Thursday, March 21, 2013

Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life after TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 21, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Kristen Bell, the once and future star of Veronica Mars

One topic that television fans never tire of – and I count myself among them – are favourite shows cancelled too soon. My own list is long, and grows with every passing year. A couple of years ago I wrote about five such shows, and I could add many more: Terriers, Awake, Party Down, Better off Ted, How to Make it in America, or the criminally underappreciated Knights of Prosperity. The reason why it’s fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game. They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots. Two standard-bearers of the brilliant-but-cancelled genre – Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Joss Whedon’s Fireflywere barely given the chance get their bearings before their respective networks pulled their plugs.

But the thunderous success of Rob Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a proposed Veronica Mars movie has shifted my thoughts to a darker, less congenial question: what about those beloved series that lived too long, the ones whose sublime early seasons begin to decay under the weight of their own continuity
?

As a committed/obsessive recommender, I relish exceptional shows that you can pass on without apology or conditions: The Wire, Breaking Bad, and (though I am selective about who I recommend it to) the BBC’s 2005 reboot of Doctor Who are at the top of the list. And Justified (with its fourth season about to come to a close) promises to join them. But as an inveterate TV pusher my nightmares are about the shows that I want to share, but can only really kvell about the early seasons: “You should definitely watch Battlestar Galactica… well at least the miniseries and first season, though the world won’t end if you drop off before Season 3,” “Yeah,  Heroes is great! You mean Season 1, right?” or “How I Met Your Mother really did have an remarkable four seasons, didn’t it?” All of us who love TV want to share the particular pleasure of great storytelling with our friends, without condemning them to the hours (and, in the case of shows still lingering on the air, years) of mediocrity, without inadvertently committing people we care about to shows that we ourselves might continue to watch into their 7th or 8th seasons – either out of a misplaced sense of obligation, or because of a dispassionate (borderline obsessive) curiosity. There is, after all, a particular kind of pain that comes from watching a beloved television series go even slightly wrong…

Veronica Mars writer/creator Rob Thomas
For the uninitiated, Veronica Mars was a neo-noir drama set in a California high school which aired on the UPN/CW networks from 2004-2007. Rob Thomas, the show’s creator, told a 22-episode story in Season 1, and by the end of Season 2, a 44-episode story. For me, the first season was one of the first times I saw a network series telling a single, long, self-contained story. Had the show not returned for a second season, even the “who’s at Veronica’s door?” moment that closed the first season finale would have been just fine, a perfect bit of romantic open-endedness which genuinely fit the tone of the story. It was a series willing to break a lot of rules, and for all the procedural elements of its “teen PI” genre, it was a single story. In fact, what remains so unique about the series is that I rarely think of it in terms of its best episodes. (As if, for example, you could recommend a favourite novel by singling about Chapter 27 especially.)

Fast-forward five years, when half a decade of rumours about a feature film spinoff came to a head last Wednesday, as the show’s creator Rob Thomas put up a Kickstarter page to raise interest (and more importantly funds) for the project. Offering everything from copies of the shooting script, to Kristen Bell’s voice on as an outgoing voicemail message, to a (very) small speaking part in the film itself, the campaign quickly broke Kickstarter records for film projects, reaching its $2 million goal in less than 10 hours. At last count – with three weeks left – Thomas has collected more than $3.7 million from almost 60,000 Veronica Mars fans. A lot of e-ink has been spilled in the past week on whether or not Thomas has broken Kickstarter or whether crowdfunding a studio-backed project will hasten the end of Hollywood’s decades-old business model. But most people writing about the project are, for lack of a more dignified word, completely psyched. The short video of Rob Thomas and Mars stars Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, and Ryan Hansen is delightful – intimate, self-aware, and both respectful of and coyly mocking of their audience – and for longtime Veronica Mars fans like myself, the very idea of returning to the world of Neptune, California, even for only 120 minutes, is enough to quicken the heart.

But as the excitement over the initial announcement has ebbed, I’m left with a simple fact that I hadn’t initially considered: I really didn’t really like Veronica Mars’ third season. Don’t get me wrong: the first two seasons are still among my favourite seasons of television ever, right up there with S1 of Friday Night Lights, S4 of The Wire, and S2 of Breaking Bad. But it was precisely on these terms that its third season disappointed. Encouraged by the network to make the series more ‘accessible’ (read: less confusing for the casual viewer), the third season told shorter, more self-contained stories. By the end of the third season, I was actually relieved when it was announced that the show would not be returning for a fourth.

It is precisely what made Veronica Mars such a revelation in its first two seasons that might be untranslatable to film. Yes, most of the same talent, on- and off-screen, are slated to return. (The movie’s very recently created IMDB page has pre-emptively listed every character and actor to ever appear in the series as part of the cast.) It’s not only my past experience of TV shows making the transition to the big screen somewhat nerve-wracking (for every South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, there seems to be at least three Sex and the City 2): my experience of its third season has left me reluctantly ambivalent about the proposed film.

Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring in Veronica Mars
The reboot phenomenon is one thing: a new franchise, with new internal continuity, and reframed narratively for what is truly a different genre. The big screen after all isn’t just a question how a story is consumed, but also how it is structured. Joss Whedon, who cut his teeth in film narrative, succeeded (in my eyes) with Serenity (2005) by telling a story that was a continuation of the story began telling on television in Firefly, and two hours offered audiences a universe which was both a continuation and a re-configuration of what came before.

Television, as an expressive medium if not as a business model, can have a luxury that feature films do not: television can give a story the length of time its requires. Ten-episode stories, or sixty-episode stories, there is room and flexibility to tell them all. The expectation that a show will run for years is very much North American: British television has long accepted that different stories require different amounts of time, and different segmentation. On Channel 4 this winter, Utopia created an entire world in six hours, and should it not come back next year, I will more than satisfied. It will not have been an abortive experience. No promises were made, and Utopia won’t be “cancelled” should a second series never make an appearance. The model of Sherlock (3 feature-length stories per ‘season’) works perfectly for the BBC’s Holmes show, while on this side of the pond the extremely entertaining Elementary has been doing wonders with a 22-episode frame, slowly building characters and relationships which feel perfectly organic to the world they inhabit. American broadcast television still tends to quantify success in terms of longevity – so much so that when the show recently bowed out in its seventh season, headlines typically read “30 Rock Cancelled!”. Of course, television is a business, and networks (cable or broadcast) are building brands along with telling stories. It is certainly understandable – if not always justifiable – that they want to keep a series around until the wheels fall off. But whatever the pragmatic realities of television as corporate product, we should start asking: is it true that television shows only die involuntary deaths? Why should a story go on forever?

No story, well told, can or should.

Okay, I don’t actually know how the script for now-perhaps-inevitable Veronica Mars movie will go (though for just $10 US you can preorder one today!), and there’s an argument to be made that the noir elements of the Veronica Mars universe were always ideally suited for the big screen. (For some reason, I want send Rob Thomas DVDs of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Grosse Pointe Blank right now.) All said, I can’t deny that I’m rather thrilled that Rob Thomas and the gang are coming together again, and perhaps the fact that the new project will be a sincere labour of love for all involved (from the fans up to the cast and crew) will be enough to keep any corporate forces from working against it. But there’s still a significant part of me which would prefer that the film didn’t happen, that same part of me which (rather guiltily) still kind of wishes the series had been cancelled after its two perfect seasons.

All seasons of Veronica Mars are available on DVD. Watch it. You don’t have to bother with the last season though.