Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Veronica Mars Week 2014: Evolution of a TV Heroine: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Veronica Mars"

As I think I’ve chronicled here before, I first got into Veronica Mars a few years ago, during winter break from grad school. I soon discovered that the show is basically television crack. There are many elements that make “Veronica Mars” such compelling television. There were the well-paced mysteries, well-drawn characters, snappy dialogue, and compelling character relationships (especially Veronica and her dad, Keith and sometimes boyfriend Logan). What really makes the show so extremely watchable, though, is the character of Veronica Mars herself and Kristen Bell’s portrayal of her. Many of the elements of Veronica as a character reminded me of another spunky blonde on a WB show, none other than Buffy Summers. In fact, I think it’s possible to see “Veronica Mars” as a natural evolution of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Veronica Mars (which I would hope you know if you’re bothering to read this post) is a private investigator in the Southern California town of Neptune. What’s unique about Veronica is that she’s a high school (or college, in the third season) student. Instead of doing homework when she gets home from school, Veronica goes on stake-outs. Her investigations often revolve around drama going down at school. Veronica, in fact, makes extra money by solving problems for her classmates. She also has her share of personal drama. For instance, we learn that in the year leading up to the first season of the show, Veronica was drugged and raped at a party, and her best friend was murdered. Buffy Summers is a teen (later young adult) who appears to be a typical blonde former cheerleader, but at night, she hunts vampires with the help of her friends. The first three seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” worked to embody the theme “high school is Hell,” with Buffy and pals dealing with school drama when not killing baddies.

While only one of them has supernatural powers, there are many ways in which Veronica and Buffy are similar. First, let’s hit the obvious. They share some distinct similarities in looks. Both are petite and blonde. Both defy the stereotype associated with their petite, blonde looks. In fact, defying the stereotype was Joss Whedon’s specific inspiration in creating Buffy. He wanted the typical horror movie screaming blonde to kick the monster’s ass. Buffy spends her evenings fighting vampires and other assorted supernatural baddies. Her hit list has included an ancient vampire, her vampire ex-boyfriend, a high school principal turned into a huge snake, and at least a couple demons. Buffy handles them all. Veronica spends her evenings solving cases for her friends and working at her dad’s PI practice. She spends a lot of time on stake-outs, and she also has her fair share of run-ins with criminals, including her boyfriend’s dad.

Both Buffy and Veronica come from broken homes. Buffy lives with her mom after her parents’ divorce, and Veronica lives with her dad in a cheap apartment. Due to abandonment by one parent, both Buffy and Veronica have especially close relationships with their custodial parents. Buffy and her mom go through some rocky patches (Buffy runs away for a while after having to send her vampire ex-boyfriend into a Hell dimension), but their bond is ultimately strong, and when Buffy’s mom is diagnosed with brain cancer, Buffy is right there with her. Veronica and her dad are also very close following Veronica’s mom abandoning them. They have especially great banter. Keith stands by Veronica through thick and thin, and vice versa. She’s right there for him when he loses the Sheriff election, and he’s there for her when her investigating gets her into especially dangerous trouble. Also, Buffy and Veronica both have questionable taste in men. Both find themselves in relationships with especially intense guys who tend to hurt them while usually meaning well. For Buffy, it’s vampire Spike, and for Veronica it’s rich bad boy Logan.

That being said, there are also some significant differences between Buffy and Veronica. Buffy is burdened with supernatural vampire-killing powers and prophesies about her death. In fact, throughout the course of the series, Buffy technically dies twice. All Buffy wants is to live a normal life, although deep inside, she knows that can’t really happen. Buffy doesn’t especially excel at academics. She barely gets by, and she drops out of the local state university after just a year and a half or so. Buffy, while sometimes an outcast at Sunnydale High School, eventually becomes begrudging friends with the queen of the popular girls, Cordelia Chase.

Veronica, however, is not burdened with any supernatural powers or ancient prophesies. She also doesn’t die. Veronica undertakes her often dangerous sleuthing by choice, primarily in response to the terrible things that have happened in her past. In the first season, for instance, the season-long mystery arc involves Veronica trying to solve the murder of her best friend. Before that incident, Veronica was fully integrated into the popular clique at school. Her best friend gave her that access even though Veronica wasn’t disgustingly rich like they all were. The rich “0-9ers” (denoting the 90909 ZIP code they lived in) didn’t like how Veronica changed following her friend’s death, though, and she became a complete and total outcast. She had a couple friends (notably Wallace and Mac), and people were decent to her when they wanted help on a case, but most everyone else treated her like crap. She most definitely never became friends with her chief nemesis, Madison Sinclair. Veronica, like Buffy, sometimes has the desire to live a more “normal” life.” Living a normal life is a complete choice for Veronica, though – no supernatural interference.

I think that the particular mix of similarities between Buffy and Veronica show the evolution from one character to the other, and the evolution of their respective shows as well. While Buffy didn’t always fit in at Sunnydale, “Veronica Mars” focused much more on class issues. The “0-9ers” don’t like Veronica because she lives in a low end apartment with her dad and isn’t rich like they are. I think that focus on class is even more relevant today than it was back in 2004 when the show premiered. The 99 and 1 percent are part of our national vocabulary now as we begin to wrestle with growing income inequality. Veronica being her own worst enemy, without any of her burden being imposed by outside, supernatural forces, is another evolution. It foretells the gritty realism we would come to expect in our storytelling. The “Dark Knight Rises” effect, if you will.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is very much in the same spirit as “Veronica Mars,” and you could see the former as a very clear progenitor of the latter. Both feature sassy, petite blondes who take on huge burdens and fight back when life doesn’t seem quite fair. Both live with just one of their parents and have a wonderful bond with that parent. The bond between Veronica and her father, Keith, is especially fun. “Veronica Mars” represents an evolution of some of the core concepts at play in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s all gritty realism, and Veronica is her own worst enemy. We also see some serious class warfare going on, as well. It’s a show that could fit in just as well today as it did in 2004. Quite convenient that it makes its comeback in movie form this Friday!

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