The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [posted 9 April, 2012; see release notes]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The beginning of a narrative is an essential moment, establishing much of what will follow, including whether any given consumer is motivated to keep consuming. If we want to understand contemporary serial television storytelling, we need to examine how programs begin. In this chapter, I explore a range of techniques that various complex television series use to launch their storyworlds, and highlight how these techniques might be taken up by viewers, both within the media industry and those watching at home. Via a close analysis of one exemplary television pilot, Veronica Mars, we can get a better sense of the poetic importance of serial beginnings for a broad array of programming.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 All series start somewhere. Such a statement should be self-evident, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than it might seem. First off, to highlight a beginning is to suggest the parallel of an ending—but as I discuss in the Endings chapter, serial television concludes far less frequently than it begins. Second, for daytime soap operas and other long-running series like Doctor Who or The Simpsons, textual beginnings are so far removed from present day experience that few contemporary viewers actually experienced them (at least in sequence), making the notion of a clear origin point of an ongoing story moot for most viewers. Even with shorter lived serial television programs, viewers frequently enter a series midstream, suggesting that the beginning of a story is less uniform than we presume, at least in viewing practice. One of the goals of season openers for most ongoing series is to invite new viewers in, enabling them to follow the action midstream and thus serving often as micro-beginnings to reorient old viewers and welcome in new ones. So any discussion of the beginnings of a serial narrative must admit that viewers can and do enter into the story at places other than the designated starting line. However, given the rise of the boxed DVD model that enables viewers to consume a series chronologically, there has been a growing tendency for viewers to start at the beginning of a series, as they recognize that many complex television programs are most rewarding when watched from the start. And for commercial television programs, that start is the unusual entity called the pilot.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Educational and Inspirational Poetics of Pilots

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 A television pilot must accomplish numerous tasks. Within the industry, it serves as the test run for a potential series, providing the blueprint for the program going forward as well as assembling the cast, crew, and production routines that will be responsible for creating the ongoing series. A pilot is also an argument for a show’s viability, first for the audience of network executives fishing for a hit, and then for prospective home viewers who must be persuaded to keep watching. A pilot presents an encapsulation of what a series might be like on an ongoing basis, while providing an exceptional degree of narrative exposition to orient viewers within an often complex storyworld. It must introduce a cast of characters via shorthand, such that their personalities and relationships are clear within moments, but in original enough ways that they do not seem like stereotypes or overly-familiar clones of conventional characters. It must establish the show’s genre as a means of mapping viewers’ horizon of expectations, while making the case for why the show will not be “just another” conventional example of what they have seen before. Through all of these facets, pilots must encapsulate the strange alchemy required by commercial television that new shows be simultaneously familiar and original. Thus pilots are at once the most atypical episodes of commercial television, and the highly conventional means by which television series get sold to both networks and viewers.1

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 4 I contend that the chief function of a television pilot is to teach us how to watch the series, and in doing so, make us want to keep watching—successful pilots must simultaneously be educational and inspirational. Pilots must orient viewers to the intrinsic norms that the series will employ, presenting its narrative strategies so we can attune ourselves to its storytelling style. Frequently such storytelling strategies are presented in a pilot’s opening minutes, providing an immediate invitation to watch a particular way, and thus we can see understand much of a pilot’s ability to educate and inspire by looking at the opening moments of a number of examples. As one of the landmarks of complex television, Twin Peaks’s pilot provides an important template: it opens with two and a half minutes of opening credits combining languidly paced shots of a lumber mill with dreamy theme music, demanding our viewing patience and immediately setting a meditative tone. To viewers today, the credits are a striking anomaly, both in their length and placement, as most contemporary programs either forgo opening credit sequences entirely, or precede shorter sequences with a teaser sequence to immerse viewers in the narrative. Twin Peaks’s pilot follows the credit sequence with an opening scene both pays off and disrupts what preceded it: we open on Josie preparing for her day in a continuation of the initial languid tone. We then follow Pete to the shore, where he finds Laura Palmer’s dead body, iconically “wrapped in plastic,” and calls the sheriff’s office with a comedically clueless reply from receptionist Lucy. Within the show’s first five minutes, we’re taught to expect jarring juxtapositions in style, ironic undercutting of serious moments, and a dreamy quality in which viewers are left unsure how to emotionally respond to the action—is Pete’s discovery played for laughs, melodrama, or both? These tendencies are reinforced throughout the pilot, which also establishes more than a dozen characters, key plot points and relationships, and the intrinsic norm that each episode takes place within one day of story time. The show’s open ended mystery and intriguing tone inspires viewers to want to keep watching, while the narrative form and style teaches us how to engage with the ongoing series.