by Tanya R. Cochran
One of my favorite, cut-short-too-soon television series is the teen detective show Veronica Mars (2004-2007). A fatality of low ratings and the Writers Guild of America strike (2007-2008), the series ended after only three seasons on the UPN/CW networks. And it didn’t close with a particularly satisfying ending, according to many, many fans. Too many loose ends. A season but not a series finale. In a chapter for Investigating Veronica Mars (McFarland, 2010), I talk about the fan response to the series’ demise and why that response is noteworthy. Here I extend a small part of that discussion to focus on some important ideas raised by the show. I speak specifically to you Adventist Today readers who understand how the texts of popular culture (from any time period) can inspire spiritual thinking, thinking that can, in turn, catalyze spiritual acts.
[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched Veronica Mars and plan to do so, you may wish to read this commentary at another time as I share specific plot details.]
In the very first episode of the series, we learn that Veronica has had a tough couple of years. She tells us so herself—in voiceover. Her best friend Meg has been murdered by a killer who has never been found. Veronica’s mom has walked out on her and her dad Keith. Once the local sheriff but now a private investigator (because he failed to solve Meg’s case), Keith is doing his best to make ends meet, raise and support his daughter, survive the loneliness of his wife’s abandonment, and face the small-town social and political pressures of the powerful elite.1 Later in the episode, Veronica gets even more personal. With matter-of-factness (and a strong hint of cynicism), she tells us, “You wanna know how I lost virginity? So do I.” We then see in snippets of foggy flashback only what Veronica herself remembers from the night she crashed a raucous high school party at classmate Shelly Pomeroy’s mansion. Her best guess: someone drugged her drink. The image of 16-year-old Veronica—still in her white sundress with golden curls cascading over her shoulders—waking up in someone’s else bed, her underclothing crumpled on the floor, is poignant. Tears stream down her cheeks. In a very terrifying way, her mind has been made up for her. No one asked her permission. No one considered her will.
Over the course of three seasons, loss of innocence becomes a central theme on Veronica Mars. However, the teen heroine channels her fears and anxieties—usually masked by anger—into a justice quest as she pursues what exactly happened to her the night of Shelley’s party and, more importantly, who violated her. This pursuit simultaneously toughens her up and deepens her compassion for others—especially the “othered” others. As a rape survivor, it also makes sense that Veronica’s teen sleuthing (she follows in her P.I. father’s footsteps, sometimes to his dismay) often involves the plight of other wronged young women. Even when she graduates high school and starts college in Season Three, the story arch involves an unsolved series of sexual assaults on her university campus.
I know. The storylines sound dark, disturbing, and too adult for a teenage girl and her mostly teen audience. They are. Yet they are also compelling and thought-provoking, mostly because Veronica never allows victimhood to define her. The various cases Veronica takes on and the narrative threads that run through the seasons always point viewers toward empathy and choice. Toward hope. Not only does Veronica’s life go on after that fateful high school party, but also Veronica solves mystery after mystery, defends victim after victim. She makes peace with her mother’s absence. Her relationship with her dad, though tested, grows deeper and deeper. She grieves her losses and creates new opportunities for herself. In “Life on Mars,” Jim McDermott explains that Veronica Mars teaches us a meaningful lesson, the lesson that “with suffering comes empathy and new, unexpected possibilities.” McDermott provides several examples:
When the Latino gang members at [Veronica’s high] school bind an African-American student [Wallace] naked to a flagpole with duct tape, only Veronica moves to help him. He in turn will reach out to her and become her first reliable friend. In another episode the rich kid Caitlin Ford . . . treats Veronica with that strange combination of vacuity and disdain one only experiences in high school. But when Caitlin is herself suddenly rejected by the in-crowd, Veronica looks on with pity.
As a wise-beyond-her-years student once told me, “I don’t think God causes our pain, but I also don’t think God wastes it.” I couldn’t agree more. Though I can’t speak for you readers, I can speak for myself: I need that lesson in empathy. Though we live in a broken world, though sometimes we are made victims because of other people’s choices, though we suffer—something beautiful and amazing and redemptive can arise out of our pain: a new friend, a richer understanding of God’s love, a fresh start.
