Much of this week’s Veronica Mars discussion has revolved around proposing various love interests for Veronica, both because the show has a rich cast of characters that are fun to defend, make fun of, or outright disparage; and as a countermeasure to the myopia of seeing Veronica Mars as a show about a girl and her on-again/off-again boyfriend who started a bum-fighting ring one time (THAT WE KNOW ABOUT).
What Veronica/Logan stuff obscures, for me, is the strength of Veronica Mars as an amateur-detective show, and now, yes yes yes, an amateur-detective movie. Admittedly, this comes from a bias as strong as any shipper: I love movies and TV shows about amateur or semi-amateur or non-traditional detectives. Maybe books, too, but I don’t have a lot of experience with reading detective fiction, unless Encyclopedia Brown counts. I never got into the Hardy Boys and I only read part of one Easy Rawlins novel, although it was pretty good; I just put it down and forgot about it and wound up moving on something else. Our book expert Cristin will favor us with more in-depth book companions to Veronica; here now is a brief recent history of a genre I didn’t know was my favorite genre until Veronica Mars was about halfway through its run.
THE BEFORE TIMES
Zero Effect (1998)
Zero Effect is not about an amateur detective. In fact, it is about a very professional detective, in the sense that he is paid handsomely for his skills; he’s unprofessional as a person, but few of his clients know this because Daryl Zero (played by Bill Pullman in his finest performance) is a recluse who solves his cases from home, sending out his Watson-y assistant Arlo (Ben Stiller) to gather information and clues. Basically, this is Sherlock Holmes Extreme, but as written and directed by Jake Kasdan, it’s not a spoof or rip-off of Holmes; it’s a knotty mystery story with a great sense of humor. It fits well with Veronica Mars because of its focus on character as much as plotting. I missed it during its brief theatrical release in January 1998; I remember renting it on VHS and liking it later that year, but it took a few more viewings for me to realize that this was one of the more satisfying mystery/thriller pictures I’d ever seen. Kasdan did attempt to launch a Zero Effect TV series, with Alan Cumming (!) in the Pullman role, but the pilot was not picked up. In general, detective shows with a specific personality don’t seem to have attracted much TV interest unless the character is literally Sherlock Holmes or figuratively has no personality a la The Mentalist. This is strange, because detective shows have built-in stand-alone elements that should make them perfect for a weekly TV series. I choose to read this as a direct statement from the majority of TV-watching Americans that they do not like things to be too good.
Brick (2006) and Nancy Drew (2007)
Did I miss the trend piece on teen detectives in California in the mid-to-late aughts? Veronica Mars was finishing up its second season, and Rian Johnson’s masterful teen noir was hitting a few select, lucky theaters. Brick is obviously the more stylized of the two, with its characters talking in hardboiled forties-inflected slang. It’s also, no joke, one of my very favorite movies ever. On the gentler end of things: Veronica Mars is also basically a noir Nancy Drew, and if that sounds insulting, please watch this totally awesome Andrew Fleming redo of the old book series. I like to imagine that Brendan, Veronica, and Nancy could have all gone to the same high school, even though they demonstrably did not, and would sometimes intersect and possibly undermine each other while working cases.
THE LITTLE SISTER MYSTERIES
Mystery Team (2009)
I was relieved that I already chose Mystery Team for an earlier Watch This, about movies with cool teams, because I got to write about it without angrily insisting that I write the entire week’s worth of detective-related content. I’m kind of surprised this movie doesn’t have more of a following, because it is hilarious.
The TV show most associated with Veronica Mars, I’d say, is probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because they both star diminutive, quippy, feisty blonde teenagers. But its truest companion show actually turned up three years and change after Veronica was canceled: Terriers, an original series on FX that I shamefully admit I did not watch until a year or so after it left the air. The show’s main non-detective is ex-cop, ex-alcoholic, and unlicensed PI Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue), and just like Veronica Mars, the show mixes a season-long master plot with individual-episode mysteries, set in sunny yet still sinister California. A movie should absolutely not be the get-out-of-cancellation-free card most fans assume it is… but I will say, detective shows are good fits for expanding into two-hour mysteries, and no one on Terriers is aging out of their already-aging roles, so if anyone gets restless from lack of usually-fruitless fan campaigns, I invite them to get the Will There Be a Terriers Movie? ball of annoying questioning rolling.
Cold Weather (2011)
My second Watch This recommendation is amateur detectives by way of mumblecore, which might sound insufferable but actually contains better investigative legwork than a lot of detective movies, because the characters don’t have access to any handy PI databases. Speaking of PI databases: if you’d like to read an essay that tries to figure out how realistic the heightened world of Veronica Mars is, as well as some even better essays about some other Veronica Mars stuff, by all means, go get a copy of Neptune Noir, published as the show was tragically cut short.
Technically speaking, Luann DeGroot is not a detective, because she’s too self-centered to seek out clues not located directly on her person. But the long-running comic strip does have plenty of mysteries, such as: Why are there fewer than twelve students at Pitts High School? Why do most of her conversations with her boyfriend consist mainly of hollow shells of banter? How did becoming a firefighter make Luann’s brother Brad grow his thinning hair back? What’s Toni Daytona hiding under that gigantic hair of hers? Why does Luann’s dad insist so vehemently that she should attend a local junior college? What is he hiding outside of Pitts? Is there an outside of Pitts? Does Luann take place in Panem? Is Bernice is so smart, why is she friends with Luann? If Delta is so smart, why is she friends with Luann? Are Bernice and Delta actually smart? What happened to Dirk? What happened to Stuart? Did Luann murder him? Will Luann kill again? What happened to Aaron Hill in Hawaii? Will ABC Family eventually run low enough on ideas to produce a teen-detective movie about Luann going to Hawaii to investigate the disappearance of Aaron Hill? Is Tiffany next on Luann’s hit list?
Obviously we need Veronica now more than ever.