VERONICA MARS, Season Four: Love is Gone Ballerina, Gone

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One or two of you will have heard of the 1947 song Ballerina, recorded by many, but most memorably by Nat King Cole, in 1957. It is a haunting, enraging tune that takes the form of spiteful whispering in the ears of the eponymous ballerina at the very moment she is giving a performance that will make her a star. The voice murmurs, “This is your moment girl,” even though “he’s not out there applauding as you steal the show.” See? She’s traded love for fame, so there’s nothing left to do but “Dance! Dance! Dance!” The voice affords the girl barely a moment of pride and satisfaction. And when the incandescent King Cole croons it, the bite is ten times more painful. Its elegantly venomous attack on achieving women had historical roots in post-World War II America, part of a general backlash atmosphere in the United States as it sought to re-domesticate working women, who had kept the factories and businesses going while the men were away fighting, to make room in the job market for the returning heroes. By 1957, second wave feminism was on the rise and “Ballerina” re-emerged with the counter-wave of resistance to uppity women.

But what has this to do with Veronica Mars, which in its first three seasons was widely regarded as a sparkling feminist television series? Well, its fourth season, which recently began to air on Hulu, would seem to unmask the show as creator Rob Thomas’ 21st century version of the kind of backlash entertainment that appears right on cue whenever women make new strides culturally toward independence, personhood, and realization of their talents and goals. Like running for president and “me too”? Suddenly, Veronica, like her spiritual dancing sister, has emerged as a sinister warning to any girl who would be her own person while female. And in a very big way.

After three years of successful work as a detective and the pleasures of her evolving relationship with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), without warning, clever, successful Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), is forced to pay a much heftier price than the ballerina, and even bigger is the price paid by Logan. The ballerina’s defecting lover only wastes the price of a second row ticket so as to protect himself from witnessing the splendor of the woman who said “his love must wait its turn.” [MAJOR SPOILER IMMEDIATELY AHEAD] Veronica’s beloved Logan is braver and more manly than that. He hangs in with his babe. And he dies as a result. His crime? His appreciation, nay adoration of Veronica’s strength, beauty, and intelligence. And to add insult to injury, he is killed on their wedding night. Details to follow. WOW! The best I can say for the sadism of this plot is that, in its defensiveness against talented, achieving women, it might well be a kind of backhanded compliment to the magnitude of women’s progress in contemporary America.

Should we have seen this coming? I am as upset as you may be about my bleak thoughts about Veronica Mars, but having reviewed the four seasons of this series, I am unable to come to any other conclusion than that Logan’s demise is the natural outgrowth of a long tradition of sexism in this show.

I can see and smell the smoke billowing out of Rob Thomas’ ears as I type this strongly worded condemnation of his show. After all, in response to the general public dismay expressed about his fourth season narrative choices, he and Kristin Bell have been quoted as saying, more or less, that Thomas did it for our own good. He asserts that the show doesn’t work unless Veronica is unhappy. I will have much more to say about that. But up front I’d like to remark that having written for five daytime TV network soap operas during leaves that I took from my academic career I know something about the self-defeating consequences of such a mechanical approach to story telling. Of course commercial series television rightly looks for a way to keep the audience interested for as long a time as possible, which tends to mean delaying satisfaction. However, a cynically mechanical ploy never really works; the tune-in-tomorrow feature has to be organically rooted in something true about the characters. Moreover, if your series is touted as feminist, it also has to be rooted in problems that are true to how women and girls really live, desire, and feel. What do you conclude, as we take a close look at season four and its relationship to the preceding seasons?

Veronica is back in Netune ready to work

Season four, composed of only eight episodes, grows out of some of the events in the episodic earlier seasons but is itself built on a continuous narrative arc about a mysterious attack on Neptune, California, the town of Veronica’s birth with which she has a love-hate relationship. Although she once left small-minded Neptune for good, in season four we find her after her return, still working with her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) in his detective agency. And Neptune is lucky she’s unable to quit that town. Who better to combat an elusive attacker who is creating chaos in order to destroy the traditional source of Neptune’s GDP: the arrival of students for their annual spring break ritual of madcap mayhem?