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Opening moments of other pilots demonstrate their similarly dual educational and inspirational roles. Pilots for complex comedies must establish their style of humor as well as storytelling form. Arrested Development begins with a scene on a boat, with Ron Howard’s off-screen narrator introducing the characters, graphic captions providing their names and roles, and techniques like freeze-frames, flashbacks and cut-aways to newspaper clippings, photos, and maps to create a highly reflexive, self-aware pseduo-documentary television style, all within the first two minutes of the series. The opening sequence also plants seeds for Arrested Development’s complex narrative structures, as Lindsey comments that she has the same blouse as a “gay pirate” on another boat—later in the episode, we learn that she is referring to her husband Tobias, who is wearing her actual blouse, drawing a connection across narrative time involving both foreshadowing and delayed gratification of a joke that becomes even more ornate as the series progresses. The episode establishes a comedic style demanding attention to varying streams of information, where the onscreen visuals (including graphics and cut-aways) may contradict or reinforce the characters actions and voiceover narration—as when Lucille Bluth says “I love all my children equally,” immediately followed by a flashback to her saying “I don’t care for Gob” earlier that day—or serve as a callback to previous moments, or music cues can undercut or comment on narrative action, all for a joke. The pilot makes it clear that the show’s style and narrative structure will be unconventional and demand attention, setting our expectations for what is to come, even as the series become much more self-assured and effective in its complex playfulness in subsequent episodes. Although it was not a highly-viewed pilot in its first broadcast, it’s not surprising that many viewers were turned off by the need for careful attention and scrutiny in a manner atypical of most sitcoms, and thus the episode inspired only a small niche of viewers to keep watching, even though it created a cult-like fervor among that group.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Another comedy pilot that works to establish its serial norms and core concept is How I Met Your Mother. The series opens with a graphic reading “the year 2030” over a shot of two teenagers looking into the camera, when the offscreen voice of “Future Ted” says, “Kids, I’m going to tell you an incredible story: the story of how I met your mother.” Although stating the series title in the pilot’s first line may seem a bit heavy-handed, this opening line establishes both the contours of the series story and the mode of its telling: we know instantly that HIMYM will use self-conscious techniques like onscreen graphics and voiceover, as well as framing the narrative scope for us. It proceeds to demonstrate an attitude toward self-mockery, as the daughter asks “is this going to take awhile?”, with Future Ted quickly saying “yes”—an answer that seems even more apt as the series is airing its seventh season as I’m writing this. The narration then sets the stage as “25 years ago,” as we are introduced to the program’s key settings and five main present-day characters, encapsulating their relationships and backstories through reflexive devices like freeze-frames, embedded flashbacks within flashbacks, split-screens, and the voice of Future Ted answering questions posed in the present-day story. The pilot also references the program’s transmedia strategy, as Barney mentions that he’ll be writing about something on his blog, an in-character paratext on CBS.com where the fictional character reflects on each episode’s events. Additionally, the pilot establishes a number of running gags and references that appear throughout the series, such as a blue french horn that Ted steals for Robin, or catchphrases like Barney’s “Suit Up!” Most importantly, the episode seems to be building toward a romance between Ted and Robin, narrating the tale of their meeting and first date, but ends with Future Ted telling his kids “that’s how I met your Aunt Robin,” and promising that the true story of meeting their mother will take awhile.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 HIMYM uses its retrospective frame story to create an embedded narrative enigma of the mother’s identity, with key unknowns lodged in the temporal gap between 2030 and the present day story starting in 2005. This flashback narration creates the sense that standard forward-moving narrative statements in the present day story can function as narrative enigmas due to the additional information provided by Future Ted. As the first season progresses with Ted pursuing a relationship with Robin, we know from the pilot’s future reveal that this is not the titular relationship motivating the frame story, and are thus encouraged to analyze the ongoing series for potential clues as to the Mother’s identity, a task that forensic fans have taken on via discussion forums and sites like the HIMYM wiki. While these embedded enigmas are not the conspiratorial mysteries found more commonly on dramas like The X-Files or Lost, they do provide a point of engagement for many fans, adding a layer of reflexive analysis for fans to discuss, and pointing toward the operational aesthetic in focusing viewers on the program’s storytelling mechanics via its self-conscious narrative devices, playful reversals, and nearly endless deferment of the title’s promised plotline. This storytelling structure serves to differentiate HIMYM from other shows about a group of white friends in their late-20s hanging out in New York, most notably Friends, as the show can mix that well-established formula with more complex narrative devices to engage viewers in both the operational aesthetic and long-term enigmas. The pilot sets this stage effectively and efficiently, both educating viewers on the show’s intrinsic norms and central characters, and inspiring us to keep viewing both for its effective use of comedy and reflexive narrative enigmas.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Dramas can similarly establish their narrative norms quickly within a pilot. Alias opens with a scene of Sydney Bristow with bright red hair being beaten and tortured by Chinese soldiers as they all argue in unsubtitled Mandarin. The scene plays out for a minute, ending with her handcuffed to a chair staring at a door where seemingly her interrogator will arrive. We then cut to another door, where a stereotypically crusty professor enters into a wood paneled classroom to collect exams from students, including a brown-haired, healthy Sydney Bristow. The story proceeds forward from this point without clear temporal, spatial or character orientation to explain this transformation, allowing viewers to piece it together as the episode continues and we realize that Sydney is both an astoundingly proficient and stylish secret agent (who ends up imprisoned in Taiwan on a mission at the episode’s climax), and a down-to-earth graduate student. These opening moments teach us to expect disorientation (both temporal and linguistic), a strategy that the pilot script by J.J. Abrams makes clear is by design: it describes the arrival of the professor with the staging directions, “Is this a flashback? A flash-forward? All answers in time. But meanwhile…” This moment also instructs us to anticipate unexpected and unexplained juxtapositions between Sydney’s dual careers—from the start, such purposeful confusion is established as one of Alias’s intrinsic norms, as the program invites us to keep watching and pay attention to try to sort it all out, a mode of engagement that becomes more essential as the plots twist and reverse throughout the pilot and subsequent episodes. This device of starting a pilot at a moment of climax and looping back to explain how we arrived at this point has become popular for many complex series, including Breaking Bad, Damages, and Veronica Mars, as discussed more below.