I’ve been rewatching Veronica Mars lately, sifting through the layers of the show to pick out more things that interest me. The underlying mystery is no mystery for me anymore, of course, so now I can focus on the details of the stories and the characters. That I keep coming back to the show tells me there’s something more I want out of it and that I must be getting it, and then I start getting bitter about the tumbledown third season all over again and have to go take a walk before I write an angry letter to Rob Thomas.
There is a tendency in US television to avoid class issues, at least in recent years. Most shows focus on middle and upper class people and the things they do; their jobs and their lives. Poor people rarely show up except as objects for the other characters to interact with. And these shows very rarely present viewers with challenging material, when it comes to class. You are not supposed to ask why some people are poor and other people are not, why the lines shake down the way they do.
Veronica Mars was willing to push back against that and not only bring in some class analysis, but some nuance. And I think that might be one of the reasons I keep coming back to it, because Veronica and I have some things in common. I feel a commonality with her, as a character. Except for the whole teenage detective thing.
Veronica and her father live in a very wealthy community. She is surrounded by the trappings of wealth, from the fancy cars driven by other students to their high fashion clothes. She is constantly, endlessly reminded of the power of money and class. Other students treat her like dirt because she’s poor and her father used to be a public servant. Her father is the other half, and the other half belongs somewhere else. Her presence is offensive because it’s a reminder that things exist outside the bubble of wealth and privilege.
Of course, her father is also surrounded by a scandal, but it’s more than that. The rich people on the show resent the presence of poor people like Veronica and her father, like Weevil and his mother, all the people who are part of the service community in the area. They don’t like having to go to school with the son of the woman who cleans their houses and they make their disdain clear.
Veronica Mars could have stopped there, with highlighting the class differences between people in different strata and getting viewers to think a little bit about what happens when the servants rub shoulders with the masters. But the show didn’t. It also probed into the racial divides that inevitably present with class divisions, and in the second season, it exploded those race and class tensions to confront viewers more directly with the consequences of stratification.
And for once, it casts the wealthy characters in a poor light. Veronica talks, for example, about the sabotage of the community swimming pool, pointing out that of course the rich kids had their own swimming pools so didn’t care, but the poor ones had nowhere to swim over the course of the summer, nowhere to go to cool off and have fun with friends. She points out that the acts of vandalism and sabotage committed almost for fun, a way for the wealthy students to blow off steam, have real impacts for the poor members of the community.
Veronica straddles a divide, and we are reminded of this as viewers as well. She once moved in social circles with the wealthy because she clawed her way there and her family enjoyed a certain status in the community, and then her family fell, but the poor kids didn’t want her because they had no interest in the cast offs of the rich. As the show develops and Veronica grows, she is forced to flit back and forth, working with the poor people at the same time she relates to the rich, and it definitely causes tension for her. Weevil, for one, never lets her forget who she is.
Veronica Mars forced viewers to look at some pretty ugly things and think about them, and expected viewers to respond, at least on some level. The show was far from perfect in a lot of ways, but one of the things I think it did really well was to at least attempt to explore class and to depict class divides. There are communities like Veronica’s in many regions of the United States and they are only growing in number as society continues to stratify along ever-widening fault lines.
These are things viewers should be thinking about, when they see a scene with Duncan’s mother treating Veronica like so much cast-off junk. This is a scene that happens in real life, every day, a play of power between a group of people where one operates with the specific goal of putting another in her place in a public setting. Humiliating her. And reminding the other of his place in the world at the same time, that he shouldn’t be playing in the garbage.
When television does depict class tensions, it usually shows them from the perspective of the rich. Veronica Mars went in the other direction, and did so very effectively. The show has a lot more in common with period dramas like Downton Abbey than many viewers might think, at first glance; the same clear divide between masters and servants, haves and have nots, continues to exist today, even if it’s not as overt. Poor people may not wear uniforms and lurk below stairs to serve the rich, but they still serve.