowd,” she admits, “The only reason I was allowed beyond the velvet ropes was Duncan Kane, son of software billionaire Jake Kane. He used to be my boyfriend.” The camera alternates between a shot of Veronica sitting alone staring wistfully at Duncan, and her perspective on him as he mingles with his friends. The camera slowly tracks in toward Veronica on her final line, as the image blurs via quick dissolve into another shot with an accompanying “swoosh” sound effect. The new shot of kids in the high school hallway is tinted blue, with soft focus and streaky images to clearly distinguish it from the bright colors and sun drenched lighting of the courtyard. The music shifts as well, to a breathy atmospheric vocal track from the previous subtle guitar rhythmic background in the courtyard scene. We soon see Duncan and a longer-haired Veronica in the center of the frame, with a jump-cut forward to a close-up of them kissing, before the image oversaturates with white light, and shifts into slow-motion. All of these stylistic techniques, from film stock to soundtrack, color scheme to editing style, serve to demarcate the flashback sequence from the norms established in the present-tense scenes. There is no ambiguity about this temporal shift, as the sequence is clearly framed as a subjective memory presented to us by Veronica, our narrator.

The next flashback is similarly demarcated, but differs in terms of perspective. Veronica is sitting at lunch with Wallace, as she asks him two related questions: “So what did you do?… Why are you a dead man walking?” These questions trigger the similar blur and sound effect to signal a flashback of Wallace reporting a robbery while working at a convenience store, with Wallace narrating events to Veronica. This flashback, briefly interrupted by a line from Veronica, is the only scene that Veronica does not appear in throughout the entire episode and thus the only story material portrayed without Veronica’s first-hand experience—future episodes certainly focus primarily on the titular character, but feature scenes and plotlines with Veronica absent. Although Wallace’s flashback follows comparable stylistic markers as Veronica’s, its narrative status is different: Wallace is clearly retelling the story to Veronica within the storyworld, while Veronica’s voiceovers and flashbacks are internal monologues, shared only with the non-specified “you” of the television audience.

Veronica’s second flashback, immediately following the scene with Wallace, appears more subjective, motivated by a triggered memory rather than expository narration. In the courtyard to her apartment, she hears the song “Just Another” by Pete Zorn playing on a radio as she is walking by the swimming pool. She looks up at the radio, and then we hear a splash from the pool. Veronica looks down as we “swoosh” into a flashback image of Duncan emerging from the water, saying, “Hey babe, it’s our song.” The scene shifts abruptly to Veronica’s friends circling a large birthday cake being held out by a previously unseen woman, who says, “Happy birthday, Veronica! Are you surprised?” Veronica says, “Mom” twice—first within the flashback, and then in a quick switch back to the present day narrative, as she spins her head mistakenly thinking that another woman in the courtyard was her mother. While this flashback is stylisticly cued as a memory, its narrative function is more opaque, not answering questions explicitly posed by Veronica’s narration, but rather raising a question still to be addressed: where is Veronica’s mother? All of Veronica’s flashbacks offer a balance of narrative information and emotional depth, with this one furthest toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

The next flashback comes more than five minutes later, and includes the most narratively significant revelations. While Veronica is staking out Jake Kane for her father, she narrates the details of Kane’s business and prominence in Neptune. As she begins to talk about her relationship with the family, we flashback to a scene between Veronica and Lilly Kane, introducing this deceased character and revealing her murder and how Veronica learned of her friend’s demise. The sequence notably presents an important but understated enigma, with Lilly telling Veronica “I’ve got a secret – a good one,” in a conversation that Veronica identifies as “the last words Lilly and I ever shared.” Lilly’s secret is not highlighted as a key narrative question, but it returns in importance later in the season as Veronica begins to unravel the case. Although the events being portrayed are clearly emotionally fraught for Veronica, with her best friend’s murder and the subsequent scapegoating of her father for a botched investigation, the tone of the narration is detached and factually-driven, presenting the story more as an investigator than a loved one.

