This post is going to mostly be about Veronica Mars, Season 2. As per usual, I drop spoilers without compunction if I think it’s useful to illustrate my argument.
When I see a genre mash-up, I automatically form certain expectations. Firstly, it must be at least a competent version of any component genre. If it can’t nail at least one of its components, it’s going to struggle to work artistically because genres are as much an interpretive tool as a constraint, so missing or misused genre syntax must be replaced by careful story construction. It’s harder to bridge the gaps when you’re simultaneously trying to do some other kind of story.
Secondly, it must tell me something new about at least one genre, preferably both. This is where SF-horror mash-ups generally manages to work very well, and perhaps why most decent SF seems to be horror-tinged. Science is scary.
Couple of quick examples to show you what I mean. Firefly isn’t much of a Western, or much of a Science Fiction – it loots aesthetic elements from them, but that’s about it. However, if you think about it instead as a heist-based series, it makes a lot of sense, and the SF and Western elements deepen the interpretive possibilities of the heist, promoting it from a stylish exercise in logistics. It does the heist film really well, and I wonder whether some of the latent disatisfaction with Serenity stems from its abandonment of the show’s central story formula. Blade Runner is another classic mash-up, that bootlegs energy from film noir/hard-boiled detectives to give its basically SF-premise a boost. SF, can’t beat it for the mash-up.
Veronica Mars is drawing on two literary traditions – the teen drama, and the PI show. How does it do?
The standard for the private investigation show is probably not really that high. If we think about the standard formula, we have three questions: means, motive, opportunity. Most TV detectives are more-or-less handed one of these things at the outset, then must work out the other two. The required solutions have generally, if you like, one degree of freedom. You have perhaps two leads on the other two prongs, one of which is false, one true. So you eliminate each of the two false clues – voila. Or getting the “real” clue might mean a bread-crumb trail of one or two movements. Most of the rest of what goes on in an episode is a distraction.
Each week, Veronica has a case to solve on approximately that order of magnitude, or even less. Some of these investigations then prove to be linked to a single mystery that runs throughout the season. Those clues add up to a far more complex puzzle – you solve one puzzle to get a clue in another puzzle. And there are stray clues sublimated into the general narrative course.
This means that the episodic structure of Veronica Mars is the same as a Monster of the Week – it’s a Puzzle of the Week. Monster of the Week shows use their dual structures to explore issues relevant to the protagonists, to render subtext into text. We could expect this similarly structured show to play out the same way. Instead of discovering your new stepfather is literally a monster, you … investigate something like that? The problem is that the investigation exists in the same kind of conceptual space as whatever it parallels, so the story building-blocks that are available are the same in both text and “subtext”. It just doesn’t work like that.
In Season 2, the stakes have been raised. In Season 1 there was a murder, which drove the entire narrative. In Season 2, there are murders – starting with the bus-crash in episode 1 that provides us with the biggest conundrum: who was the intended victim? It complicates our basic question of means, motive, opportunity. Motive must now be established for each of several actual victims. It’s exponentially harder. But, not exponentially more interesting.
In this case, I found the central mystery, of the bus crash, to be increasingly un-engaging, and the eventual solution nominally wrapped things up, but by that stage I had lingering questions. The supply and installation of the bomb is explained – but feels tenuous. The motive is explained – but it feels under-motivated. If Cassidy is prepared to kill a whole bus of his classmates to silence 2 of them, why not just kill the mayor directly? Which he eventually does anyway. A great detective ending is like any other story twist – it makes you look back at events in the narrative and think “ah! I get it now”, perhaps things you didn’t even consciously realise were problems. This reveal, I’m afraid, had the opposite effect. It explained his unwillingness to get physical with Mac – but made a of other people’s actions unclear, and left me with lingering doubts.
The basis of the teen drama is the angst – that all the little trials and tribulations feel like Life and Death ™. This is a problem for Veronica Mars, because the detective half of the synthesis has put those things on the table for real. In Buffy’s translation of teen angst, what felt like the end of the world was literalized as the end of the world, requiring the plural of “apocalypse” – but that still meant the teen drama worked as drama, because they’re operating on different textual levels. Detective fiction does something even more destructive: it dials everything down.
Detective fiction works as entertainment by creating an ironic distance from any action. The detective develops at best, a prophylactic toughness, at worst, they become hard-boiled. Once death is on the line, that’s what’s driving the emotion- real crises, about things with real consequences. And hence, much of the source of the drama for a teen angst drama is useless. More than useless, because it pushes against the distance inherent in the detective genre. So the juxtaposition here is causing one genre to erode the other.
What you’re left with then, is a slightly awkward show. As compared to a purely weekly procedural, it’s more than holding its own because it is aspiring to greater complexity. But the mismatch in emotional scales prevents it from really working for me as a pure drama.