In Defense of ‘Veronica Mars’ Season 3

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If there is one thing that I’ve learned from spending the last month talking nonstop about Veronica Mars to anyone and everyone who would listen, it’s that just saying the words “Season 3” is enough to start a riot. It’s a schism almost as deep as Team Logan vs. Team Piz, though really, your preference there also heavily factors into your thoughts on Season 3 as well. I’m well aware that Season 3 isn’t the best of the series, but it’s certainly not the awful mess that most make it out to be. Like most fans, I marathoned the entire series to prepare myself for the movie. I frequently re-watch the first season and occasionally dip into the second, but this is only the second time that I’ve attempted the third. And you know what? It isn’t bad! In fact, it’s pretty great!

It is impossible to ignore the negative aspects: it’s inarguably uneven and noticeably suffers from network notes. Season 3 premiered the year CBS and The WB birthed The CW, pairing Veronica Mars with the lighter, more popular, and relatively more upbeat Gilmore Girls. The idea, I suppose, was to create a “Girl Power” night (and to get the Gilmore Girls fans to stick around). This meant that the network wanted to tweak Veronica Mars‘ tone (and Veronica’s attitude) to better match this lineup.

The problem is, it’s not a particularly light show. It’s clever, with some laugh-out-loud lines, but Veronica’s brand of humor is dark, very dark — because underneath the high school of it all, Veronica Mars is very dark. It’s hard to have a lighthearted collegiate tone when the show is tackling a serial rapist on campus. That was the other big issue: the third season’s rape storyline featured characters that were just caricatures: the boozy fraternity boys, the angry militant feminists, and the jokester humor magazine staff constantly crying “free speech!” But aside from that early-season nonsense? There is so much good in these episodes.

The third season experimented with multiple mystery arcs instead of just one that spanned the entire season (Lily’s death in Season 1, the bus crash in Season 2). It was a good move — don’t like one mystery? Wait a few episodes! — especially because the show was never going to top the emotional resonance (and perfect mystery-thriller writing) of Lily’s death.

As a rule, teen dramas tend to suffer when the characters ship off to college, and there’s no exception here. Veronica Mars is very much a product of Neptune High. She thrived there in all of her misfit glory. She knows how to work that system. That’s why it takes a while for the show to settle into a groove at Hearst College, but when it does, it works. The standalone mysteries are decidedly collegiate (plagiarism, animal activists groups, student debit cards, etc.), and the show put out some good episodes featuring sorority ridiculousness and secret societies.

Most successfully, though, Hearst College allowed Veronica Mars to focus more on the smaller, greater characters that were often given the shaft in high school. (And more Keith Mars! Keith and Veronica’s father-daughter relationship is perhaps the best on television, and Season 3 goes even further into their undying loyalty to each other, even when they disappoint each other, and shows how far Keith will go to protect his daughter). Without the lingering memory of Duncan, we get the much-better Piz, and without the gossip queens and biker dudes, there is more time to explore the small group that ended up at Hearst with Veronica.

This includes two of my favorites, Weevil and Mac. Weevil doesn’t attend Hearst, but thanks to Veronica and their favor-for-favor friendship, he ends up working there as a maintenance man. The wonderful “Wichita Linebacker” episode has Weevil temporarily working for Keith Mars, showcasing both his natural PI skills and his emotional attachment to cases. As for Mac, she’s still understandably reeling after the events of Season 2, and this season has her slowly putting herself back together and carefully getting back into dating, at her own speed.

Then there is the tale of Dick Casablancas, a simplistically complicated creature whose permanently chill lifestyle was dealt a harsh blow at the end of Season 2 when his bullied younger brother Beaver — a rapist and a murderer — committed suicide. Add that to Dick’s father running off, and then later returning this season, and you get one fucked-up budding alcoholic. It’s easy to hate Dick based on his childish, sexist antics (especially when it comes to tormenting the campus’ feminist group), but there are moments sprinkled throughout the episodes that redeem him, such as his eventual breakdown over the way he treated Beaver and his apology to Mac. By the end, it seems that his desire to change is sincere (albeit clouded by booze). And let’s be honest: Dick Casablancas is the funniest person on Veronica Mars.

Season 3 also introduces Piz, Veronica’s new love interest and public enemy #1. I like Piz. I adore Piz. I completely understand the appeal of Logan and Veronica (plus, the actors’ chemistry together is intense as fire), but Piz is easily the better choice. He’s genuinely sweet, he’s funny, he’s motivated, and he can actually show his love for Veronica without beating the shit out of someone. I would have spent all of Season 3 hoping Piz and Veronica would be together forever if it didn’t mean total hell for Piz — which is exactly what happens in the penultimate episode, when Logan does some serious damage to Piz’s ribs and face.

Speaking of, how can anyone possibly hate the last season when it has those final two episodes? Veronica is at peak rage, raining down fire and brimstone on every shitty guy who had any involvement with the sex tape. She is back in high school: walking past the whispers of classmates, angrily clutching her Taser, and defying her father — and her own personal safety — to reveal the truth. It’s a perfectly frustrating cliffhanger that puts Keith’s position as sheriff in jeopardy and ends with social outcast Veronica walking away, presumably leaving Neptune forever.