This flashback also helps situate the narrative status of Veronica’s narration. After revealing Lilly’s death, she says, “But everyone knows this story, the murder of Lilly Kane…. And, of course, everyone remembers reading about the bungling local sheriff, the one who went after the wrong man. That bungling sheriff was my dad.” This narration suggests that Veronica is explicitly speaking to an audience within the storyworld, assuming their familiarity with the tabloid-covered events. While the narration is never explicitly identified as fitting a particular frame of reference, like an online journal or therapy session, the mode of address distinguishes it from a more objective narration like the police report tone of Dragnet. The effect of the narration is to firmly embed the viewer within the storyworld, making us an unspecified but important aspect of the diegesis that functions as a sounding board for Veronica’s inner thoughts and plans.

Subsequent flashbacks follow these parameters, presenting crucial backstory plot, relationships, and lingering mysteries. Questions remain central to the use of flashbacks, as with the sixth flashback that is introduced with the voiceover, “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I,” before showing the scene of Veronica’s drug-induced date rape. The seventh flashback is cued by another character’s questions—Logan is taunting Veronica about her absent mother, asking, “Do you know where she is? Any clue?” Veronica stares him down as he drives away, but then answers the question via voiceover: “It’s been eight months since I’ve seen my mother.” A flashback shows the morning after Lianne left, setting up the season-long arc about her status and Veronica’s relationship with her mother.

The flashbacks also cue some important parallels and repetitions that serve to draw characters together, deepen the storyworld, and cue narrative pleasures. For instance, in Wallace’s flashback, Sheriff Lamb mocks Wallace by saying, “You need to go see the wizard, ask him for some guts.” Veronica follows up in the present tense, “’Go see the wizard,’ he said that?” a comment that seems unremarkable at the time. 22 minutes later, the comment becomes clearer—during a flashback to Veronica reporting her rape, Sheriff Lamb cruelly dismisses her by saying, “I’ll tell you what, Veronica Mars—why don’t you go see the wizard, ask for a little backbone.” Besides clearly aligning Wallace and Veronica together against Lamb, and setting up the revenge plot implicating the Sheriff’s department in exchanging favorable treatment for a strip club for sexual favors, this moment offers a distinctive narrative pleasure. Since the show does not call attention to this parallel dialog, viewers who have been paying attention can get a brief frisson of pleasure upon recognizing the repetition. Such moments of recognition and connection are an important facet of watching serial television, as drawn out links that may span across episodes or even seasons offer dedicated viewers a sense of acknowledgement of their efforts and dedication. Although this intra-episodic repetition requires no long-term commitment, the moment helps establish the broader norm that the series will expect viewers to pay attention, forge connections, and reward their dedication via pleasurable connections and revelations.

Another narrative pleasure is signaled by a subtle repetition. Around halfway through the episode, Keith returns home from an attempt to collect a bounty on a bail jumper—Veronica greets him with an inquisitive, “And?” Keith pauses for drama, and then offers a pseudo-cool, ““Who’s your daddy?”, which Veronica dismisses with adolescent exasperation, “I hate it when you say that.” This exchange creates a bit of playful tension between father and daughter, as Keith goes on to mockingly claim a degree of coolness that amuses Veronica, but underscores their generational divide. Toward the end of the episode, a parallel scene occurs as Keith finds Veronica in the Mars Investigation office at night, where she has discovered that Keith has been keeping information from her. He tempts her to leave with promises of pizza and the South Park movie, and offers a repeated “Who’s your daddy?” This time Veronica sighs and smiles, and warmly replies, “You are.” The repeated moment reconciles the earlier tension like a musical phrase, replaying a dissonant theme with a resolved harmonious chord. The effect, at least for me, is to both highlight the stability of this relationship that will anchor the entire series, and to call attention to the show’s well-crafted storytelling, using an overt parallel to inspire confidence in viewers that the producers are in full control of their fictional form. It’s a self-aware moment of narrative construction that, at least for some viewers, inspires a moment of playful pleasure in admiring the show’s creative craft, and serves as a major appeal for the consumption of narratively complex television.