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Other dramas use their opening moments to establish their own unconventional intrinsic norms. Pushing Daisies opens with a shot of an exaggeratedly lush field of bright yellow daisies, with a young boy and his dog running in slow motion. A British man’s voiceover says, “At this very moment in the town of Couer d’Couers, Young Ned was 9 years, 27 weeks, 6 days, and 3 minutes old. His dog Digby was 3 years, 2 weeks, 6 days, 5 hours and 9 minutes old…. And not a minute older.” At that moment, Digby is hit by a truck, marking a clear tonal blend of lush stylized beauty and stark presentation of death, as framed by a storybook-style narrative voice, juxtapositions that proved to be a hallmark for the series. The narrator is a key intrinsic norm, providing an authoritative voice from outside the storyworld to allow for swift and densely-packed narrative momentum, while providing specific details (like the precise age of characters), often prefaced with the phrase, “The facts were these.” The sequence goes on to explain the precise premise for the supernatural scenario, with Ned’s gift to reanimate the dead with a touch and the rule that another touch would kill the reanimated person or animal, while portraying the emotionally scarring moments from his youth where he learned about his power. Pushing Daisies’s “Pie-lette” faces the challenge of needing to convey a very elaborate fantasy premise, establish an unconventional storytelling mode and visual style, and create a compelling emotional hook to a show that could otherwise be seen as a whimsical novelty. It succeeds in all of these tasks, while also creating a core model of weekly mysteries layered with larger character and plot arcs, as well as distinguishing itself as a truly unique program within a medium that rarely sees such distinctiveness in style. The most successful pilots announce what they are, providing a template for both the producers and viewers to move forward within the ongoing series.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 4 Some pilots establish themselves clearly in some ways, but confounding expectations in others. Terriers is one of the most critically adored single-season series of recent vintage, with a distinct tone and style that is clearly established in the opening of the pilot—the episode starts with scruffy friends Hank and Britt chatting idly about being broke and having songs stuck in your head, as they prepare for some sort of job, seemingly as part of a pool service business but revealing itself to be a theft of a man’s dog. One of these idle topics turns out to be more consequential in the long run, as Hank recalls finding an empty carton of milk in his fridge but cannot remember drinking it—although he attributes this to early senility, in future episodes we learn that his sister is actually secretly living in his attic. Such subtle cues toward future plot developments are central to Terriers’s storytelling mode, where shaggy, loose banter often contains important narrative information that reveals itself in hindsight. The opening also speaks to one of the show’s challenges in finding an audience, as the title seemed to indicate that it would be about dogs, and the initial dog-stealing caper might mislead viewers to think dogs will be a more central focus of the ongoing plot. The fact that they are low-rent private investigators who get embroiled in high-stakes real estate corruption is revealed quite slowly, as the pilot invites us to become part of their daily routine of witty banter and hustling for money, rather than get inspired by a compelling narrative hook. For many (including me), this was a more rewarding approach, as the palpable friendship drove the action that eventually become quite complex and narratively rich, but the show’s minuscule ratings suggest that this appeal was far too narrow to sustain itself on commercial television.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Sometimes a pilot presents its intrinsic norms in ways that viewers might not recognize as such, especially when they involve episodic routines. Six Feet Under’s pilot opens with family patriarch Nathaniel Fisher dying in a brutal automobile accident, with the rest of the episode portraying the consequences of his death upon his family and their funeral home business. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Nathaniel’s death was the first of a pattern: every episode begins with someone’s death, who becomes that week’s stand-alone plot for the Fisher family business. Later the pattern becomes more elaborate, with misdirections and thwarted expectations, occasional deaths of characters already seen in the series, and one exceptional birth, but the pattern was launched in the pilot’s opening minutes. Similarly, Lost’s pilot established the structure of interwoven flashbacks off the island—in the pilot, it was just to the airplane prior to it crashing, focused on three characters’ perspectives, but that model clearly couldn’t be sustained for long. Going forward, most episodes centered flashbacks on one characters’ pre-island life interwoven with the more recent island events, until the end of the third season radically altered Lost’s storytelling structure. Nevertheless, the pilot developed the intrinsic norm that we would leave the island to expand the time and space seen within the series, and established the visual and sonic cues for how the program switches to and from flashbacks.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 An interesting recent series highlights the challenges and possibilities of complex drama pilots in teaching us how to watch and inspiring us to keep watching, as Awake debuted in spring 2012 with a highly-acclaimed first episode. Some programs face the burden of explaining their defining high concept, and the premise of Awake is seriously high concept: police detective Michael Britten gets into a deadly car accident with his family, and when he sleeps, he switches between a reality where his wife was killed but his teenage son survived, and one where his son died but his wife didn’t. The premise is easy to describe, but hard to convey what it means as a series—the most common refrain from critics prior to the show’s debut was doubting how it could work as an ongoing serial. A close analysis of the pilot suggests that the answer is provided, less in terms of the concept and more about the tone, characters, and approach to storytelling.