At first the grand plan is not apparent. The town is afflicted with what seems to be some bombings, beginning with a deadly blast at the local Sea Sprite Motel, and also by murders and rats. Some one is salting a local grocery store with rats who pop up to horrify unsuspecting customers. The link among these incidents becomes clear only belatedly, as Veronica, who makes the connection, tells the story in flash back. And if you don’t think that defense of spring break is an important enough narrative stake, Veronica makes a good faith effort in the first minutes of episode one to set you straight: “If Neptune was the unofficial west coast capital of spring bring break then the Sea Sprite was its national monument,” she tells us in voiceover. Big stuff, get it? And only the brilliant, unstoppable Veronica–with the help of her father, Logan, and a good-bad-guy gang leader named Weevil (Francis Capra)—is big enough to bring this dastardly reign of terror to an end.

Explosion at the Sea Sprite Motel

As things unfolded, however, I became less and less compelled by the story events and more and more bothered by the, at first, faint notes of an anti-feminist dog whistle that pervades them, a sound that only got louder while the story became less and less credible. Thomas is on shaky ground to begin with since the violence would seem to be the result of a ho-hum conflict. There is a rivalry in Neptune between the supposedly sympathetic “fun loving” underdog supporters of spring break whom Veronica champions, and the “black hats,” an organization called NUTT, Neptune United for a Tidy Town, that abhors the chaos of the revelry. It’s not a riveting competition and it certainly doesn’t live up to the series’ reputation as pro-woman. True, Thomas has come up with a set of villains you are sure to hate, a cabal of neo-con gentrifiers unalterably opposed to bacchanalian chaos. Who likes a gentrifier? But can you love the wild young things who arrive for spring break? They, like NUTT, carry a great deal of disagreeable cultural baggage. They invoke precisely the kind of movie that romanticizes rape as forceful courting and defines successful young womanhood in terms of how many men a girl can fascinate. Question: what kind of “feminist” type comedy pushes those atavistic, adolescent, sexist buttons?

Answer: one that arrives cloaked in plausible deniability. The show suggests that it’s not so much that spring break is good, but rather that the bad guys are a bunch of money grubbers and spring break benefits decent small businessmen. And it piles on the irony. Veronica is snarky about the annual carnival of fools, at the same time that she opposes those who would replace predatory sex and binge drinking with big box, sterile homogenization. Anyway, the combative NUTT organization turns out to be a red herring. The bomber is revealed finally to be an angry, loner, white guy. And we’re supposed to think it’s a progressive story because Neptune’s (one?) Arab-American Muslim family, the Maloofs, whose son, Alex (Paul Kamiryan) is one of the first bombing victims, is not responsible. (I won’t reveal the identity of the angry white lunatic in case you want to see this season.) Thomas is signaling us insistently that the show is liberal, as well as feminist. But it is neither.

Mama Maloof

So, about those Maloofs. They are super rich, spoiled, arrogant, selfish, and continually hamper Veronica in her investigation. It is impossible to feel anything positive about them; Muslim bashing through the side door, with a large helping of sexism. The worst of them all is Mama Amalia Maloof (Jacqueline Antaramian), who is one of many horrible older women in the fabric of the Veronica Mars tapestry. She is so status conscious and so xenophobic that she lacks the generosity to feel either a moment of sympathy when Alex’s sweet, middle class, non-Arab fiancee dies in the Sea Sprite explosion, or an iota of gratitude that her son survived the blast, albeit now missing one hand. She only has time to be consumed by vengeful rage. Moreover, she contemptibly patronizes Veronica. And if that doesn’t satisfy your daily minimum requirement for stereotypes and set piece villains, there is also a bloodthirsty Mexican drug lord, El Despiadado (Marco Rodriguez), who has a vicious Latina spitfire sister—another awful mother–and commands two frightening henchmen whom he sends to Neptune on a mission of death in one of the completely gratuitous subplots. A picture of Mexicans to make glad the heart of Donald J. Trump.

