September 6, 2006

A long time ago, we used to be friends

Filed under: Film and Video — tomemos @ 1:43 pm

I’m writing from a library in Lake Havasu City, in Mohave County, Arizona.  Me and my friend Glenn are staying at his grandparents’ timeshare out here and having a decent time.  It’s hot out here, of course (the helpful tip from the hotel is that we only go outside during the coolest part of the day, “between 4 am and 7 am”), and we find ourselves with a fair amount of downtime.  We read, we have some games, and he’s been showing me episodes of this show Veronica Mars, about a teenage sleuth in California.  It’s basically entertaining, to laugh with and occasionally at, but I came across one episode that bothered me.  In fact, it had me up late into the night scratching this entry on our complimentary notepad, and now I reproduce it for you.

Of course, part of me is apprehensive about writing a great deal about a TV episode; I hate it when people talk my ear off about TV episodes in real life, so subjecting people to that in prose is questionable.  (Also, this entry contains some heavy stuff, stuff heavy enough to possibly be inappropriate in a discussion about TV; I don’t know.)  But I’ve decided that one habit I’m going to have to get into in order to make this blog work is to just go ahead and blog about something when I feel like I have a lot to say about it, and to worry about whether it’s readable later.  Until I have no readers left, then I’ll try something else.

So.  The episode was called “One Angry Veronica,” and as you can imagine it was a riff on the movie Twelve Angry Men: Veronica has to serve jury duty, and while at first it seems like an open-and-shut case, it turns out that one juror (not Veronica, initially) sees problems with it and gradually convinces the other jurors to change their votes.  The catch here is that, whereas in Twelve Angry Men the case looked like a clear conviction but becomes an acquittal, here the case looks like a clear acquittal but ends up being conviction.  Okay, Tom, what’s the big problem?

First of all, you have the plot holes.  Now, Veronica Mars is not the most watertight show out there–Veronica’s best friend is a star high school basketball player who can’t be much taller than 5’7″–but even by that standard this stuff is insulting: Veronica’s father clandestinely gives her evidence that detracts from the defendants’ case, but as a private investigator and former sheriff, wouldn’t he have found it more convenient just to go straight to the DA, before the trial ended?  And what kind of budget does the prosecution have, that they can’t afford a web search to find out that the star defense witness not only is not who he claims to be, he’s actually a star college athlete and one-time NFL recruit who hasn’t even changed his name?

But that’s just shallow pedantry.  The deeper pedantry is this: the episode wants to be just a clever inversion of Twelve Angry Men, but there is a vital difference.  In TAM, the movement was from guilty to innocent; the prosecution’s case, which looks airtight, is found to have enough inconsistencies to fail the standard of reasonable doubt, so the accused must go free.  In the Veronica Mars episode, the jury turns an extremely poorly-made case against the defendants–one that apparently makes no attempt to challenge the defendants’ case–into conviction, simply by poking holes in the defendants’ case.  In other words: defendants claim A; A is logically impossible; therefore, defendants are guilty.  “Process of elimination,” Veronica says smugly when explaining to the holdout juror (a bad bad evil man who we’ll get to later) why she’s voting to convict.  The process of deciding guilt or innocence is reduced to a matter of deduction, of choosing the most likely explanation.  To be sure, this is the form of Twelve Angry Men as well…but in that movie the jurors are searching for reasonable doubt, whereas in “One Angry Veronica” the concept is not even mentioned.

The reason we have a standard of reasonable doubt–and the reason I’m writing however-many words about a TV episode you haven’t seen–is to prevent our natural suspicion of the accused from influencing our judgment.  Prosecutors, and the writers of this TV episode, overcome that by encouraging…more suspicion.  They play on our prejudices to make us want the accused to be guilty.  Were we an all-white jury in 1950’s Alabama–or Simi Valley last week–they’d play on our fears of black men raping our women.  Instead, we’re a hip 16-24-year-old television audience, so the writers make the defendants well-off white young men accused of beating a Mexican-American prostitute.  Sons of privilege about to get away with victimizing a lower-class woman of color?  Man, what a bumper sticker that would make.

But bumper stickers aren’t the truth, and I’d find this one a bit more compelling if, for instance, it hadn’t transpired that those Duke lacrosse players, according to all available evidence–starting with DNA testing–are innocent.  Furthermore, not only are they innocent but they were clearly railroaded; the prosecutor stacked the lineup, implied that the players’ retaining a lawyer was evidence of guilt, and has used this case for significant political gain.  (See here for details; note that I learned about the accusation on the cover of Time, but learned about the exoneration from the end of a story in the New Yorker.)  Yet the media portrayed it as an open-and-shut case, one with Deeper Significance for the Country at Large, and plenty of us bought it.  (In fact, the best I can say about my involvement isn’t that I didn’t buy the hype–I did–but that I just didn’t get wrapped up in it.)

Now, of course, that story–daddy gets rich assailants off scott free–plays out all the time.  In Orange County there was a case that finally ended a few months ago, in which a few privileged sons were caught on film performing a hideous rape on a clearly unconscious victim, and the only defense was that she was promiscuous and wanted it to happen, and the first trial ended in a hung jury.  (Luckily the retrial produced a conviction and some decent jail time, but not before the victim had been subjected to the best harassment and defamation money can buy.)  My conclusion from this, though, is that we should try judging every case on its merits to be sure that justice is done, rather than replacing our hatred of wanton sluts with one of trust-fund rapists; to do that would be to risk ruining the lives of innocent people (conviction or not) in order to make a fairly abstract point.

