Veronica Mars: One of TV's Realest Depictions of Wealth Inequality

The canceled teen-detective drama, which returns as a Kickstarter-funded movie Friday, asked tough questions about money and power that are still relevant today.
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The CW

Imagine a city that’s home to gaggles of tech millionaires, massive Internet-company IPOs, a housing crisis, and palpable tension between the wealthy inhabitants jacking up prices and everybody else just trying to keep their place.

Judging by recent headlines, that sounds a bit like San Francisco and Silicon Valley. But it’s actually Neptune, the fictional SoCal beach town that served as the setting for teen-detective noir Veronica Mars. The beloved series ran for three seasons before low ratings led to its 2007 cancellation, but this Friday, almost one year after a historic, multimillion-dollar Kickstarter campaign gave it new life, Veronica Mars returns to the big screen. (Or small screen, if you prefer—the film will be available in on-demand formats for cautious newcomers or fans who prefer their Friday nights at home.)

If the Veronica Mars movie is successful, it won’t just be good news for creators of canceled cult-favorites looking to make their passion projects a reality. It’ll also be a major endorsement for how Veronica Mars did teen drama: It featured a funny female lead with wise-beyond-her-years intelligence; a clever Heathers-esque takedown of high school social dynamics; a commitment to diversity that, while sometimes imperfect, included characters of all ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, religions, and intellectual and physical abilities; and the most realistic depiction of rape and sexual assault on television. But as I’ve been rewatching the series in anticipation of its return (which, in disclosure, I donated to), it’s also become clear that, compared to similar shows of its time—and, arguably, the rest of what’s on television—Veronica Mars had one of the most honest and sensitive portrayals of socioeconomic class differences.

Class was a part of the show’s DNA from the outset. After Veronica’s best friend Lilly is murdered, Veronica’s dad, the sheriff of Neptune, accuses Lilly’s father of the crime. But he’s the head of Kane Software, a company that invented streaming video and made half the town into instant millionaires, so Neptune turns on the Mars clan. Veronica’s father is run out of office in a special election and becomes a private investigator, while Veronica, shunned by the popular kids she once called friends, copes by working for her dad (and secretly investigating who really killed Lilly).

In the pilot, Veronica introduces her high school as a battle between the haves and the have-nots, claiming Neptune is a town without a middle class. “If you go here, your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires,” she says. But during its run, Neptunes proved to be far less divided, which not only made Neptune seem less like a distant fantasy town, but also allowed for more interesting subplots and nuanced character development.

Veronica and her best friend Wallace, for example, are clearly (and later call themselves) middle-class: Veronica assists with her dad’s caseload as an after-school job, but not because she’s ordered to support the family—the job gives her access to Lilly’s murder files and helps her save up for Stanford (an ambition that’s sometimes threatened by her quest for justice). Wallace’s mom works for Kane Software, but she also relies on the income from her no-good tenant while Wallace counts on a basketball scholarship to be able to afford and attend his college of choice. Computer-whiz Mac is the Q to Veronica’s 007, but while Mac buys a fancy car and keeps up with the latest gadgets and souped-up laptops, it’s because she finds clever ways to use her tech know-how to earn cash, not because her parents dote on her with a checkbook. The show’s careful attention to the material details of class also help contextualize Veronica herself: An ex-cheerleader, she distances herself from her old pals with a new haircut and new clothes, but preppy pink items from her past still show up in the first season, so viewers can tell she’s not the girl who would (or could) prioritize buying an entirely new wardrobe.

Race and class are often intertwined in Neptune, but Veronica Mars often served as a good reminder that they’re not to be conflated. One of the series’ recurring conflicts is between the PCH Bike Club, a largely Latino motorcycle gang, and the obnoxious 09ers, rich kids from Neptune’s über-wealthy 90909 zip code, but the show never suggests only white kids can be rich kids and only minorities can be poor. Jackie Cook, a second-season addition played by Tessa Thompson, was both black and one of the richest girls in school. In one episode, while investigating a series of muggings, a classmate tips Veronica off that the culprit might be targeting the “coconuts”—Latino and Latina students criticized for being “brown on the outside, white on the side.” The PCH gang does engage in criminal activity, but their crimes are repeatedly contrasted against the transgressions of the rich, which are often worse. And in Season Two, it’s a rival gang made up of mostly working-class Irish-Catholics that’s dealing the hard drugs (to the parents of 09ers) and making people “disappear.” Veronica Mars didn’t entirely subvert stereotypes, but it usually tried to at least complicate and challenge them.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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