As is typical of all pilots, the episode introduces and focuses our attention on a number of characters and relationships. Clearly Veronica is the central figure of the storyworld, and virtually every character exists in relationship to her. The credit sequence introduces the list of major characters in the order Veronica, Wallace, Duncan, Logan, and Weevil, with Keith getting the final billing as “and Enrico Colantoni,” a position conventionally reserved for more established actors in supporting roles as well as parents in teen dramas. The actual screen time for characters is differently balanced—Wallace appears in around 25% of the episode and Keith in 20%, a proportion that effectively establishes those two characters as Veronica’s most trusted and stable allies in the ongoing series. Duncan’s third billing seems contrary to appearing only in 7% of the episode, an imbalance that persists throughout the series—the character is narratively central to many of the ongoing arcs, but his presence is less vibrant and active than the other supporting actors, culminating in the character leaving the show midway through the second season. While certainly the romantic link between Duncan and Veronica is a core dramatic element to the show, the pilot shows little of their connection and effectively confines Duncan to the margins over more colorful supporting players.

Logan was not initially conceived as a main character, but Jason Dohring’s compelling performance prompted the producers to make Logan more central to the show and establish a romance with Veronica. In the pilot, Logan and Weevil share nearly equal time at around 13% of the episode time, helping to establish the two as rivals to each other culminating in their confrontation toward the end of the episode. Functionally the two characters both share a volatile bond with Veronica, serving both as allies and enemies at various times. These proportions also mirror a legalistic aspect of storytelling unique to the television medium—contracts often stipulate the number of episodes per season each actor will appear in. Thus the actors playing Veronica, Wallace, and Keith were obligated to appear in every episode in season one, while those playing Weevil, Logan, and Duncan were only available for approximately 75% of the episodes, forcing the producers to devise stories that allowed them to disappear for a week.8 The pilot effectively establishes this balance in character prominence that carries throughout the first season.

The pilot also sets the show’s standard for balancing multiple plotlines. Although like many pilots, much of the episode’s time is spent introducing the setting, characters, and relationships rather than focusing on narrative events and storylines, the episode does offer a remarkable number of events and plots. Typically, Veronica Mars episodes feature a self-contained A plot concerning a case that is introduced and solved within an episode, and B and C plots more concerned with long-term arcs and relationships. The pilot is less rigidly structured, with six definable plotlines: the robbery at Wallace’s store, the investigation into the Seventh Veil strip club, the Jake Kane infidelity investigation, Lilly Kane’s murder, Lianne leaving the family, and Veronica’s rape. As is typical for the show, the plotlines are not rigidly distinct, as they interweave both in terms of events and themes—the strip club plot ends up merging with the robbery case, and the theme of sexual indiscretion and mystery permeates many of the storylines. It would be hard to define a clear A plot; although the Jake Kane investigation takes up the most time at nearly a quarter of the episode, it blurs into nearly all of the other plotlines and lacks the resolution common of A plots. The Wallace and strip club cases are resolved, but lack the central focus typical of other episodes’ A plots.

Despite a more fuzzy distinction between plotlines than will become the norm for the show, the pilot’s atypical story threads do help orient viewers on how to watch the series. The self-contained plotlines are presented with Veronica in firm control of the action, rescuing Wallace, manipulating the sheriff’s office, and demonstrating more knowledge of the situation than viewers—for most of the episode, we are unsure of the relevance of the strip club plotline, and Veronica’s multiphase plan to swap videotapes is revealed at the moment of Lamb’s humiliation rather than positioning us as riding shotgun to the procedures of Veronica’s investigations. For most episodes, the self-contained cases do little to challenge Veronica’s investigational mastery, and they function more as games for viewers to try to guess the culprit, outcome, or Veronica’s investigative strategy.

The long-term story arcs align us more closely with Veronica’s knowledge, as we learn about new developments along with her and she treats us as a confidant sharing vital backstory. Veronica’s investigative approach foregrounds posing and answering questions, and the show’s serial storytelling follows this paradigm. In the final minutes of the episode, Veronica poses a number of questions: “The Lilly Kane murder file – what’s Dad been up to?… My surveillance photo from the Camelot – why is it in the Lilly Kane file? What was Mom doing there, and what business did she have with Jake Kane? And the million dollar question: why did Dad lie to me?” After the scene with Keith in which she reconciles his deception, Veronica narrates, “I’ve got too many questions swirling around in my head to wait until he’s ready to share. These questions need answers—that’s what I do.” The narrative logic of this sequence sets up the key season-long arcs while clearly establishing the show’s erotetic narration, as well as making sure that these arcs will not dangle unanswered—Veronica’s final monologue asserts, “I promise this: I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again,” a statement that serves to also assure viewers that these questions do have answers that will be revealed in good time, as long as the network allows the show to continue to air.