Now, about those horrible older women. It is a pattern in the series, not just in season four. If there is going to be another even moderately sympathetic female aside from Veronica, it’s going to be a girl not a woman. One of the staples of sexist movies and television is the savaging of women and Rob Thomas is no slouch when it comes to portraying women past thirty as harridans. In season four, in addition to the terrible Amalia Maloof and El D’s sister, there is the female black Chief of Police, Chief Langdon (Dawnn Lewis), who matches Amalia point for point in arrogance and in her tendency to dismiss Veronica instead of recognizing the girl as a valuable ally. They all share the quality of being women in authority, mother type women, and in sexist entertainment it is particularly mothers who tend to be odious.

But such women have been around Veronica since season one. Those who have watched the show from the beginning will remember that Veronica’s initial problems included her own mother, Lianne (Corinne Bohrer), a self-involved alcoholic who betrayed her husband and put her own desires and welfare before her daughter’s. When Veronica finally gave up hoping for a happy family and told the awful Lianne to leave, Lianne stole a $50,000 check from her husband as her parting gesture. Veronica, by contrast, is a good daughter and caring person, a girl who puts to shame the mother women who should be a compassionate, self-sacrificing caretakers.

There’s more. Even if girls tend to be more appealing than women, you can’t generally count on them either, aside from Veronica. She is pretty much the girl, alone of her sex, another staple of sexist entertainment, which tends to elevate one girl, as an exception to the rule. The rule here sets a mighty low bar. Consider Veronica’s “best friend” Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried), a spoiled rich white girl, from the first season, whose shocking murder kept Veronica busy trying to find out what happened to her. In the end it turned out that Lily was pretty shabby. She was, at that time, Logan’s girl friend, but had no compunctions about also having sex with his father, Aaron, (Harry Hamlin). Lily is de facto scripted to deserve what she gets when Aaron kills her; she’s almost as nastily self-seeking as the older women are in this series, not like Veronica who puts everyone else’s welfare ahead of her own.

Other girls juxtaposed with Veronica are, for the most part, the targets of humor that depends on unfunny, old sexist tropes that set girls in competition with each other, in ways that rule out trust and friendship. For example, when Logan, who has channeled his old anger issues productively by joining the armed forces, returns from duty at the beginning of season four, Veronica goes to the beach to find him and discovers two “spring break” girls ogling his toned, muscular body as he emerges from the ocean. Having no idea that the girl standing near them is Logan’s beloved, they freely make comments about Logan that reveal them to shallowly see men only as sexual objects, making them no better than the sexist spring break boys. Veronica makes a point of showing them up for the stupid floozies they are. Pretending that she is meeting Logan for the first time, she puts on a show for the stupified girls by giving Logan the dominatrix treatment, ordering him to follow her home and perform services for her. Logan obligingly plays along. It’s supposed to be funny that other girls don’t know how to handle being liberated, while Veronica does. Not a great prognosis for women’s lib. And it’s supposed to be funny that Veronica debases and emasculates the reformed Logan as part of being an independent girl—fulfilling the sexist belief that if you give females an inch……

Veronica shows the spring break girls who;s the boss

Then there’s Nicole Malloy (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), an African-American girl, who, like Veronica stands up to NUTT, but as an entrepreneur who owns the kind of bar where American youth come to get “lit and laid,” in Veronica’s words. So, how does she compare with Veronica? Well, she’s certainly neither stupid nor shallow, but she’s vulgar. The motto of her bar, on the tee shirts she sells to spring breakers is “Get your duck wet.” Let your imagination run wild with that one. More to the point, the show simply won’t allow Nicole and Veronica to be friends. They initially admire each other’s feistiness. But working on the bomber case, Veronica finds that she needs to bug Nicole’s office and Nicole is scripted to be unable to forgive her, even though Veronica is very apologetic when she confesses what she has done. Should Nicole be so self-righteous? Granted, this is not the way friends treat each other. Still, isn’t it strange that a business woman as aggressive as Nicole, and she is very combative and prone to cutting an ethical corner or two, is unable to understand Veronica’s professional predicament? After all, Nicole and Veronica don’t actually know each other that well and Nicole might have a motive for the bombings and/or murders.