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 As always with a pilot, the opening sequence is the key to set the parameters for what is to come. The show opens with the car crash, presented with painful violent energy culminating in three shots: unconscious wife Hannah, unconscious son Rex, husband Michael waking up. This last shot pulls back and rotates in corkscrew fashion to show the inverted wreck of the car, visualizing Michael’s world turned upside down. Over this shot, we hear the voice soon to be revealed as Michael’s therapist Dr. Lee say, “So tell me how this works.” Michael’s voice replies, “I don’t know. I close my eyes, I open them. Same as you.” We then cut to a shot of Hannah and Michael grieving at a funeral, clearly suggesting that Rex has died. Lee’s voice then says, “let’s just start at the beginning,” to which Michael says, “No.” We cut to Michael sitting in his therapy session to continue his line, “let’s start it right now.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This first 50 seconds is not particularly rich in narrative details—we learn that there was a car accident, and presumably Rex was killed in the accident—but it does provide some key clues on how to watch the show. First, the camerawork and editing is established as unconventionally stylized and free-roaming across time frames without explicit motivation, encouraging us to pay attention to visual style in a way that few network programs do. The dialog sets up two poles for how to approach the story that will prove to be crucial—Dr. Lee takes an analytic tactic, as befits his profession, trying to understand how things work and grapple with the situation’s origins. Michael wants to live in the now, downplaying that anything unusual is happening to him. These poles of engagement help structure the show’s narrative, as his dual (and dueling) therapists want to make rational sense of what’s happening to Michael as he flips between reality and a presumed dream, while Michael just wants to enjoy his split lives where he effectively can live without loss. As he says at the end of the pilot, “when it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress.” Contrasting with the midstory start of Alias and other pilots, Awake’s insistence that we begin in the present tense seems to distinguish itself from other high concept complex television.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 These dual approaches mirror how we might engage with the unusual scenario as well—we can try to make rational sense of it to solve a mystery (“so tell me how this works”), or we can enjoy the now by accepting the premise as it is, not as a problem to be solved. Much of complex television fosters a mode of forensic fandom where viewers are encouraged to solve such high-concept puzzles, to ask “why?” and presume there’s an answer to be found by drilling down and analyzing, much like with therapy or academic analysis. But Awake’s pilot invites viewers to side with Michael, not only as the story’s protagonist, but as a role model for accepting what we’ve been given without wanting to know the reasons why—as viewers, Michael asks that we don’t focus on cracking the mystery of what is “really” going on here, or deduce which reality is real. The rest of the pilot focuses our attention on what matters most: Michael works on rebuilding his relationships with son and wife in the wake of the massive losses that each suffered, but he was spared from, at least in part. Michael learns how to make his condition an asset for doing his job, as experiences in each world seem to inform the cases he solves in the other. Michael develops coping strategies to orient himself across realities with colored bracelets as visual reminders, a technique mirrored in the dual color schemes and film tints that the show uses impressively to demarcate (and subtly blend) the two realms.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 In many ways, the pilot might be seen as situating Awake within a specific subgenre: the supernatural detective drama. Although very different in tone and style, there’s a parallel here with the show Medium, which focused on Allison DuBois, a psychic who worked with the police to solve crimes. On Medium, there was never any issue as to whether Allison really was a psychic or how her powers worked—we simply accepted the fantastic premise that she communicated with the dead and enjoyed watching how it offered a twist on procedural cop plots and impacted her personal life. Pushing Daisies operates similarly, with no effort to explain why Ned possesses his supernatural gift, but focusing on how that talent affects his life and relationships. Michael can be seen similarly as a character with a special, somewhat inexplicable gift that both enriches and complicates his life. One way to read the pilot is to conceive of the series’ overarching narrative not to “start at the beginning” to understand what is happening, but to “start it right now” to understand how his condition matters to him and others in his life going forward.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Other high concept series in recent years, like Flash Forward, The Event, and Day Break, all fell into a trap where concerns about a compelling central mystery overrode all other storytelling imperatives, such as characterization, relationships, and a clear sense of narrative tone and place. Often, these series launch with what is termed a “premise pilot,” where the chief storytelling goal is to set the narrative gears in motion to establish the program’s core narrative scenario—subsequent episodes will differ dramatically once the core situation is in place. Awake’s pilot starts midstream with Britten already immersed in his narrative situation, while still educating viewers about this scenario sufficiently to make sure we understand the premise—we never see Britten experience his first “cross-reality” awakening (and still have not, after five episodes as of this writing). Instead through its compelling writing, performances, visual style, and emotional realism, Awake’s pilot suggests that the series cares more about going forward with its character-driven storytelling than solving the mystery; however, the pull of forensic fandom might make it seem like the goal of the show is to provide answers to the mysterious concept, rather than exploring its consequences in the lives of characters. A pilot is always a promissory note for what is to come (if ratings are high enough), more than a blueprint to be followed, and much can change as a series develops. Awake’s pilot asks us to accept Michael Britten’s wishes by accepting him for who he is, not trying to solve his problem, and letting viewers become immersed in both of his lives.