What Can We Steal From the Veronica Mars Pilot?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Pilot,” the appropriately named pilot for the television program Veronica Mars
Author: Written by Rob Thomas (on Twitter: @RobThomas).  Directed by Mark Piznarski.
Date of Work: Originally aired on September 22, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episode can be seen on SoapNet, a cable channel I don’t get.  (I don’t have any cable at all.)  You can also find the episode on the Veronica Mars Season One DVD.  As of this writing, you can legally stream the episode right here on TheWB.com.

Bonuses:  I still haven’t fulfilled my goal of writing for Smart Pop; that appreciation was stoked by their book Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars.  The book is great and you should check it out.  Mars Investigations is a very cool fan site for the show.  There are about eleven trillion Veronica Mars fan fiction stories.  (I assure you that none of them is about a guy named Ken Nichols who romances Veronica away from Duncan, Logan and Piz all at the same time through the use of his sweet kung-fu moves and his extensive knowledge of Detroit Tigers history.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Just About Everything

Discussion:
Veronica Mars is coming back and there are few people who are more excited than I am.  Although my memory is increasingly Swiss-cheesing in so many areas, I distinctly remember how I fell in love with the show.  I bought the Season One DVD on sale at Target because the price was nice and I like detective stories.  I popped the first disc into my DVD player and sat down on the chair/bed that furnished my apartment in Eastwood.  I knew nothing about the show, but was quickly drawn in by the GREAT BIG ISSUES that are raised in the first few seconds of the show.  Neptune, California has big class issues and the protagonist is from the wrong side of the tracks.  Wallace Fennell has been duct-taped to a flagpole because he ratted out gang members who stole beer while he was jockeying the register; the rich kids are taking their pictures with him.  Veronica cuts him loose, no matter the risk to her reputation.  Veronica is killer in English class…even though she sleeps and daydreams through it.  Veronica and I have something crucial in common: we were both abandoned by our mothers and had a good-hearted father who tried his best.

The first season knocked me out and I was a confirmed fan of the show when it returned to UPN that fall.  Why?  Mr. Thomas created a very deep protagonist and surrounded her with a very complicated world that is populated with equally compelling characters.  Best of all, Mr. Thomas (a novelist and former teacher) really hit the ground running with his pilot.

Veronica Mars is a strong and confident woman who is also funny and vulnerable.  We learn in the pilot that she’s had a pretty bad year:

  • Her best friend, Lilly Kane, was killed and the murder has never been solved.
  • Veronica’s father was the Sheriff until he accuses Lilly’s crazy-rich father of the murder.  He was ousted in a recall election and is now scratching out a living catching bailjumpers for small bounties.
  • Veronica sided with her father in the matter and has lost her friends and social status.  (A big deal for a teenager, no?)
  • Veronica’s mother abandoned the family.
  • Veronica attended a party to try and show her tough façade to her friends and ended up being drugged and raped.  The morning after, she even found “SLUT” scrawled on her windshield.

Mr. Thomas did not take the easy route.  After all Veronica has been through, you might expect her to be written as a one-dimensional damsel-in-distress.  Not even close.  Mr. Thomas made her fully three-dimensional.  Veronica certainly bears the psychological scars resulting from trauma, but Mr. Thomas imbued her with a full range of emotions.  She is allowed to be jealous and vengeful and petty at times.  I LOVE Encyclopedia Brown, but it’s hard to argue that he is a fully drawn character.  (Nor should he be, really; not in the context of Mr. Sobol’s intent.)  We love Veronica Mars because she’s as human as a fictional character can be.  In the Pilot, we see Veronica finding out that Lilly has been killed, outsmarting the new Sheriff and basking in her revenge, helping the new kid out and befriending him, sleeping in class, crying to realize she has been raped and lamenting the loss of her virginity, revealing indifference about her absent mother…the list goes on.  Veronica has conflict with everyone she knows; she gets snarky with her new friend Wallace and snaps at her father.  Just as in real life, however, these moments of conflict are leavened by moments of real emotion.  (During one of their first lunchtime discussions, Veronica tries to push Wallace away even though they both know they need each other’s’ friendship.  Beautiful.)  We love Veronica Mars because she is not a perfect person; this is part of why she’s a perfect character.

Mr. Thomas created a town that is awash in conflict.  You have the Hispanic biker gang and the trust fund kids who think they’re tough.  The rich adults who use their wealth to manipulate the law against those who are supposed to protect and serve.  Even better, Mr. Thomas places the characters in helpful positions.  Wallace becomes a helper in Neptune High’s main office…which means that he can get her student files.  Veronica locks horns with the biker gang…but the relationship allows her to mess with Sheriff Lamb.  Veronica is a crackerjack photographer because she works for her father…which puts her in wonderful position to solve her own cases.

The most important lesson we can learn from the Veronica Mars pilot is how to cram a TON of exposition into a short period of time.  Mr. Thomas uses all of the techniques available to a writer, including flashbacks and voice over and allowing his characters to be themselves.  Why don’t the flashbacks in the pilot stop the narrative?  Because they are tied into the conflict that Veronica is dealing with in the dramatic present.

And let’s not forget the most beautiful part of the Veronica Mars story.  Mr. Thomas and Kristen Bell and everyone else involved in the production love the characters and the stories they told.  Their love was unabated in the years since the show was cancelled by The CW and this dedication is currently paying off; the movie will be released early in 2014.  Bottom line: if you love what you’re doing enough, you’ll eventually find success and the audience will be there to see what you produce.

What Should We Steal?

  • Load up your protagonist’s To-Do List.  Veronica has a lot of goals.  Some of them are long-term projects and some are short-term projects.  Mr. Thomas maintains such great tension over the course of the series by juggling all of these.  Veronica is working through something important, no matter what episode you’re watching.
  • Empower your characters to express negative character traits. Aside from Jean Valjean, no one is perfect.  (And even he messed up.)  If you want your audience to sympathize with your character, pass up the cheap pathos and go for a complicated representation of a human being.  A person who has been raped, to use this example, isn’t thinking about the experience every moment of every day.  (As a decent guy, I can’t help but interject that I hope those who have been raped get the counseling they need.)  These kinds of characters—and people—are sometimes angry and jealous and happy and impatient and abrasive and vulnerable, just like everyone else.
  • Set your story in a complicated place and plant your characters in crucial positions.  Your characters must be surrounded by live wires and must be able to take advantage of their chances to advance their stories. 
  • Tie your flashbacks and other narrative “tricks” into the dramatic present.  Releasing a lot of exposition can be tricky, but make sure that everything you reveal about the past ties into the characters’ current struggles.

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