”Veronica Mars”: Catching up on the bus mystery
Veronica Mars is dying.
And I worry I am killing her.
Okay, maybe not me specifically — but maybe people like me. People who, despite their love for long, twisty mysteries and Veronica Mars in particular, are finding that the show is becoming too protracted, too twisty, and, yes, too Veronica Mars-ish for its own good. Which is not to say that VM is going downhill (and I don’t mean that in a vaguely offensive bus-crash kind of way). On the contrary, last week’s episode, ”I Am God,” may have been the creative high point of the season, steeped in so much plot, so much detail, so many great character moments and hilarious lines, that it really needed to be seen twice to be fully appreciated.
And that’s the problem. If a series requires multiple viewings in order to be properly appreciated, well, that just might be an invitation to cancellation in today’s TV environment, where not only are serialized dramas all the rage, but many of them are as high quality as Veronica Mars. My list begins, of course, with Lost, followed by 24, The Sopranos, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, Everwood, Invasion…There’s so much primo long-form storytelling in popular culture at the moment that to follow all those series (and why wouldn’t you want to follow them all?) is near impossible. Brains will crash like overloaded operating systems. Heads will explode like…exploding heads. So something’s gotta give.
Some of these shows are going to have to be designated by overwhelmed TV fans like me as Must See (in the Summer) TV, or tapped as our next watch-them-all-at-once DVD project. And I’m afraid that right at the top of that list will be shows whose episodes require multiple viewings to be fully appreciated — because, friends, I just don’t have that kind of time now.
Which means that Veronica Mars is going to die, because the cruel irony is that future seasons of the series will never make it to DVD if people like me give up watching it on a weekly basis: Its ratings are already minuscule as it is! My understanding is that only 2 million people watched ”I Am God.” Two million people! That’s like, one-eighth of Lost‘s audience. That’s not even half of what niche hits like Smallville and Gilmore Girls do on their bad days!
And to think that moving Veronica Mars back to Tuesday nights was UPN’s idea of helping the show. Helping? How does it help Veronica Mars when UPN’s Los Angeles affiliate preempts the show to air a baseball game? Yes, kids: ”I Am God” didn’t air in one of the biggest TV markets in the country until 1 a.m. And guess what — it’s going to happen again next week, too! Stupid baseball. Doesn’t that station know that no one cares about baseball until, like, October?
Maybe a non-serialized show could survive interruptions like that, but definitely not the delicate and increasingly fragile thing that is Veronica Mars. Because people are going to give up on it. People like me. People who absolutely love Veronica Mars for what it is and would never want to see it change anything about itself just to become more accessible. I’ve been down that road with Alias. I have seen what creative compromise for the sake of ratings does to a show. I never want to endure that fanboy hell again. But I worry that is very likely a possibility for Veronica Mars at this point.
That, or death.
And so that is my explanation for why I think Veronica Mars is dying. And, uh, my blame-shifting rationalization for why this story is being posted almost one week late.
Which doesn’t mean that anything I just ranted about isn’t 100 percent correct. But yes, it’s true, my aging, overworked, fatherhood-addled brain did require two viewings to fully appreciate the divine density of ”I Am God,” and I didn’t have time to get to that second viewing until the Saturday after the episode aired. Regardless, for those who’ve grown accustomed to and count on seeing this column posted the morning after an episode airs the first time, I offer a sincere apology. I’ll try my best not to let it happen again….
But I’m telling you, if Rob Thomas and his genius crew keep serving up stories like that, it’s going to be a tough promise to keep.
Let me start by stating my only quibble: The dream-episode thing is sooooo cliché. If you write for TV, and you happen to be reading these words, listen to me: Just because The Sopranos does it all the time doesn’t mean you should (or can), too. The fact that ”I Am God” did it extremely well doesn’t change anything.
First, some context: Veronica was having trouble sleeping, due to her intensifying obsession with cracking the season’s über-mystery: Who crashed the school bus? Stoking the fire: her nagging sense of guilt over her suspicion that she was the intended target. (Teenagers! Always thinking everything is all about them!) Additionally, the victims have been top of mind lately because of an aggressive campaign to include a tribute to them in the school yearbook. Said campaign was being championed by Michelle, friend to victim Rhonda, who called Michelle from the bus minutes before the bus crashed and left a cheery message on her voice-mail. (Michelle’s suggestion of inserting an audio chip in each yearbook with the laughing, happy voices on that recording was pricelessly tasteless.) Hence, Veronica was having troubled dreams (and hallucinations) of being on the bus with the victims. ”I’m being haunted,” Veronica dramatically told Miss James, the school counselor (Paula Marshall), which set up a very funny Jennifer Love Hewitt-Ghost Whisperer line. (”These are the jokes” = my new favorite catchphrase.)
In these visions, each of the victims seemed to have important information about the case to pass on to Veronica. Now, all of this information was actually already in Veronica’s head, gathered during the course of her investigation. But with the deeper meanings and hidden connections eluding her waking mind — particularly the significance of some creepy graffiti (the grim reaper; nine tombstones; the phrase ”I Am God”) — her subconscious was giving them an analytical whack. And having a little more success.
So what did we learn?
1. Bus-crash victim Betina had a hush-hush sexual fling with Dick Casablancas the previous summer. Dick was just using the girl, treating her ”like a free hooker,” as Betina’s pal Maureen told Veronica. But it appears Betina was trying to exploit Dick, too: Her plan was to get pregnant with Dick’s baby, then get some cash off the rich-kid himbo. Hypothesis: Betina may have been pregnant with Dick’s (or somebody’s) baby — and this could have been motive enough for Dick/Mystery Father to want to kill her via a staged bus crash.