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 This survey of different pilot strategies has focused on some of the most acclaimed examples of debut episodes, hailed by fans and critics alike. Of course, many pilots start in a very different place than where they end up, as shows frequently take awhile to find their footing. This is most true in comedies, where ensembles often need time to develop a rapport and writers learn which relationship dynamics work best. The pilot to Parks & Recreation looks little like the series that many hail today as one of television’s best sitcoms, as the characters were more extreme in their personalities and the show focused on an overarching plot arc of building a park that was dropped quickly in the second season. Cougar Town’s pilot reflects the program’s initial concept of a middle-aged woman dating younger men that was quickly jettisoned after a few episodes, and even all-time classic Seinfeld shows little of the structural flair or intricate dialogue that later typified the series. Dramas can also start quite differently than they end up, as with Justified beginning with more of an episodic procedural focus until the series began to emphasize longer plot arcs by making Boyd Crowder into a more central foil for Raylan Givens in the back half of the first season, a shift motivated by the producers’ choice to keep Boyd alive after his planned early death due to the strength of Walton Goggins’s performance. Dollhouse aired a first episode that downplayed its longterm plot arcs and conspiracies, a mandated shift away from creator Joss Whedon’s more serialized pilot as demanded by the Fox network—the original pilot was included on DVD, and fans encouraged new viewers to start with it instead to get a more authorially sanctioned version of the series. While we could certainly learn much by examining pilots that fail to reflect their subsequent series, or that fail altogether in attracting an audience or even making it to the air, to understand the way complex television programs can launch with effective momentum, it is more instructive to take an in-depth analysis of an exemplary case of a serial beginning.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 “These Questions Need Answers”: Veronica Mars’s Pilot in Slow-Motion

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The “Pilot” episode of Veronica Mars is a remarkable piece of television. It manages to introduce more than a dozen characters and relationships, probe numerous backstories, plant the seeds for three season-long story arcs, establish a genre mixture of teen melodrama and film noir, and convey a tone combining complex mystery, snarky humor, relationship drama, and social commentary―all within a running time of just over 40 minutes. Close analysis of a pilot episode such as this can yield greater insight into the way that television tells stories, and how pilots work to launch an ongoing narrative universe. To understand the educational and inspirational strategies employed by Veronica Mars, we need to zoom in closely on the pilot’s formal mechanics and structure, detailing the strategies used by the producers to start the narrative as both a window onto the series as a whole and the broader function of pilots, and outlining the ways that a hypothetical new viewer would make sense of this serialized beginning. Such close analysis can also help us understand the complex intersection of gender and genre that Veronica Mars plays with so compellingly, an aspect that only becomes clear after a slow-motion walkthrough of the episode’s storytelling strategies.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 When approaching VM’s “Pilot,” there is a further complication―the episode aired on UPN originally on September 22, 2004, in a different form than the version released on the season 1 DVD that came out a year later. The most important difference between the two versions concerns how each open, which I have suggested above is crucial to the functions of pilots. The UPN-aired pilot begins in the sunny parking lot of Neptune High, with Veronica’s voiceover setting the scene featuring class conflict and teen politics in beautiful Southern California.2 This scene was pushed back to after the opening credits in the DVD version, which starts instead with a pre-credit flash-forward to Veronica staking out the seedy Camelot Motel along with a highly-noir style voiceover narration, a moment that will be returned to at the 18-minute mark of the DVD-version of the episode, echoing the “in media res” strategy from Alias discussed above. Yet another version might be imagined from the original pilot script available on creator Rob Thomas’s website―this script mirrors the DVD version, although with a number of changed names like the town of Playa de Costa instead of Neptune, or Logan Hewitt instead of Logan Echolls, a few altered plot points, and saltier language and content more appropriate for Thomas’s original pitch for cable distribution rather than broadcast network.3 Or we might seek out the original unaired pilot that UPN bought, which circulated amongst television critics and in bootleg versions online, following the structure of the DVD version, but with a few minor differences in casting and dialogue.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 I’m choosing to focus on the DVD version as my analytic object, not because of its status as Thomas’s “preferred” final edit, but rather since the series exists beyond the timeframe of its initial airing, and any attempt to revisit the narrative is bound to turn to the published DVDs. While certainly the original aired version set the stage for the show’s small but dedicated initial fanbase, our long term engagement with the series will by necessity treat the DVDs as the permanent lasting text for viewers since 2004. However, we can learn something from these changes. UPN’s decision to eliminate the opening flash-forward was certainly trying to make the show easier to comprehend, avoiding the temporal leap that might confuse a naïve viewer. But it also redefines its initial genre emphasis―by starting with the high school scene, the UPN version cues viewers that this will be a show about teenagers, with a brave and active heroine guiding us through the perils of adolescence. As Thomas said in an interview, “the network handed me a note that basically said that since the show is about high school, it should start in the high school…. They were sure that getting young people to watch would be too tough with the original pilot.”4 Thus even though UPN bought the show based on the original pilot, the network reimagined it to fit the genre emphasis that they felt better suited their brand and target audience.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 A close look at the DVD version, following the template of the script and unaired original pilot, reveals a vastly different genre tone, starting with a dire proclamation via Veronica’s voiceover that locates the opening far from the confines of high school drama: “I’m never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is.” The televisual style helps set the tone, with the mellow bass groove of Air’s instrumental “La Femme D’Argent” (a music cue Thomas iterated in his original script) accompanying a slow crane up on the late-night scene outside the Camelot Motel, highlighting the red neon glow of the “No Vacancy” sign. The visuals cut to a shot of a draped window with a silhouetted couple having sex, while the voiceover says, “Veronica Mars, spinster. I mean, what’s the point. Sure, there’s the initial primal drive. Ride it out.” For the first-time viewer, the impulse is to try to piece together the emerging story information from the scattered textual cues, following a cognitive process I discuss in the Comprehension chapter. We now know that we’re hearing Veronica’s voice, but don’t have much to help orient us as to where we are and who this Veronica Mars character might be. Might she be the long-haired passionate woman seen atop her lover in this shadowed shot? The language of “primal urge” and “ride it out” suggests an erotic link, while Veronica’s emotionally detached vocal tone suggests a more distant observational role.