The only question during this sequence that gets answered immediately is Keith’s “Who’s your Daddy?”, which gets Veronica’s sentimental assurance to cement the stability of their relationship in the face of broader uncertainties. This answer helps divide the long-term arcs into two categories: plot arcs that posit enigmas and mysteries, and relationship or character arcs that are more clearly delimited in the moment. This division is typical of many primetime serials, where plot mysteries use complex narration while character drama is more conventional in its presentation. These differing modes of presentation allow for distinct modes of engagement and narrative questioning—the relationship status plots encourage us to ask “what will happen?”, as with Veronica’s romantic entanglements and rocky relations with her mother. Conversely, the mysteries frame the narrative as “what really happened in the past?”, privileging the forensic mode of hunting clues, connecting pieces, and positing theories alongside Veronica’s own investigation. We know that the relationship answers, however temporary and fleeting, will likely arrive soon in the story, but the mysteries might linger far beyond our expectations and take unanticipated twists along the way.

The dual narrative modes of mystery and relationship drama are tightly tied to codes of gender and genre. Robyn Warhol has effectively argued that serial form has been tightly linked to “effeminate feelings” of sentimentality and overt emotional expression. She contends that recent modes of serial storytelling clearly bifurcates gendered pleasures by genre, with soap operas and melodramatic literature appealing to effeminate audiences, and action-adventure serials like Patrick O’Brian’s maritime novels and science-fiction television addressing an anti-effeminate audience.9 But I believe that many contemporary narratively complex serials embrace both of Warhol’s “technologies of feeling,” marrying the effeminate affects of sentimentality and weepiness with the masculine responses of heart-pounding thrills and rational puzzle-solving (89). Veronica Mars is exemplary of some of the key ways these appeals are balanced and structured into contemporary narrative forms.

The cast of characters establishes this balance at the show’s core—the titular character is clearly the female center of the narrative universe, but she is surrounded almost exclusively by male figures. However, Veronica herself is far from a simple embodiment of feminine norms—her present-tense persona is defined in opposition to her pre-rape femininity, with shortened hair, heightened sarcastic attitude, and an emotional detachment that makes her alienated from nearly all of her high school peers. As established in the opening scene, Veronica eschews romantic sentiment and embraces personal risk in the service of her rational, procedural detective work. In terms of narrative pleasures, Veronica’s core storylines fit more neatly into the anti-effeminate mode of action and detective drama than the effeminate realm of romantic melodrama. And arguably the male characters serve more effeminate roles—Wallace as supportive counselor and confidant, Keith as nurturing parent, and Duncan as sensitive romantic who eventually becomes a single parent himself. Even Logan and Weevil, who first appear as hyper-masculine, aggressive, and hostile threats to Veronica, undergo a process of becoming more sensitive, emotionally engaged, and feminized throughout the season. There is no regular character who neatly fits into typical gender norms, as each embodies some contradictions and complexity.

Gender norms also are blurred within the show’s plotting. The self-contained detective stories seem consistent with masculine crime narratives, but the low-stakes high school setting and Veronica’s status as savvy P.I. willing to use both traditionally masculine and feminine traits to solve mysteries complicate this simple gender identification. The ongoing serial storylines contain both the effeminate and anti-effeminate traditions Warhol discusses—the relationship arcs generally follow the patterns of serial melodrama typical of teen dramas, but often interweave with the detective mysteries, as with the connections between Logan’s budding romance with Veronica and his potential involvement with both Lilly’s murder and Veronica’s rape. The serialized mysteries offer the emotional thrills Warhol labels anti-effeminate, but are tied to the emotional and feminine realms of rape, motherhood, and murder growing out of dysfunctional romance. While the series clearly embodies both modes of narrative pleasure Warhol discusses, it does more than offer parallel pleasures, as its storytelling structures complicate and intermingle such neat gendered binaries.

