TV Education: Veronica Mars

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You may remember me geeking out over the Veronica Mars movie trailer a few weeks ago. I’m sure you can only imagine how bad it will be next summer when the actual movie comes out.

Today, I’m writing my second post in my new “TV Education Tuesdays” series (catchy, huh?) on the very episode that started my Veronica Mars obsession–the pilot. All of the academic quotes in this post are taken from Jason Mittell’s book, The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling.

In his chapter, “Beginnings,” Mittell says that in order to be successful, a television show’s pilot episode “must simultaneously be educational and inspirational” (2). As the title of this chapter suggests, a pilot is the beginning of a story, but it is not the beginning of that show’s narrative world, as perfectly demonstrated by the pilot episode of Veronica Mars. In order to be educational and inspiring, Veronica Mars chooses to begin its story in a narrative world that has already suffered a massive hit to its equilibrium and spends its pilot educating the viewer on both the old world and the new.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) and Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) in a "Pilot" flashback.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) and Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) in a “Pilot” flashback.

Mittell explains that “Pilot” contains nine flashback sequences, and these scenes are “expository, providing backstory on the characters and situations that precede the present day timeline” (18). The majority of these flashbacks tell the story of the old Veronica—the long-haired, conventionally-dressed, popular girl who dated Duncan Kane and was in with the “in crowd.” We learn that all of this changed when Duncan broke up with her and his sister (her best friend) was murdered. Veronica’s sheriff dad was ousted after accusing Duncan’s father of the murder, her mom left, and Veronica became an outsider at her Southern California high school.

Mittell writes, “a pilot is often atypical in its storytelling strategies in order to sufficiently educate viewers on the scenario and key backstory elements” (18). It turns out that the entire story of Veronica Mars is based upon its “key backstory elements.” So why begin the story after such major drama (a breakup, a murder, a separated marriage, and an overhaul of social standing)? Those elements, in and of themselves, seem like prime material for a teen drama, and yet Veronica Mars chooses to go over them in a total of nine minutes of flashback time.

I would argue that the beginning premise of Veronica Mars is rooted in the off-balance world. In fact, Veronica’s closing voiceover suggests that the discrepancies between her old world and her new one will propel the show: “I used to think I knew what tore our family apart. Now I’m sure I don’t. But I promise this: I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again.”

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in "Pilot."

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in “Pilot.”

Although we love watching the bitter, ass-kicking, new Veronica Mars, the girl herself is interested in restoring the balance to her life—reclaiming her family, her control, maybe even her boyfriend. This is not just the story of a girl detective out to solve a weekly mystery—it is the ongoing story of a girl shoved into a new life and trying to make sense of it in comparison to her former one.

Thus, the flashbacks of this episode educate the viewer on backstory, but they also inspire the viewer to go forward with Veronica as she undertakes this person journey.

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