I also need the reminder that I have the power of choice, that I have been given a will. In fact, according to one wise woman, “Everything depends on the right action of the will” (White, Steps to Christ). Noting television’s trend toward eschatology via natural disaster, alien invasion, or spiritual depravity, McDermott draws on The Truce of God by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to caution readers that “catastrophe fantasies . . . tend to absolve us of responsibility for our situation. Something outside of and far more powerful than ourselves causes a disaster; our responses (often violent) are justified by the extraordinary circumstances.” Certainly, the catastrophes need not be asteroids, aliens, or paranormal activity. We humans have a knack for unhealthy, even destructive, hyperbole. For instance, look at the United States’ political arena.2 Americans use terms such as Nazi and Anti-Christ to talk about politicians!
The problem with these self-created and self-perpetuating hyperboles of everyday life—in entertainment, in politics, and, yes, in religion—is that we can quickly lead ourselves into the valley of the shadow of death, the one where we do fear evil and we are helpless as well as blameless. As McDermott puts it, “Portraying us as both powerless and innocent, these stories encourage fatalism and ‘impenitence,’ an unwillingness to consider our own part in the sinful world in which we live, indeed an unwillingness to see the world as sinful. Something [or someone] ‘out there’ is causing our troubles; it’s not our fault.” Veronica Mars, he says, embraces the very opposite notion. And so should we.
In church last Sabbath, my friend and colleague Mike Mennard shared insight into the parable of the sheep and the goats, one of the few stories wherein Jesus directly addresses the Judgment. I really appreciate Mike’s gloss; he drew our attention to the fact that intentionality (or the right action of the will) ultimately differentiates the livestock—in other words, us. It is only with intention and, therefore, planning that one feeds and clothes those in need, visits those in prison, and comforts those who are grieving. It is only with intention and, therefore, education that one understands the meaning of and acts required to bring about biblical peace and social justice. McDermott continues, “We are not powerless, Veronica Mars tells us. Our society is built upon the choices we make. The catastrophe is the world that we have created, a reality in which some people’s wants overwhelm everyone’s needs . . . [Veronica Mars] cries out like the prophets of old . . . We must change our ways.” This line of reasoning could easily sound as if I’m advocating righteousness by works. I’m not.
Herein lies the beauty and freedom of the Gospel: Jesus is that Change in our ways. He is Love and Logos, Peace and Justice made flesh. He dwells among us and, with our permission, dwells in us. Our pain and suffering, though not the ideal, are never wasted because they produce empathy—a tiny, tiny taste of what God must feel for us to give us Jesus. In turn, our empathy should produce action. This moment between Veronica and Wallace deftly captures my point (the Neptune High students are having lunch in the quad):
WALLACE. Girl, you should hear what people say about you.
VERONICA. So then what are you doing sitting here?
WALLACE. You sat next to me.
VERONICA. This is my table.
WALLACE. And what a fine table it is. What do you suppose this is made of? Oak?
VERONICA. Look, if people are saying such awful things . . .
WALLACE. Well, I figure I’ve got a choice. I can either go hang out with the punks who laughed at me, took pictures of me while I was taped to that flagpole, or I can hang out with the chick who cut me down.
Thus begins one of the most notable friendships on teen television, one that makes me pause and consider: catastrophe fantasies or still waters, gods of unrest and unmerited privilege or the God of peace and unreserved equity? As strange as it may sound to some readers, Veronica Mars reminds me that “it is God who is at work in [me], both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NASB). And that good pleasure is to love God with all that I am and love others—all others—as God has loved me.
NOTE TO READERS: This entry ends my year-long focus on Adventures in Popular Culture. I have not yet decided if I will continue with this theme or turn my attentions to other topics—Adventism and singlehood or identities or the politics of privilege or the moral imagination. My interests and lines of inquiry are far-reaching. Regardless, I hope that over the past twelve months I have stimulated your thinking and prodded you into action. In the meantime, I welcome your feedback about future musings.
1 Though I don’t have space to discuss other issues, class struggles and inequities, power and privilege play a major role in the series—another reason I enjoy Veronica Mars and consider it Quality Television.
2 In The Chronicle of Higher Education, see Sasha Abramsky’s “Look Ahead in Anger: Hyperbolic Rhetoric Threatens to Swamp Politics” and the subsequent comments for a lively discussion of this issue.