The pilot comments on its own atypical gender norms—when Veronica gives Wallace the incriminating videotape, he thanks her and tries to get her to acknowledge that she did him a favor. He says, “underneath that angry young woman shell, there’s a slightly less angry young woman, who’s dying to bake me something. You’re a marshmallow, Veronica Mars, a Twinkie!” Veronica’s dual gender identity is echoed in the pilot’s final lines—following Veronica’s assertion that she will solve the mysteries and reunite her family, she say, “I’m sorry, is that mushy? Well, you know what they say: Veronica Mars, she’s a marshmallow.” The prominence of this repetition as the show’s final moment contrasts with the highly rational procedures that Veronica has followed in both explicating and pursuing the mysteries, reminding us that she’s acting not just out of a masculine mode of justice and detection, but a sentimental and effeminate urge for family unity. Thus the final scene sets the stage for the broad range of gender appeals and identities that will be explored within the series, and cues us to be alert to the complexities of both character and plotting rather than assuming clear cut binaries and conventions.

In the end, the pilot of Veronica Mars teaches us how to watch the series and manages our expectations for what is to come. Most pilots focus on establishing the setting, characters, and narrative situation, and thus are quite atypical of what future episodes might bring. The Veronica Mars pilot employs more flashbacks, voiceover, and exposition than typical, but also establishes many norms of tone, style, and theme that future episodes will typically adhere to. As such, it is one of the more effective pilots for a complex serial drama, performing an astounding degree of narrative work while also offering clear pleasures and moments consistent with the series as a whole. Thus any attempt to understand the lasting impact and importance of this unique television series needs to start with how the pilot set the stage for the show’s ongoing narrative form, themes, and story arcs.

1See the Television Without Pity recap for a description of the originally aired pilot at http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/pilot_84.php .

2See Rob Thomas’s site at http://www.slaverats.com/ .

3Rob Thomas Interview on Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005, http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/the_rob_thomas_interview_part.php .

4David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

5See Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40.

7Noël Carroll, “Narrative closure,” Philosophical Studies 135, no. 1 (2007): 1-15.

8Described by Rob Thomas in his interview with Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005, http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/the_rob_thomas_interview_part.php?page=10 .

9Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003). Warhol is careful to distinguish between “effeminate” audiences and pleasures versus “female” identity, as she acknowledges that such modes of address and consumption are not essential to a person’s gender identity. She uses “anti-effeminate” not to suggest hostility toward effeminate pleasures, but because she contends there is no corresponding term evoking a masculine mode of affect and emotion.

© Jason Mittell, 2009

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20 Responses to “These Questions Need Answers: An essay on the Veronica Mars pilot”

  1. As an academic who loves me some Veronica Mars, this is marvelous – am looking forward to getting my hands on the whole collection once it’s published.

    As for the ending, I think you’re right – it does kind of stop, which is both logical and problematic. On the one hand, you’re only covering the pilot, so your article will by necessity “stop” in a way that other articles won’t due to their more generalized focus. However, at the same time, the very nature of pilots means that they don’t “stop” – the show keeps going, and your references to future plotlines throughout the essay indicates an awareness of what follows that feels as if it should find a place in the conclusion.

    I think the focus on the conclusion is perfect: the most interesting thing about this pilot is that it defines the series so perfectly and yet there is no episode in the series quite like it: the real test of a good pilot is that it manages to stand out without appearing fundamentally different from the episodes that follow. The way the episode both plays into series norms (the various plots, interweaving with one another) while managing to fulfill the traditional pilot expectations demonstrates a stunning level of control from Thomas. It’s a confidence that you mention at numerous times in the article, and I feel like the impact of that confidence on the remainder of the series is quite clear and could perhaps be more explicitly stated in the conclusion.

    Anyways, just some general thoughts on the question Re: the ending you posed.

  2. 2 Cole Moore Odell

    I took the contrast between Duncan’s narrative importance and relatively minimal screen time as a noir convention, much as Steve Buscemi’s “Mink” gets one brief scene in Miller’s Crossing, but is the linchpin of the entire plot. Reducing Duncan’s visibility helps make him more mysterious and potentially suspect–what is he doing all the time we can’t see him?

    Also, I love the time-release metaphor built into “Camelot”–initial connotations of brightly colored idealism immediately followed by deflating remembrance of the infidelity and tragedy at the heart of both courts. Nice noir shorthand.

