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

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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