Progressives have an annoying habit when it comes to pop culture. Anytime they fall for a particular TV show, movie or Top 40 hit, they proceed to spend inordinate amounts of time and mental energy convincing themselves that while most of what the corporate media produces is reactionary crap, this particular product is actually subversive, laced with a cutting critique of capitalism, patriarchy or the Bush administration.
I mention this only because I’m about to do the exact same thing. But of course, in this case, it’s really, really true: My current television obsession, UPN’s “Veronica Mars” (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. CST), is the single most compelling exploration of class anxiety and class friction on the little or big screen today. Its setting, the fictional southern California town of Neptune, is a prophetic vision of the Two Americas we are in the process of becoming—a “town without a middle class,” as Veronica calls it in the pilot episode’s opening moments, where “your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires.”
A cross between The Maltese Falcon, “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Twin Peaks,” “Veronica Mars” follows the adventures of its eponymous hero as she negotiates the twin perils of high school and her career moonlighting as a private investigator in her father Keith’s firm. Each episode revolves around a caper, complete with clues, plot twists and betrayals. As in earlier noir tales, which feature a working-class private investigator navigating the shady dealings of a duplicitous elite and violent street toughs, everything that happens in the show is presented and viewed through a class lens. A war is raging between the “haves and the have-nots,” Veronica says, and you “have to choose sides.”
Veronica’s loyalties are mixed. Once upon a time, she was a member of the rich kid clique (called the ‘09ers, after the zip code they inhabit). Her boyfriend was Duncan Kane, son of billionaire software mogul Jake Kane, and her best friend was Duncan’s sister Lily. But when Lily was found with her head bashed in beside the family pool, Veronica’s dad, the county sheriff, went after Jake as the killer and was voted out of office by a town looking to protect their local boy made good. Veronica’s world fell apart. She became a pariah at school, shunned by the ‘09ers for her father’s betrayal of one of their own. Her mother, unable to cope with the family’s loss of status and income, left without explanation.
This leaves Keith and Veronica inhabiting a small apartment in a motel-like complex and struggling to make ends meet through Keith’s business as a private investigator. They try to put their lives back together after the trauma of murder, professional shame and what is in American society the ultimate taboo: downward mobility. (After catching a bail-jumper, Keith triumphantly proclaims: “Tonight we eat like the lower middle class to which we aspire!”)
But by the beginning of Season Two, Keith’s reputation has been resuscitated after his suspicions about the Kane case are (partially) vindicated, Veronica is dating Duncan again and the school’s non-rich students are whispering that Veronica’s previous outsider status was a pose. Weevil, the leader of the local Chicano bike gang, accuses her of slumming. Everything is thrown into turmoil when a bus from a school field trip crashes off a cliff, killing six local high school students. Of course, all the rich kids were spared. They’d hired a limo to drive them back to school because they didn’t like the way the bus smelled.
Moving back and forth across Neptune’s battle lines, Veronica occupies a unique position in the high school’s social hierarchy. An aggressive, angry outsider with an outsize reputation, she is loathed and feared by students and teachers alike, but because of her investigative savvy, has alliances with everyone from Weevil to Logan Echolls, a sociopathic rich kid who stages fights between homeless men and smashes in Veronica’s headlights with a crowbar.
Her reputation as a crack detective puts her services in high demand, and like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the noir heroes from whom she descends, Veronica sees up close how the pathologies of class operate. Her clients range from Neptune’s aristocracy to its immigrant strivers, all battling to come to grips with their appointed privileges and deprivations. In one episode, a spoiled, rich “A+ Student” hires Veronica to find out who is sabotaging her evening study time with car alarms and harassment. The culprit turns out to be the immigrant father of a fellow student who is competing for the full scholarship that will be awarded to the class valedictorian. Whereas A+ Student has a barrage of tutors at her disposal, his son has to work nearly full time at the family restaurant while keeping up his grades. His dad was just trying to level the playing field, and when busted, ends up forfeiting his son’s scholarship.
In a later episode, Veronica is hired to catch a classmate’s stepmother cheating on her rich husband and instead uncovers an Enron-style fraud. Before blowing open the scheme, she approaches the teacher who runs the school’s investment club, who has unwittingly invested much of his own retirement money in the fraudulent company. Veronica urges him to dump the stock before she exposes the truth. “You don’t dump it, Veronica,” he says glumly. “You sell it. I’d just be sticking some other sucker with the consequences. I don’t think I can live with that.” The ordinary investors get left holding the bag, while the company’s CEO escapes on a helicopter to some tropical island.
Of course, if the show was devoted exclusively to a sledge-hammer message about the perfidy of the ruling class, it would be boring propaganda, not art. But “Veronica Mars” never settles for cartoonish, political stereotypes: The working-class insurgent candidate for class president turns out to be a snitch who falsely accuses Veronica of drug use; the charismatic, liberal history teacher who critiques U.S. “imperialism” has an affair with a student and dumps her when she gets pregnant; and Duncan Kane, the ultimate icon of privilege, is unfailingly decent, compassionate and humane.
While setting all of this in a high school with angsty adolescents might have made the show absurd or silly, it somehow manages to complicate and deepen the contradictions and drama. These are, after all, kids, not fully formed moral agents. Their petty cruelties and prejudices are at least partially redeemed by the fact that they are as much victims of their station in life as they are perpetrators. The viewer finds herself pushed and pulled between empathy and contempt.
Veronica’s deeply conflicted feelings about the ‘09ers with whom she at times frolics is another mind-bending mess of contradictions: She loathes them, she envies them, she wishes they’d take her back, she knows she’s better off without them.
This is what makes the show so relevant at a time when our pop culture is pathologically obsessed with wealth and the sheer fabulousness of those who possess it: from NBC’s “The Apprentice,” to MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” to the shockingly durable fame of Paris Hilton, who, incredibly, appears in several early episodes of “Veronica Mars” as a particularly vapid and cruel ‘09er.
With an artfulness and pathos that no other show has quite pulled off, “Veronica Mars” expresses the deep ambivalence that the working and middle classes feel about the rise of a monstrously flush ruling class in our midst. In doing so, it makes manifest both the deep-seated class resentment that makes a populist political revolt seem so tantalizing possible and the Stockholm Syndrome-like admiration that makes it so maddeningly unattainable.
“I’d be the best rich person,” Veronica muses. “I’d be the perfect combination of frivolous and sensible. Money is so wasted on the wealthy.”
Christopher Hayes is a senior editor of In These Times.