2. Bus-crash victim Rhonda — designated ”PWT ”at Neptune High (”poor white trash”) — and her family (including sister Natalie) had sued now-mayor Woody Goodman and gotten $2 million out of him in a hush-hush settlement. The reason: Rhonda (or her sister — didn’t quite catch that) had ”found a finger in her rib-wich,” according to Papa Mars. Hypothesis: No, I’m not buying the ”finger in the rib-wich” cover story, either. I have previously speculated that Mayor Goodman may have been molesting the kids on the Little League teams he’s coached over the years — but I’ve been assuming his victims were all boys. Maybe Rhonda and Natalie have a brother? Maybe the girls played Little League, too, and Mayor Scumbag is an equal-opportunity pervert? Or maybe Rhonda and Natalie found out what Woody was doing to his baseball boys and blackmailed him? (And yes, I continue to creep myself out for even suggesting this whole line of thinking.)
3. The zealously religious parents of Duncan’s former flame Meg — who initially survived but ultimately died — had been trying to set their daughter up with a guy named Lucky. Hypothesis: I got nothing. Maybe the father of Meg’s baby isn’t currently-on-the-run (with Meg’s baby) Duncan, but Lucky?
4. We didn’t learn anything new from bus-crash victim Peter, the gay guy who claimed he had ”yellow fever” and had promised ”the outing of all outings” before his death. But in Veronica’s dream, he posed an interesting way to frame his role in the mystery by encouraging Veronica to figure out why he was so interested in going on the field trip to Woody Goodman’s Shark Stadium. Hypothesis: Veronica backed off her speculation that ”yellow fever” and ”the outing of all outings” referred to Mr. Wu, the science teacher. Maybe she’s right, or maybe she’s wrong — or maybe ”yellow fever” means that Peter had a crush on that blond ”bastard child of Satan” and ”demon spawn” Dick Casablancas? (Many thanks to witchy Angie for the devilish characterizations.) (By the way: Were ”bastard child of Satan” and ”demon spawn” coy clues by VM‘s writers alluding to my aforementioned Dick-is-a-dad hypothesis?)
5. Bus-crash victim Cervando — a brainy PCH gangbanger with a grudge against Dick for squirting his (stolen) designer jeans with bleach (which Cervando then took out on Dick’s wimpy younger brother Beaver) — supplied Veronica with some interesting food for thought: If the killer wanted to make it look as if the bus accidentally drove off the cliff, then the killer must have been able to see the bus approach the cliff before detonating the C-4 on the bus. Implications: The killer was among the rich kids who were riding in Dick’s limo, which was following the bus, or the killer was on the bus itself, or the killer was hiding along the side of the road. Hypothesis: The bus crash was an explosive event that blew the lid off of a bunch of sinister secrets swirling around Neptune, but none really have anything to do with the bus crash itself. Yep: I’m thinking there’s no single super conspiracy theory that links everything together. Perhaps a suicidal student was looking to make a dramatic exit. Or how about this: Maybe this C-4 suicide was meant to happen at Shark Stadium! But then the despairing bomber got cold feet, and then blew himself/herself up (maybe accidentally) during the drive back to school.
6. Finally, there’s bus-crash victim Marcos, the pirate radio DJ, who was responsible for the ”I Am God” graffiti on the bus. Turns out he was merely using the back of a bus seat as canvas to sketch some album art from the CD of his favorite band. Their hit song: ”I Am God.” No big mystery. No nefarious statement by the bus-crash killer. No threatening bit of innuendo intended for guilt-wracked Veronica. Hypothesis: I’m not quite buying it. I think the graffiti is significant. I remain intrigued by the potential relation between the number of tombstones (nine) and the official number of victims (eight). But of course, there should have been nine victims — and no, Veronica, I don’t mean you. I mean the baby. Either the unborn baby in Meg’s tummy that the killer knew about, or the unborn baby in Betina’s tummy that the killer knew about. Maybe a killer named Dick Casablancas.
And there’s even more that went down in ”I Am God”! We learned that Dick and Beaver’s dad took out an insurance policy on his kids before he skipped town — meaning he (or maybe trophy wife Charisma Carpenter?) would have collected big time if the boys had stayed on the bus. We learned that Veronica got into Stanford. (Yay, Veronica!) We learned that academic archrival Angie got into Stanford, too. (Boo, Angie!) But we also learned that Angie was among a host of students who had been obtaining manufactured diagnoses of ”generalized anxiety disorder” to get out of tough finals — a scam busted by Keith in a hilarious subplot. (Poor guy, enduring all those dates, and all those shots to his self-esteem. ”You know who you look like? That guy from Seinfeld…George!…So much unrealized potential?”)
And, yes, yes, I know, I know: Logan’s quest to best Angie in Mr. Wu’s egg-drop competition in order to help Veronica get the Kane Scholarship was sweet. What a gallant knight.
So much happened on ”I Am God.” And certainly, for the sake of this story line, this kind of episode was necessary: It was nice, at long last, to get to know the victims better and to put some more poignant humanity on this tragedy — and, by extension, to get to understand better the reason someone could have wanted one of them, or a few of them, or all of them, dead. Still: Did VM try to do too much in this episode? Was it too dense for its own good? And do you agree with me that this kind of mega-dense storytelling might lead to VM‘s undoing? Would love to hear your thoughts on all these matters, plus your take on Dick’s potentially super-badness. Talk back to me, my fellow VM fans — while we still can!