    • Cole – great point about Camelot! I was looking for a way to flesh out some connotations, but hadn’t thought about the infidelity lurking beneath the myth.

      As for Duncan, I guess if he was as compelling and engaging as Mink, I’d buy it. My take is that they cast a dud of an actor, didn’t know how to write to his limited talents, and then buried him throughout the series. In the pilot, though, he is marginalized to function as object of suspicion and desire.

  3. 4 Veronica Fan

    Interestingly, you say that “The only question during this sequence that gets answered immediately is Keith’s “Who’s your Daddy?”, which gets Veronica’s sentimental assurance to cement the stability of their relationship in the face of broader uncertainties.” The repetition of the phrase “Who’s your Daddy?” may, however, serve as a clue to attentive viewers that this question will remain central to the continuting narrative. Certainly red flags are raised – Keith is lying to Veronica and attempting to thwart her curiosity, agency, and desire for the truth.

    As the series progresses, it becomes apparent that Lianne’s defection of the family may, in fact, result from the mystery of Veronica’s paternity. Is her father really Keith Mars or is he Jake Kane? You state that the three main mysteries of the series are: Who killed Lilly Kane? Who raped Veronica? And why did Veronica’s mother leave the family? I would suggest that they are: Who murdered Lilly Kane? Who raped Veronica? And, who is Veronica’s biological father? The emotional pay-off of the resolution to this last question (in scenes between Keith/Veronica & Duncan/Veronica) is a key component of the last episode of Season 1.

    Excellent genre analysis and the details about the actors’ contracts helped clear up questions I’ve had about the uneveness of some of the episodes. Thanks for sharing the essay!

    • Thanks for the comment – I hadn’t thought about the literal aspect of “who’s your daddy?” but you’re definitely right that it serves as a foreshadow to an emerging mystery. I don’t think it counts as a truly launched arc here – Leanne’s departure comes to encompass the paternity mystery later on, so it’s more of a transformed arc than parallel.

  4. 6 Annie Petersen

    I recently rewatched the entire first season on VM to distract me from comps prep, and I was particularly struck by small variations from the pilot to the rest of series one. For one, Veronica’s hair: in the pilot, her hair is flipped out and shorter, much more aggressive and unbecoming to her heart-shaped face. Starting in episode two, her hair is either slightly curled under, put in an elaborate braid or complicated bun, or placed in diminutive pigtails. In other words, even though she’s not the long-haired, pink-dressed princess of yore, she’s certainly been made to look less ‘hard,’ more conventionally beautiful — which I can only imagine was part of the network’s request for the future success of the show.

    One thing you don’t mention is how the pilot effectively diffuses any potential sexual tension between Veronica and Wallace, which would have proven problematic not only to Veronica’s eventual reunion with Duncan, but would have tread all sorts of racial boundaries (violations of which are narratively labeled as incredibly transgressive, as in the case of Paris Hilton/biker gang lackee and Weevil/Lily).

    Objectively, Wallace *should* be Veronica’s boyfriend — they have the best repartee (apart from her and Logan in the second season); they spend the most time together, they come from similar class backgrounds. They take pleasure in each other’s company and genuinely seem to hit it off. But we’re not once led to think of them as a potential couple. Part of this is Wallace’s ‘ordinary’ looks — he isn’t any Denzel. But I also think the pilot works hard to distract us from any potential for their coupling and direct our ‘hopes’ towards a reunion with Duncan — which is silly, as Duncan is obviously an inarticulate, unremarkable rich boy. (In fact, I’d argue that the building tension between her and Logan, who is clearly the Bacall to *her* Bogart, is the best part of season two). Another part is Veronica’s general asexuality, emphasized, as you point out, not only in her rejection of marriage (and sex) but her rape trauma and ‘harsh’ appearance.

    So how is this accomplished? I think it’s crucial, especially for female viewers of the show, to know which ‘relationship’ we’re supposed to hope for as we continue to watch the show after the pilot….but I can’t quite put my finger on the other cues.

