Veronica Mars: Mystery-Solving Wizard
By Pam Nail
“It’s the Harry Potter of shows,” 1 says Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly) of Rob Thomas’ episodic series Veronica Mars, and I’m inclined to agree. This is not simply a passing remark; there are some legitimate comparisons to be made between Veronica and Harry, and I believe that people who enjoy Harry Potter will find a lot to love about Veronica Mars.
The show centers around the title character, Veronica, a young woman living in the fictional town of Neptune, which is presumably on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Neptune is the kind of town where everyone has something to hide. The town is full of mysteries – unsolved murders, bomb threats, missing persons, kidnapped dogs, stolen poker jackpots, blackmail, and many other scenarios – and Veronica uses her impressive, almost supernatural, investigative talents to get to the bottom of them all.
One of the main ongoing struggles in the show’s overarching plot is that of class, and this is one of the show’s real strengths, in my opinion. Early on in the show’s first season we learn that there are two basic socioeconomic groups – the millionaires (or in some cases billionaires) and the people who work for them. The “haves” and the “have-nots.” At Neptune High School, which Veronica attends for the first two seasons, the “haves” are known as ’09ers (denoting the upscale 90909 zip code in which they live). The ’09ers have advantages and resources that other people don’t, and as such, rules and laws apply differently to them. This leads to a lot of backlash on the part of the “have-nots,” many of whom feel that the decks are stacked rather heavily and unfairly against them. This is reminiscent of the tension in Harry Potter between the different sides of the blood purity issue. Pure-blood families clearly have advantages in terms of influence with wizarding government, and in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the pure-blood students of Slytherin are even given positions of control over the rest of the student body. In both Harry Potter and Veronica Mars, these respective struggles are behind many if not most of the major plots.
These struggles also contribute greatly to each hero’s setup in their respective stories. The class struggle in Neptune is responsible for Veronica’s position as an underdog, the destruction of her family, and her motivation to solve many of the show’s mysteries. Veronica, though not technically an ’09er, was once looked on favorably by the people in that world – her father was the sheriff and she was dating the heir to the largest fortune in Neptune. However, the circumstances that set the series in motion lead to her father being removed from office, Veronica being ostracized from the ’09ers for taking her father’s side against the wealthiest family in town, and her mother abandoning their family. This is important back story for her character and informs her hatred for the ’09ers and their unfair advantages over “have-nots” like herself. Many of the “have-nots” seek her help in the weekly mysteries.
Likewise in Harry Potter, the class struggle also provides a significant context to Harry’s character. The blood purity struggle in Harry Potter leads directly to the destruction of Harry’s family. Harry’s parents defied Voldemort and the pure-blood mania of him and his followers, and they paid for it with their lives. The knowledge of this provides him with motivation to complete his fated task. It also sets him up as something of an underdog in his day-to-day life at school, because his notoriety is rarely something pleasant. Also, his rejection of the attitudes of “bloodists” like Draco Malfoy lead to lots of grief he might otherwise have avoided, had he been more interested in making easy choices rather than right ones.
The structure and feel of Veronica Mars is another reason Harry Potter fans might very well enjoy it. Almost every episode has its own “whodunit” to be solved, much like each Harry Potter book contains its own mystery or struggle that is resolved – or at least elucidated – by book’s end. Who’s been kidnapping ’09er dogs? Who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire? Who is behind the bomb threats? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? But there are also overarching mysteries that take several episodes – if not a whole season – to solve, much like the Harry Potter series as a whole has several mysteries and struggles that have taken many books – and in some cases the entire series – to resolve. Who killed Lily Kane? How will Harry defeat Voldemort? Who is responsible for the bus crash? Whose side is Snape really on? Both Harry Potter and Veronica Mars give audiences something to satisfy their desire for resolution with each new installment, as well as give them a reason to come back for the next.
The multi-episode mysteries are also one of the show’s drawbacks, in a sense. It’s difficult to get into the show if a viewer is coming to it late in the game without being caught up on the story. This is true for Harry Potter as well (i.e., it’s much harder to figure out what is going on if one doesn’t start at the beginning). Although, catching up on a book series is somewhat easier than catching up on a television series, because one can read the latest Harry Potter novel whenever one wants, while watching the latest episode of a new show requires a bit more technology if one doesn’t catch it at the specific time it airs. However, as is the case when one comes late to Harry Potter, there is something immensely satisfying about devouring several episodes of earlier seasons at once, without having to wait a week (or a couple of years, in the case of Harry Potter books) for the next one. In addition, as is also the case with Harry Potter, fansites (particularly those that contain detailed episode guides) can be a big help in keeping the complex character relationships and plotlines straight.