Veronica with Nicole

Dog whistles are blaring. Impossible mother-daughter relationship. Impossible matriarchs. Impossible friendships among girls. Impossible romantic passion. What is possible? Only Veronica’s relationship with her father. And let’s talk about that. When all is said and done, Veronica is that venerable staple of sexist Hollywood, daddy’s little girl, only all slicked up and modern, as she and dad trade risque innuendoes, and amuse each other with little routines in which Veronica also gives Keith the dominatrix treatment. It almost makes you think of Iowa Representative Steve King who suggested the other day that without incest and rape the population of America would be mighty low.

Veronica and Daddy

Indeed, the show very peculiarly contextualizes Logan’s death with Veronica’s too sexualized (supposedly hip) relationship to her father. Keith has been experiencing a number of symptoms of dementia throughout the season, raising the shadow that as Veronica gets married she will be leaving Keith in more ways than one. But with the final narrative twist, Logan and Keith change places. After the mad bomber is arrested, one last bomb Veronica didn’t anticipate kills Logan just as they are about to drive off for a honeymoon and Keith’s dementia turns out to have been caused by too much medication. In a subtextual way, the survival of daddy is balanced by the death of Veronica’s one true love. Almost as if keeping Veronica unhappy actually means keeping her daddy’s little girl? Moreover, the season ends with the suggestion about the arrival of a second daddy’s girl, but that promotes the possibility of all kinds of strangeness that we don’t have time for now.

Veronica and Logan on their wedding night

I’m confident that any of us can think of plenty of ways to keep the audience coming back for more, other than diving in with gusto to sexist and racist clichés. In fact, Rob Thomas showed us that he could too. At the end of season one, after Veronica solves the mystery of Lily’s death, the suspense producing hard tag is Veronica opening the door to someone whose identity is left a mystery. “I’m so glad it’s you” she says to her unidentified caller, and that worked. At least on me. I really wanted to come back in season two to find out who it was. The death of Logan? I don’t want to tune in again. Early reports suggest many others also feel this way.

Joel Bocko, in his review of the series for his Lost in the web site picks up on something among the fans quite different from the intrigue Thomas hoped for: desperation. Bocko reports that fans are frantically clinging to the hope that Logan is actually still alive, since we heard the explosion but never actually saw his death onscreen. Will that really create an audience for a season five, once common sense produces the realization that Logan is very dead?

Writing for Variety, Caroline Framke, who quite rightly has no doubts about Logan’s death, believes that Thomas has missed out on a really fruitful possibility. Says Framke, he could have planned to examine in the next season the complexities of what she sees as a basically unhealthy relationship between Logan and Veronica. I’m not at all sure that Veronica and Logan are toxic for each other, but they are at odds in this season in a rather perverse way. Veronica accepts Logan’s marriage proposal at the end of the season, but in episode one, she refuses it, ostensibly in the name of feminist freedom. Actually, her hesitations ultimately boil down to her sense that she misses the bad boy Logan with anger issues of earlier seasons and isn’t enjoying the reformed Logan. This could veer dangerously close to toxicity, a suggestion that down deep women want men who treat ‘em rough. But it could also have initiated the further adventures of this couple as an intelligent look at the old mass culture tradition of good girls yearning for bad boys. Esther Zuckerman writing for The Thrillist is not far from Framke when she say that since Veronica has many inner demons, Thomas might have set the series up for another season by giving her a chance to deal with some of them. Agreed. Too bad Rob Thomas gets his kicks from watching Veronica do a “pirouette in rhythm with her achin’ heart.”

Apologies for all this negativity. It’s not what I enjoy, but sometimes one needs to cast a cold eye. Watch this space next month for a positive blog about The OA, created by Britt Marling and Zal Batmanglij, a television series filled with passion and surreal fantasy, which delays and tantalizes expectation and desire with true originality and fresh feminist vision.

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