    • Annie: one thing that the show does pretty quickly is set-up a romance between Keith and Wallace’s mother, which makes a V/W relationship taboo. I remember when I was watching the show on airing, I desperately wanted the knock on Veronica’s door at the end of s1 to be Wallace, as he’s the one who should always be there for her. (Personally, I liked V better as single, as her attitude always seemed a bit defanged when she was in a relationship, so I was routing more for a platonic V/W ship, but I’d take what I could get.) It is sad but true that interracial dating was a taboo that the show couldn’t get over, despite it’s general progressive take on cultural politics.

      The other way that the show defangs the V/W pairing is that Wallace is cued as so much less masculine than the other men (at least in s1), making him more of the supportive confidant than sexy bad boy.

      The shift in hair might be in part due to the logistics that pilots are shot months before a series is picked up & produced, so the gap often leads to characters changing appearances a bit between eps 1 & 2. Thanks for the comments!

  5. 8 judith

    Oh no i don’t agree with the former poster. The friendship between Veronica and Wallace was a very good element of the show.
    Her romantic relationship with Logan was delicious : the chemistry between the actors was just perfect. Rob Thomas with Logan/Veronica and Wallace/Veronica was not mistaken.
    And for interracial relationship : Wallace had a white girlfriend Jane on season 2.

  6. 9 C

    Great article! Lots of excellent points to think about as I prepare to teach the VM pilot in a class this fall. A quick note though: Veronica’s mom is named Lianne, not Lorraine.

  7. 11 Ross Bell

    It really is astounding just how much this episode packs in. Beyond the sheer quality of the writing which makes it so compelling to watch, the skill with which so many layers are stacked allows for repeated viewings. I didn’t keep track of how many times I watched this episode, but it is truly just as enjoyable to watch now as it was the first time I viewed it almost a year ago.

    For those trying their hand at writing for television––and pilot writing in particular, there’s a lot to learn here.

  8. I just needed to say that I found your site via Goolge and I am glad I did. Keep up the good work and I will make sure to bookmark you for when I have more free time away from the books. Thanks again!

  9. How funny – as I said on the plane, I had by total coincidence just watched the pilot of VM for the first time, though it was a burned version of the pilot broadcast on UPN. What struck me about the pilot (and particularly the opening scene at Neptune High) was that it cast noir not as a genre, not as historical phenomenon or set of visual motifs, but rather as a mode–a way of intellectual (and often cynical) engagement with evidence, with people and with socio-political institutions. (ex: Veronica introduces her ‘perfect’ high school as an institution that doesn’t only reflect the existing class structure (as many high school shows/films do) but also casting high school as a force that reifies class difference).

    In this way the opening at Neptune winds up training the audience, as you say in your conclusion, *how* to watch a series about high school in a new way. In so doing, it also allows us to reconsider noir (and neo-noir, which VM seems more interested in throughout S1–glancing refs to Body Heat, The Usual Suspects, and The Matrix) as well as the gender implications of the hardboiled detective. The DVD cut works to align it with noir visually (the thermos, the seedy hotel) and narratively (retrospective plots), which does explicitly place it within the noir tradition, but that in some ways leaves the genre less troubled by Veronica’s “single variability”.

    One teeny-tiny criticism – I don’t feel like the segment with the thumb ring really plays as well as it could. The impulse is dead on, of course, but since the thumb ring was a fairly standard bit of delia*s-ish fashion in that period it feels to me that the ring couldn’t do the work of signifying non-conformity as much as the paragraph wanted it to.

    Really fascinating stuff! I wish I could’ve made it to the panel. I’ll keep an eye out for the collection as I move through the series.

  10. 14 David Kociemba

    I’m actually surprised that you don’t use a creative commons license for your writing on this site, given that you seem to be committed to sharing your intellectual work (e.g. syllabi). These allow you choices in how much control you want to retain over your work and how much of it you want to share. Check it out: http://creativecommons.org/about/licenses/

    • David – the blog as a whole is CC licensed (there’s a widget on the homepage footer), but I © academic essays that I intend to publish elsewhere, as many publishers would blanch at publishing something that has been CC licensed. And as I intend to post about soon, some publishers are even more restrictive…

      • 16 David Kociemba

        Good to know! Yes, I’ve been less than enthralled with giving up my copyright on my writing for academic publishers.


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