overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
The Private Eye

The Cop Show's Sexy Step-Sister
by Andreanna Ditton

At the end of Veronica Mars's freshman season, the viewer is left with the knowledge that Lily Kane (murdered best friend and little lost girl) has in some ways brought about her own demise. That Veronica's true hero is her father. That Aaron Echolls — wealthy and handsome and powerful — is a crazed killer, his son a ruined, flippant mess of a kid. That Wallace Finell is the token innocent and that parents often do things to protect their children that go against everyone's best interests.

These revelations slot beautifully into the noir theme that producer Rob Thomas has set up for this series that reads like a combination of Raymond Chandler and a working class girl's Nancy Drew. Veronica (Kristen Bell) is a character who takes her own victimization and uses it for her own survival with a fierce, bright brutality. She goes from pretty blond pep squad girl to a savvy, sarcastic detective who exploits her fellow students mistrust in order to run a thriving underground detective business as a second job to her current job as her father's assistant. The fact that Keith Mars is also a detective helps to provide Veronica with the knowledge, equipment and insight to be a success in her new- found world. Keith, a former sheriff, has been banished to the private sector as a result of his perceived bungling of Lily Kane's murder investigation. This is a show about shifting identities, about trying to be something you're not, about accepting who you are, about never trusting surface perceptions and the understanding that equality is a myth and power is what you make of it.

Television has always been a venue comfortable with mysteries. The hour-long format provides a perfect box in which a crime can be committed, explored and solved. It's a natural, built in story arc, guaranteeing a climax and enough time for a tag.
This is dark stuff for a show that centers around a pretty, pixieish blond teenager, and while the groundwork of teenage girl as thwarter of demons had been laid by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the idea of a female private eye stretches all the way back to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, resulting in Laura Holt and Maddie Hayes along the way. Television has always been a venue comfortable with mysteries. The hour-long format provides a perfect box in which a crime can be committed, explored and solved. It's a natural, built in story arc, guaranteeing a climax and enough time for a tag. It's what makes the procedural eminently watchable and it's what kept Jessica Fletcher in business, Kojak smacking on his lollipop and Peter Falk employed.

However, the other appeal of the P.I. genre is that it allows a level of character development that the traditional procedural doesn't have time or room for. By nature of a PI's work, there's a built in sense of ambiguity, ambience and ambivalence. It's easy to admire TV cops — they're fighting the tough fight against the ever encroaching criminal element, doing what needs to be done. PI's, on the other hand, are the ones peeping in your window with the telephoto. They're listening to your conversations, paying the wrong people for the right information, and general sticking their noses where they don't belong. PI's aren't about justice, they're about serving the needs of their clients and morality is left in the eye of the beholder. Any central character, no matter how glamorous, or clever, or seemingly perfect already carries with him or her this inherent ambiguity of being the sort of person willing to take on these tasks. To be the one staking out the sleazy motel, taking pictures of adulterous lovers, ignoring the boundaries of privacy that we as society have agreed to uphold. By virtue of being a PI, these characters are inherently interesting.

The PI genre.also allows women to take a central role. They don't need to conform to a physical type, don't have to toe the company line of government given authority. The PI genre allows women to explore a variety of types and characters that the more traditional police procedural has denied them and Veronica Mars is a fantastic example of that. Veronica has a core of anger, a willingness to wreak destruction that was born of her losses — her virginity, her innocence, her family, her best friend, her status and her identity. She's also just this tiny little teenage girl with a smart mouth and a smart mind and a score to settle. She's the best and worst of what women are now able to be in a public forum, a great role model and the girl you hope your daughter will never have to become.

It was exploitative, sure, but I don't know a single girl of my generation who didn't, at least once, pretend to be one of the Angels.
The genre has acted as a cultural barometer of our attitudes towards women since the 1970's, showcasing in a visual way how the media plays with and portrays proactive women with brains and the physical skills to keep themselves safe. Charlie's Angels gave us jigglevision yes, but it also offered up three youngish women who had been trained as cops, but moved into the private sector because they were discriminated against, because they were incapable of moving up through the ranks due solely to their gender. It was exploitative, sure, but I don't know a single girl of my generation who didn't, at least once, pretend to be one of the Angels. These were sexy, capable women solving mysteries without the constraint of the reigning authority. Of course, they also answered to the lone voice of a wealthy Hugh Hefner with a conscience sort, but they were the ones out in the field, solving mysteries and using their sexuality for their own purposes.

