Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell’s wise-cracking, outsider teen detective series is sunshine noir at its best

Stand aside Nancy Drew, this early-noughties cult hit is a virtuoso blend of high-school drama and murder mystery

• Veronica Mars is streaming in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

“I’m never getting married,” narrates the cynical Raymond Chandler-esque voiceover in the opening scene of Veronica Mars. “You want an absolute? A sure thing? Well, there it is. Veronica Mars, spinster … old maid. Carve it in stone.” The camera pans from shadowy illicit lovers in the neon-lit Camelot Motel to a tiny blond girl in a car, detective essentials at the ready. Thermos, camera, and … calculus homework.

Yes, it’s noir, but not as we know it. Before she was the voice of Gossip Girl, Kristen Bell was disrupting expectations as teen detective Veronica. Created by Rob Thomas, and first airing in 2004 and running for three seasons plus a bonus film, Veronica Mars is a rare beast, a virtuoso blend of teen drama and murder mystery.

“A girl, a teenager, and a private detective – I’m a triple threat. Barely fits on my business card,” wise-cracking Veronica tells a sceptical client. And she is quite a step up from Nancy Drew: ostracised at school after the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane, (Amanda Seyfried), Veronica moonlights as an assistant for her private investigator father, disgraced sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni).

Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars.
Veronica’s unthreatening facade is not a hindrance to her investigations, but a help. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Veronica also has a dark backstory, which she reveals in a typically hardboiled way: “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I.” Violence, rape and murder are all features of Veronica’s life, but the series was ahead of its time in its treatment of sexual assault in particular. Unlike rape victims in other shows of the era like Law and Order, Veronica not only survives and thrives, but takes control of her own story.

Veronica’s quest for justice for Lilly and herself leads her through a twisted labyrinth of dead ends and sinister villains. The stakes are raised as Lilly appears in flashbacks and dreams, urging Veronica to avenge her death. A tense, enigmatic atmosphere interweaves with teen crises over schoolwork and love life. But Veronica’s personal life always comes second to her pursuit of the truth.

While its film style and plot position the series as a noir mystery, Veronica’s world is no dreary, rainswept urban street. The show combines noir elements with a beachside setting. The sunshiny town of Neptune morphs into a menacing, neon-lit location at night. Its well-tended lawns and gated mansions hide highly dysfunctional families. As in Miami Vice, the sparkling location only highlights the rot beneath.

Much of the conflict in the series stems from class tensions between the “09ers” – those who live in the most upmarket suburbs – and those whose families work for them. Even at school, the 09ers hold privileged positions in sport and leadership. Their parents’ influence gets them out of any trouble.

Veronica fits neither class category. As Lilly’s friend, she was part of the 09ers; since her death, she’s been shunned. Fitting in nowhere, she is uniquely placed to understand and investigate Neptune’s dark side, and with a corrupt police force led by the indifferent Sheriff Lamb (Michael Muhney) consistently botching investigations, it’s often down to Veronica to uncover the truth.

Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni as sleuthing father-daughter team.
Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni as sleuthing father-daughter team. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

It is her flaws that make this series so compelling. She is a cynical, often morally ambiguous vigilante who doesn’t always do the right thing. Her unthreatening facade is not a hindrance to her investigations, but a help. To go undercover, she just needs to act like a “girl”. Bouncy cheerleader, drunk sorority girl, dumb blonde: being underestimated is her secret weapon.

Despite her outsider status, Veronica’s sleuthing skills are in high demand with her schoolmates and community. Ditched by the cool crowd, she makes new friends who help with her investigations: Wallace (Percy Daggs III), a basketball star, and Mac (Tina Majorino), a computer geek. She also forms an uneasy alliance with Weevil (Francis Capra), leader of a biker gang. Her tempestuous relationship with Lilly’s ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) takes surprising turns. Juggling mysteries, friends, and lovers, Veronica blazes through each tightly plotted episode.

Veronica Mars shows that teenage girls can be fierce, outspoken, and even downright vengeful. Sometimes feared, occasionally admired by her contemporaries, Veronica never backs down from a fight. “Here’s what you do,” she says. “You get tough. You get even.”

Lisa Walker

The GuardianTramp

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