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Our hypotheses shift along with the camera, as a continuous shot pans right to follow a man in an ill-fitting feminine bathrobe walking by the window and descending the stairs to fill his ice bucket. Veronica continues, “Better yet? Ignore it. Sooner or later, the people you love let you down. And here’s where it ends up: sleazy men, cocktail waitresses, cheap motels on the wrong side of town. And a soon-to-be ex-spouse wanting a bigger piece of the settlement pie.” This sequence directs our attention away from the shadowy lovers and toward the larger significance of the Camelot motel, whose mythical name evokes a reference point of a glossy surface with hidden secrets of infidelity and betrayal. Veronica cues us that these people are merely stand-ins for a larger situation of adultery and distrust, thematic signifiers rather than actual characters. This moment highlights one key task of a pilot: sorting out which people are actual characters, and which are simply people inhabiting the world, more like props or parts of the set decoration. The continuous camera movement helps establish a broader narrative impulse toward mystery and problem-solving, as we seek answers to questions that are then redirected and reframed, often away from red herrings and misleading dead-ends. And the sequence helps us rank the relative reliability of the different sources of information: we trust what we see, but Veronica’s voiceover appears to be more authoritative in helping us interpret and prioritize the images. Thus we view the visuals as objectively true, but the voiceover provides the preferred subjective approach toward the action that includes us among Veronica’s intimate confidants.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The next sequence solidifies this relationship. The visuals jump to a reverse angle nestled in the C of the neon Camelot sign, with the other side of the No Vacancy sign centered over the deserted street, save for four parked cars. The camera slowly zooms in, but after only one second, it cuts to a medium shot of one of the cars, continuing the zooming pattern in a somewhat disorienting jump edit. The voiceover ties the action to our protagonist: “That’s where I come in.” This clichéd bit of dialog evokes film noir, although it might be more directly derived from the noir-influenced television crime show Dragnet.5 Veronica’s line clearly sets up her authority as expert on adultery and betrayal, an expertise that will later be revealed as involving more than a professional knowledge, and coalesces all of the previous film noir cues: the sleazy motel, surveillant gaze, tawdry affairs, and cynical worldview. Just 40 seconds into the series, we already have a clear genre demarcation and an evocative persona for our titular narrator, who thus far seems exceptional primarily for being a woman in a masculine-dominated genre.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 What we don’t yet know is that Veronica is in high school, the key revelation that UPN sought to foreground. The next shot alludes to this aspect of her persona, as we enter the car on a close-up of a book entitled Calculus of a Single Variable. The book’s connotative meaning will matter more later, as we learn of Veronica’s attributes as a singular free agent with a talent for problem-solving, and a key variable within a number of puzzling calculations―in fact, “Calculus of a Single Variable” would be an apt title for the episode as a whole. For now, it serves as a small enigmatic detail in an otherwise genre-consistent storyworld. As the shot drifts from the book toward a camera, Veronica continues, “$40 an hour is cheap compared to the long-term financial security sordid photography can secure for you. Your offspring. Your next lover.” We are still deep in the milieu of noir, as Veronica reaches for a steel thermos―a concession to the teen drama, as were it a hard-boiled adult noir, she would certainly be drinking whiskey out of a flask. The first bit of Veronica we see is her right hand, which is adorned with an ornately designed thumb ring. When paired with her anti-marriage proclamation, the thumb ring instantly marks Veronica as a non-conformist with her own individual style. In contrast to the feminine norm of wedding and engagement rings marking a coupled status, Veronica’s thumb ring highlights her status as both single and variable.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The shot continues to follow the thermos as Veronica pours herself a cup of coffee. A seven-second pause in the narration accompanies our first glimpse of Veronica’s face, giving us time to drink in the close-up sight. Certainly she is young, but we cannot be sure of an age yet―actress Kristen Bell was 24 at the time of the show’s debut, but easily passed for younger. She is looking off-screen to her left, and the pause in narration gives us time to do the spatial calculations to gather that her viewpoint is the perspective from the first shots, and that it is she who is surveilling the lurid action at the Camelot, an activity consistent with the noir style. The earlier voiceover, point-of-view shot, and facial close-up confirms that our perspective is the same as Veronica’s, making her our focalizing guide to this still-emerging narrative universe.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Bell’s youthful beauty contradicts her cynical, cold narration which continues as she pours and drinks some coffee: “But do us a favor if it’s you in there: dispense with the cuddling. This motel tryst, it is what it is. Make it quick. The person sitting in the car across the street might have a calculus exam in five… make that four hours, and she can’t leave until she gets the money shot.” This sequence helps narrow down the possibilities of Veronica’s narrative status and identity. Her glance to the car clock as she corrects the timetable for her exam grounds the voiceover within the present-tense thoughts of the character, ruling out a retrospective commentary on the action. The mention of the calculus exam identifies her as a student, although she could be either advanced high school or college, and strengthens the link between the textbook and character. Most importantly, we realize that Veronica leads a double life―private eye by night, student by day―setting up the tension between the dual worlds that will dominate the series.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 3 At this point in the teaser, our first question has been answered in a cursory manner―who is this voice lecturing us about marriage?