Another of the show’s strengths, and one which will please Potter fans, is a rich tapestry of central characters and a complex web of relationships. Veronica is in a similar position as Harry as the central character of the story, but as a character in her own right, she is more like a cross between the brainy and resourceful Hermione and the spunky, attitude-wielding Ginny Weasley. Veronica’s dad, Keith, is rather like Dumbledore, in terms of his role in the story; he is a mentor figure for Veronica, and when she is in over her head, she relies on his strength, skill, and wisdom. Veronica’s best friend, Wallace, is an excellent parallel for Ron; he is a fellow underdog (the first time Veronica meets him, he has been duct taped to a flagpole in the school courtyard). Wallace is utterly devoted to Veronica and helps her in whatever ways he can, even if it costs him something along the way. Another of Veronica’s friends, Mac, makes up for what little resourcefulness Veronica lacks (in gadget know-how, that is) in the Hermione role. And those who enjoy the romantic tension between Harry’s sidekicks, Ron and Hermione, will likely be fond of watching the sparks fly between Veronica and love interest Logan, whom she introduces as Neptune High School’s “obligatory psychotic jackass.” 2
Humor in the face of darkness is another similarity between Veronica Mars and Harry Potter. Each episode of Veronica Mars is characterized by lots of smart and funny dialogue. Veronica and Harry both have a smart-alecky sense of humor that they each use as a defense mechanism against the dark elements of their daily lives. With both characters, this humor most often comes out in disdain for (and occasional condescension to) adversarial peers and even authority figures that Veronica and Harry deem unworthy of their respect. Veronica responds to such characters much like Harry does – with humor and biting sarcasm.
But, as many similarities as there are between Veronica Mars and Harry Potter, the concepts of each story are quite different. Veronica Mars is more specifically a mystery series, with less easily defined heroes and villains, while Harry Potter is closer to an epic hero story pitting good against evil, and in which the heroes are (for the most part) more obviously good and the villains more obviously bad. Also, the stakes are not nearly as high in the mysteries of Veronica Mars as they are in Harry Potter. All of the episodic plots in Harry Potter – from the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone to the Death Eaters’ attack on Hogwarts – have been literally a matter of life and death. In addition, the central conflict of the series is as high-stakes as stories come, with the possibility of Voldemort’s reign of terror growing more and more imminent. In contrast, Veronica Mars deals in more personal drama and smaller mysteries. The bigger mysteries are certainly very serious life and death matters, but the episodic mysteries tend to be less catastrophic and more about justice. The absence of magic is obviously a major difference between the stories as well.
There are also definite differences in style and tone between Veronica Mars and Harry Potter. Veronica Mars is geared toward an older demographic, and unlike J.K. Rowling, creator Rob Thomas is perfectly willing – and his show has the right tone to explore – grittier teen issues such as sex, pregnancy, and drug use. These are themes that might be inappropriate for younger Harry Potter readers. The tone of the show is also more cynical and dark than most of the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling’s story is obviously quite dark in its own right, but Veronica Mars has at its core a profound sense of distrust between most of the characters. Veronica especially seems to operate under the assumption that people will always let you down. Another big difference in style is that, while Harry Potter, though set in a specific time, is rather timeless due to J.K. Rowling’s purposeful omission of almost any reference to popular culture, Veronica Mars is rife with pop culture references – from movie quotes drawn from The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club, Brokeback Mountain and many others to the modern music that gives each episode a distinctive pulse.
Veronica Mars is different enough from Harry Potter to give Harry Potter fans something that doesn’t seem redundant. But it pushes many of the same buttons that Harry Potter does in order to engage fans in its story and characters. For those who love vulnerable, sarcastic heroes, mysteries, dark and seemingly unconquerable adversaries, and a heavy dose of humor, Veronica Mars may well provide a brand new obsession.
1. “Joss Whedon Meets ‘Veronica Mars’.” 16 September 2005. Zap2it. http://tv.zap2it.com/tveditorial/tve_main/1,1002,271%7C97564%7C1%7C,00.html.
2. Veronica Mars. Episode no. 1.01, first broadcast 22 September 2004 by UPN. Directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Rob Thomas.