In the mid 1980's, Remington Steele premiered, offering a slightly post-modern take on the lack of sexual equality in the work place. Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) is a brilliant detective who owns and operates a failing detective agency. No one wants to hire a girl detective. So she creates a myth, a man who embodies all of her own fantasies, and builds him a life, an apartment, and hands over the agency to his non-existent hands. Business takes off. No one ever gets to meet the elusive Mr. Steele, yet cases are solved with genius and discretion. Laura has her cake, and gets to eat it too. Mostly. Until one day a con artist discovers her ruse and steps into the identity that she's created. The next four years are filled with wild cases, palpable sexual tension between Laura and Steele (Pierce Brosnan), and a running commentary on identity and how we shape it, create it, fall into it. Laura is caught in the post second-wave era of feminism, both on television and in the world around her. As a result, the viewer is allowed to explore the way that women's abilities are both mistrusted and appreciated as the world tries to grapple with new roles.

Because Laura has created the identity of this man that she must defer to, people assume she's a secretary, a peon. She can't tell them the truth, and yet she's also obligated to give the imposter the knowledge and skills he needs to play his part so her deception won't be discovered. The fact that she's actually the brains of the operation, the women behind the throne is a representation of both the ways in which our culture was more comfortable seeing women and the dichotomy of maintaining authority and shaping her own identity. Laura has set herself up for the challenges she faces, both in trying to make the flesh and blood Steele into the person she envisioned and figuring out ways to deal with him getting credit for the work she was doing. These issues mirrored the realities of the time while still offering us some telling mysteries and sexy banter.

When Moonlighting came along a few years later, the sexual dynamics between men and women were still bones of contention, but the gender dichotomy of authority was no longer as much of an Episode . The Blue Moon Detective agency is Madeleine Hayes final remaining asset after her accountant absconds with all of her finances. Forced to go to work for the first time since she was a shampoo girl, Maddie is confident in her ability to be in charge and finds her match in detective David Addison who has been running the agency. While the sexual tension between David and Maddie provides the real fodder and fuel of the show, the cases are ridiculously and cleverly absurd, offering rare glimpses of the way in which we fool ourselves, the trouble we get ourselves into. However, it's the banter and interaction that viewers showed up for, the wordplay and the puns and Bruce Willis' charm and receding hairline and Cybil Shepherd's soft lighting and glowing blond hair.

We join the detectives at Blue Moon because we want to know them, not because we care much about the cases. And Moonlighting subverts the idea of women needing to hide behind anyone to be well regarded. In this case Maddie is the one who is trying to become a detective, but she's already a successful woman in other aspects of her life. It's through her work at Blue Moon, though, and the challenges she faces working with David that she discovers her own hidden depths, and again it becomes a show about identity, about self-identification and self-worth. Maddie has defined herself by her looks and success for most of her life, has used her looks to get what she wants in a sort of benign manipulation that seems to be second nature to her and with David, she has to rely on other elements — her mind, her humor, her rage, her cunning — in order to be met as an equal. The cases allow the viewer to see these people in action, to see the ambiguities of society reflected in the choices of our heroes.

Flash forward 20 years and it's not that the sexual revolution is a thing of the past, but more that gender is no longer the sort of Episode it once was. Veronica Mars is a teenage girl who's had to grow up with brutal quickness. She's lost the power and authority that being a popular girl in school offers up and has had to transform herself into a new person as a way of surviving high school. Her power now comes from what she's able to do — solve crimes, go places other people can't, investigate, snoop, ignore prevailing moralities that keep normal people out of closets and cupboards and telephone lines. Veronica takes the things that have been done to her, the way that she's been exploited and used by a society that's struggling more with class and ethnic clashes than with gender classes and turns it against that society. Her ability to go where she shouldn't, to investigate the seedier aspects of her society allow us to see how she has redefined herself.

This is the power of the detective genre. It is able to use the conventions of noir, of sexual politics, of years of film and literature that have set up these ambiguities and immoralities and allows us to explore the unspoken layers of society. The traditional procedural is a voyeuristic pleasure. We watch the horrors of our society unfolding in the safety of our living rooms, trusting that the detectives will restore our order. The PI genre on the other hand, shows us the darkness in our heroes, the ways in which identity is fluid and shifting, how morality plays out differently for each of us, the things we lose, and the things we're willing to do in pursuit of the truths that we only think we want to see.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 4.