―but deeper questions are raised about the character: who is this Veronica Mars, why is she so bitter, and what’s the deal with her double roles as student and P.I.? Any further pondering is interrupted by the off-camera sounds of revving engines and a musical shift into a faster driving synthesizer groove. Veronica looks up and we get an eyeline match to a band of motorcycles driving down the deserted road. The editing pace quickens to match the music, with 11 cuts in 15 seconds reversing between Veronica watching the bike gang and the bikers turning around to park in front of the hotel. The shots emphasize the contrast between the bright vehicle lights and the dark night streets, with the lights reflected off Veronica’s car and mirrors. This shift in music and visual style changes the show’s television cop show allusive frame of reference from Dragnet to Miami Vice, with the latter’s glossy neon style masking something dangerous and sinister beneath the surface. Veronica deadpans (in spoken dialog rather than voiceover), “Well, this can’t be good,” suggesting a calm exterior but raising doubts about her future safety.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 The next sequence begins with a shot tilting down the length of the vertical Camelot Motel sign, ending on street level as the lead biker rolls to a stop in the center of the frame. A series of reverse angles show Veronica staring down the biker, who removes his helmet, beckons her to roll down her window, and then menacingly says, “Car trouble, miss?” We end with a shot of Veronica inhaling as she ponders her next move before we cut to the credits, starting with upbeat music and a vastly different image of a smiling Veronica sitting in the sun. In just under 1:40, this teaser has set-up a great deal of information and context for the episode and series as a whole. We have established the title character as a savvy and brave young woman, juggling life as a student and paid private investigator. The neo-noir style serves to set a cynical and world-weary tone, with clever narration encouraging a more sophisticated take on conventional crime stories. The frank sexual content of adulterous motel trysts signals a level of maturity unexpected in a program that will later be shown to be based around a high school. And the cliffhanger ending suggests that suspense and action will be a prime ingredient of the dramatic action.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 It’s not hard to see both why Thomas might have preferred this opening for the pilot, highlighting maturity, unconventionality and suspenseful noir, and why UPN forced the more typical opening at Neptune High to appeal to its core teenage target audience with a more familiar milieu, style, genre, and set of characters. These two openings highlight the central challenge of any pilot: demonstrating how the show is both freshly distinct and yet familiar enough to be recognizable and comfortable, striking the delicate balance between similarity and difference that structures commercial television as a format. The UPN opening starts with the familiar and slowly complicates it with intrigue and genre mixture, while the DVD version puts us in the midst of something unconventional for television, a young female-centered noir, and then links it to the more conventional facets of teen drama. Both educate viewers on the show’s norms and inspire them to keep viewing, but clearly each approach speaks differently to various subsets of the potential viewing audience.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 To further analyze the Veronica Mars pilot, we could continue such a slow-motion replay of the episode, highlighting how each shot, sound, line, and sequence adds to our understanding of the storyworld and sets the stage for the series. But the length needed for such an analysis would turn this chapter into a book, along the lines of Roland Barthes’s S/Z! Instead, we can zoom out and look at some of the broader trends and strategies that play out across the entire episode, and consider how they work to teach viewers how to view the series as a whole. Such an account builds on a model of narrative comprehension explored by David Bordwell for film and explored more in the Comprehension chapter, exploring how a text draws upon both external norms (like genre and stylistic conventions) and intrinsic norms unique to the film itself to cue viewers how to construct the story in their minds and posit answers to ongoing narrative questions.6 For a television series, a pilot is the primary site for establishing intrinsic norms for the ongoing series, and making clear connections to the relevant external norms of genre, narrative mode, and style.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 One aspect that quickly becomes apparent is that Veronica Mars will tell its story using complex narrative techniques. The pilot contains a number of hallmarks of such narrative complexity―direct address voiceover narration, frequent flashbacks and jumps in timeframe, and long-term mysteries and story arcs that will traverse the entire season and beyond. All of these techniques clearly situate Veronica Mars within the mode of narrative complexity within minutes of the pilot’s opening, establishing particular intrinsic norms that will guide viewers throughout the series. After the opening credits, we are brought back into the storyworld not at the moment of cliffhanging suspense, but into the sunny parking lot of a high school. Veronica’s upbeat voiceover, in stark contrast to the world-weary cynicism of the first scene, quickly sets the scene for the moments that opened the pilot as originally aired on UPN: “This is my school. If you go here, your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires. Neptune, California: a town without a middle class.” The DVD version adds a bit more exposition to explain the temporal shift―a caption reads “20 Hours Earlier” as Veronica continues, “So how does a girl end up surrounded by a motorcycle gang at four in the morning on the wrong side of town? For that answer, we’ll have to rewind to yesterday.” Thus we are reoriented to the story going forward, with the two versions becoming mostly identical for the rest of the episode.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Starting an episode midstory and then flashing back to reveal how the characters got to that point, a device nicknamed “How We Got Here” on the useful TV Tropes wiki, is a common technique in narratively complex programs, as discussed above concerning Alias’s pilot or in the Introduction concerning Revenge and The West Wing.7 However, Veronica Mars’s use of voiceover allows the explanation of the temporal jump to be more obvious than typical on other shows―while other shows using this device like West Wing and Damages normally use only captions to reset their timelines, and the pilot of Alias avoids any such orienting devices, Veronica’s narration explicitly notes that we are rewinding the story, making sure that audiences can follow the complex plotting. More interestingly, the narration frames the rewind as a question, explicitly asking how she got there and providing an answer through the narrative logic. Explicitly framing the story as a series of questions and answers, or “erotetic narrative” as termed by Noël Carroll, is a vital aspect of the show’s narrative structure, a thematic dimension that is repeated throughout the episode (which I return to later).8 By framing this temporal shift so explicitly and self-consciously posing the storytelling in question form, Veronica Mars teaches us that it will employ complex storytelling techniques, but assures us that it will try to keep us oriented through a range of narrative devices, aiming for comprehension over confusion, clear questions and answers instead of open-ended uncertainty.