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.

It also had a knack for asking tough questions that would turn out to be incredibly relevant, even a decade later. Years before Bernie Madoff and Occupy Wall Street became news, Veronica Mars critiqued the actions of the “1 percent” with an episode about an 09er parent’s investment fraud and the members of the 99 percent that ultimately paid the price. Later, when the town votes on a controversial measure to incorporate (which would give Neptune its own mayor and police department, but only around the 09er sections of town), Veronica’s high-school economics teacher—swindled out of his early retirement by that same fraud—uses Palo Alto as a cautionary tale to talk about who wins and who loses when a community is suddenly inundated with wealth and power.

Several stories in Veronica Mars also explore how money, class, and status differences can influence the justice system. In the second season, Lilly’s murderer has a good shot at a not-guilty verdict thanks to his high-powered attorneys and the noble but desperate public servant who’s easily bought. Meanwhile, Logan is falsely accused of murdering a PCH biker, but when the charges are dropped, the town verges on riotous: Yet another rich white boy walks free while the sheriff’s office shows little interest in finding justice for the town’s Latino community.

This treatment of class is in stark contrast to other teen dramas of the time—though, as television scholar Jason Mittell said, Veronica Mars had “some of television’s most class-conscious politics shy of The Wire,” period. Premiering one year before Veronica Mars, The O.C. followed troubled teenager Ryan Atwood after a run-in with the law put him in the care of one of Orange County’s wealthiest families. But while The O.C. highlighted the financial misbehavior of the wealthy and suggested their frequent philanthropy events were mere excuses for lavish parties, it used Ryan’s outsider status mostly to serve Orange County’s aspirational lifestyle to audiences, and it paid less and less attention to class as the series went on. Gossip Girl, from The O.C.’s same creators, similarly focused on another group of entitled teens, but in the wake of the financial crisis, its celebration of high-society New York turned many viewers off.

On Gilmore Girls, former teen mom Lorelai turns to her wealthy New England parents to pay for her daughter’s private school tuition, but the drama around those transactions focused on Lorelai’s aversion to her parents’ privileged lifestyle and her pride in having created a life for her and her daughter without their help. Their intrafamily conflict didn’t particularly concern itself with hardship or struggle, especially not in Stars Hollow, the mostly white fictional Connecticut town where nobody ever seemed to lock their doors. The show whose depictions of class difference were most on par with Veronica Mars’ is probably Friday Night Lights, whose portrait of a Texas town touched on access to higher education and how race and class affect policy when the local high school is redistricted halfway through the series.

Because Veronica Mars is coming back not as a television show but as a feature film designed to both please diehard fans and attract new ones, it may not have the time to examine the class politics it explored across three seasons. But while Veronica has turned her back on Neptune in the film, which begins in New York nine years after the series finale took place, its first eight minutes suggest the series hasn’t abandoned these themes: Veronica once investigated the dirty laundry of the wealthy, but now she’s a law-school grad interviewing at corporate firms that serve Fortune 500 companies. The girl who fell out with the rich kids is on the verge on making some serious 09er dough—but not before Logan, accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend, draws her back to the town that has since adopted a controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

“People might think of Neptune as glamorous, home to movie stars and captains of industry,” Veronica warns in the movie’s prologue. “But when the class war comes, Neptune will be ground zero. It’s a Springsteen song. Get out while you’re young.” Veronica got out and grew up, but it looks like Neptune hasn’t changed a bit—and if its three seasons on TV were any indication, Veronica Mars may be a better movie for it.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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