As a Berkeley leftist, I should have loved that VM episode.  A group of dedicated citizens banding together to send some privileged assholes up the river?  What’s not to like? (The red meat didn’t stop there: not only was the crime one of race and class, but the holdout for an acquittal is the CEO of a big company outsourcing to India.  As things get tense, he shows his true colors and angrily bellows that he will never vote to convict two boys from fine families accused of beating a Mexican whore.)  But the fact is I’m sick of this kind of stuff; it’s been done to death, done into the ground, and I don’t think it reflects reality in any worthwhile way.  I guess you could say that I’m making that judgment from a position of privilege myself, but I don’t think that episode (or the vindictive rhetoric which it draws from, which I hear more than I’d like) is about justice so much as smugness, or “turnabout is fair play.”  We all want to believe that our opponents are hypocritical racists who will stop at nothing, and I suppose sometimes it’s true, but exulting in the demonization of those we fear really doesn’t do it for me as thought or entertainment.



  1. Nice new digs, Tomemos! The blog looks great.

    I don’t think you went overboard on Veronica Mars. The show has always had a heavy-handed side that favors quick and dirty justice; it’s been to more than one family reunion with “America’s Most Wanted” and “COPS.”

    I’m fond of quoting Zizek’s line about the jealous husband: “Even if his wife really is cheating on him, we must still say that he is a paranoic.” Similarly, even if the show is written so that the defendant’s really guilty, it’s still significant that the conviction is the payoff. It would be a shame to forget that “innocent until proven guilty” is a way of seeing other people — it enables us to see our fellow citizens as originally, fundamentally, innocent.

    Comment by ForgottenBoy — September 7, 2006 @ 9:49 am

  2. Screw you! VM 4Evas. It’s a TV show! And a really good one most of the time with a very snarky, hot blonde chick who breaks the law all the time. I will defend VM to the end and can’t wait for the new season to begin. So ha!

    Comment by Cimorene — September 7, 2006 @ 12:43 pm

  3. Like I said in the beginning of the entry, I basically like the show. But FB is right that it gets its kicks from busting people; that’s fine for a detective story, but the amount of time spent grinding the guilty into the dirt is the most boring part of the show for me. Plus, a lot of it plays on this same sort of juvenile theme of hypocrisy: the sheriff is a corrupt blowhard; the god-fearing family locks their daughter in the closet. It’s the Scooby-Doo ending all over again: now let’s see who you really are!

    Comment by Tomemos — September 7, 2006 @ 2:44 pm

  4. You haven’t seen Scooby-Doo yet – just wait until you find out who blew up the bus.

    I generally agree with what you said about the episode – it really rubbed me the wrong way when I first saw it. Another fundamental difference between this episode and the movie, is that in the former the jury doesn’t just pick apart the DA’s case, they practically retry it, introducing new evidence etc., which is not what a jury is supposed to do.

    As for the show’s tendency towards vigilantism – it is true, that Veronica is often a tad too enthusiastic about her taser, but I think the show in general is much more ambivalent about her brand of “eye for an eye” justice than FB makes out. I’ll cite a season 1 episode (that you conveniently haven’t seen)called “mutually assured destruction” for evidence as well as some later season 2 episodes.

    “One Angry Veronica” was indeed heavy-handed in terms of its reverse race-baiting, but I think the show’s politics are still commendable. How many primetime shows (especially one targeted towards teens) take on questions of race, class, gender and the mesmerizing powers of celebrity in such explicit terms? Moreover, I think despite its high-concept premise and stylized dialogue, the show is the closest thing on network television to a critical social realism; it less exposes the banal hypocrisies of evil rich people but rather investigates the dark underside of a community in which the ideology of money and power hold sway – a project that aligns neatly with its noir predecessors and enables at times a fairly incisive social critique.

    Comment by Brandon — September 7, 2006 @ 6:20 pm

  5. Brandon, you really must not be talking about the episode where Veronica arranges an elaborate revenge for her sex-scandal-scarred friend Carmen, but Carmen replies that revenge isn’t her thing.

    Because if we are talking about Season 1, Episode 20, the boy who mercifully escapes the wrath of Carmen is nonetheless bound to a flagpole, and in the final scene has the bandage ripped off a tattoo that seems to prove he is gay (oh no!). By Veronica. The heroine.

    Comment by ForgottenBoy — September 11, 2006 @ 4:59 pm

  6. Me and my friend are staying? What is this, post-modern grammar?

    Comment by a concerned parent — September 15, 2006 @ 10:51 am

  7. I think your consternation is well-placed. This is an example of a sort of “narrative over all” ethos that is very “now” and is also very “stupid.” Think Terri Schiavo or Iraq, ya know? Let’s ignore the sticky questions of rights and governance, evidence and facts, and go for the ol GvB (that’s Good v. Bad, not Girls v. Boys, duh). Life over Death! Freedom over Tyranny! Dedicated Citizens over Privileged Assholes!

    The fact that this is mirrored in “real world” events means that spilling so much e-ink over a mere TV show is beyond warranted. It is demanded. By me. I demand that you, Tom, write more about television.

    Comment by Drew — September 15, 2006 @ 11:42 pm

  8. now I’ll be tuned..

    Comment by dared to pee her pants — July 23, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

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