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.