Watching the detective: Veronica Mars

91l7YBEyqUL._SY500_Long story short (is this even possible?) I had been on hiatus from TV (only using it as a monitor for movies on VCR or DVD, never seeing an ad) for over a decade when I broke my ankle and my friend Emily brought me Season 1 of Veronica Mars. To ease the boredom of sitting around with my foot elevated I was ready to try it, hoping it would be even half as good as The Rockford Files (especially the episodes Juanita Bartlett wrote).

Veronica Mars blew me away. Kristen Bell’s Ms. Mars was intense, funny, and riveting from the first frame. That deadpan voiceover, more Sam Spade than Nancy Drew, and Rob Thomas et al.’s writing (for et al., especially see Diane Ruggiero‘s episodes) — Veronica saying, for instance: “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I.” (She was raped after someone — who? — put Rohypnol in her drink at a party.) What a line! What a teenage girl detective! What an ensemble cast! The other characters, major and minor, whether good guys/girls or raving assholes, made sense and worked as people (maybe in part because Rob Thomas was a high school teacher for awhile and knew whereof he wrote). The structure of the show was similar to Prime Suspect in that it had an overarching mystery — who really killed Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane? — that Veronica and her detective father Keith Mars tried to solve throughout the whole season; this added a ground note to the smaller puzzles Veronica solved each week. Much like DCI Tennison in Prime Suspect, Veronica Mars solved her crimes through intelligence, courage, tenacity, and deviousness, and kept going despite being up against the most powerful people in town.

Also like DCI Tennison, Veronica was a lonely heroine, without much support from the people around her. In Prime Suspect 1 Tennison had to deal with outright as well as passive insubordination from the misogynists on her team who didn’t want to take orders from a woman; Veronica lost her friends and her status at Neptune high school (and went from in-crowd to outcast) because of her belief in her father, her grief, and her need to find justice for her murdered friend Lilly.

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Watching the detective: DCI Jane Tennison

41888639DELI’m not much of a TV watcher. I haven’t watched actual TV at home since the early nineties, when the writing of Lynda La Plante‘s Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren, was taken over by someone else. In La Plante’s stories of good versus evil (Prime Suspect 1-3) good triumphed despite (nearly) insurmountable odds, mostly because of DCI Jane Tennison’s intelligence, tenacity, courage, and deviousness. She was definitely flawed — driven and insensitive and unforgiving — but she was a flawed hera, who was not afraid to confront power and privilege to catch the bad guys, or to look evil in the face and stare it down.

But La Plante’s world (and the characters she created) was handed off to some other writer (or writers; I never looked them up), and her dark vision of good against evil with the protagonist as a lonely force for good gave way to an even darker vision, where good and evil were ambiguous and the detective could no longer tell the difference between them (although I could; which made me distrust Tennison’s brains and intuition for the first time). Ambiguity can make for a strong, staring-into-the-dark-all-night drama (if you want insomnia, see Gone Baby Gone), but not when you sense the author manipulating every scene, so that story and characters become just so much grist for the mill, grinding out a statement about the brutality and pointlessness of life.