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 This opening rewind is not the pilot’s only example of temporal complexity, as the episode contains eight flashbacks that run approximately nine minutes in total, accounting for more than 20% of its running time. While flashbacks remain an important part of the narrative toolbox for the series as a whole, the pilot uses them far more extensively than almost any other episode. In large part, the use of flashbacks in the pilot are expository, providing backstory on the characters and situations that precede the present day timeline. These flashbacks are quite important to set-up the show’s major plot arcs, as they posit the three key questions that will motivate the serialized narrative plotlines for the season: Who killed Lilly Kane? Who raped Veronica? And why did Veronica’s mother leave the family? All of these major narrative events occurred long before the pilot begins, so flashbacks help build mystery about the storyworld’s past events, a storytelling strategy that creates the narrative universe’s depth and richness. The pilot’s extensive use of flashbacks helps set-up an intrinsic norm for the series as a whole, but also underscores how a pilot is often atypical in its storytelling strategies in order to sufficiently educate viewers on the scenario and key backstory elements.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Just as the opening rewind is explained clearly with redundancy, the flashbacks are all highly cued and demarcated as narratively distinct. The first flashback comes at the episode’s five minute mark, with Veronica sitting outside in her high school courtyard, introducing her classmates via voiceover. In recounting her previous status as part of the “in crowd,” she admits, “The only reason I was allowed beyond the velvet ropes was Duncan Kane, son of software billionaire Jake Kane. He used to be my boyfriend.” The camera alternates between a shot of Veronica sitting alone staring wistfully at Duncan, and her visual perspective of him mingling with his friends. The camera slowly tracks in toward Veronica at the end of her line, as the image blurs via quick dissolve into another shot with an accompanying “swoosh” sound effect. The new shot of kids in the high school hallway is tinted blue, with soft focus and streaky images to clearly distinguish it from the bright colors and sun drenched lighting of the courtyard. The music shifts as well, to a breathy atmospheric vocal track from the previous subtle guitar rhythmic background in the courtyard scene. We soon see Duncan and a longer-haired Veronica in the center of the frame, with a jump-cut forward to a close-up of them kissing, before the image oversaturates with white light, and shifts into slow-motion. All of these stylistic techniques, from film stock to soundtrack, color scheme to hairstyling, serve to demarcate the flashback sequence from the norms established in the present-tense scenes. There is no ambiguity about this temporal shift, as the sequence is clearly framed as a subjective memory presented to us by Veronica, our focalizing narrator.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 The next flashback is similarly demarcated, but differs in terms of perspective. Veronica is sitting at lunch with Wallace, as she asks him two related questions: “So what did you do?… Why are you a dead man walking?” These questions trigger the similar blur and sound effect to signal a flashback of Wallace reporting a robbery while working at a convenience store, with Wallace narrating events to Veronica. This flashback, briefly interrupted by a line from Veronica, is the only scene where Veronica does not appear throughout the entire episode and thus the only story material portrayed without Veronica’s first-hand experience―future episodes certainly focus primarily on the titular character, but feature scenes and plotlines with Veronica absent, another example of a pilot’s exceptional status. Although Wallace’s flashback uses comparable stylistic markers as Veronica’s, its narrative status is different: Wallace is clearly retelling the story to Veronica within the storyworld, while Veronica’s voiceovers and flashbacks are internal monologues, shared only with the non-specified “you” of the television audience. These distinctions reinforce the important centrality of Veronica as our main character, narrative guide, and focalizing figure, a status that remains consistent throughout the series.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Veronica’s second flashback, immediately following the scene with Wallace, appears more subjective, motivated by a triggered memory rather than expository narration. In the courtyard to her apartment, she hears the song “Just Another” by Pete Zorn playing on a radio as she is walking by the swimming pool. She looks up at the radio, and then we hear a splash from the pool. Veronica looks down as we “swoosh” into a flashback image of Duncan emerging from the water, saying, “Hey babe, it’s our song.” The scene shifts abruptly to Veronica’s friends circling a large birthday cake being held out by a previously unseen woman, who says, “Happy birthday, Veronica! Are you surprised?” Veronica says, “Mom” twice―first within the flashback, and then in a quick switch back to the present day narrative, as she spins her head mistakenly thinking that another woman in the courtyard was her mother. While this flashback is stylistically cued as a memory, its narrative function is more opaque, not answering questions explicitly posed by Veronica’s narration, but rather raising a question still to be addressed: where is Veronica’s mother? All of Veronica’s flashbacks offer a balance of narrative information and emotional depth, with this example furthest toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 The next flashback comes more than five minutes later, and includes the most narratively significant revelations. While Veronica is surveilling Jake Kane for her father’s private investigation firm, she narrates the details of Kane’s prominent business and civic roles in Neptune. As she begins to talk about her relationship with the Kane family, we flashback to a scene between Veronica and Lilly Kane which introduces Lilly, revealing her murder and how Veronica learned of her friend’s demise. Most notably, the sequence presents an important but understated uncertainty, with Lilly telling Veronica “I’ve got a secret—a good one,” in a conversation that Veronica identifies as “the last words Lilly and I ever shared.” Lilly’s secret is not highlighted as a key narrative enigma, but it returns in prominence later in the season as Veronica begins to unravel the case—looking back from the end of the season, this referenced secret is the cause of Lilly’s death, and thus its subdued placement within the pilot helps provide unity to the arc of her murder. Although the events being portrayed are clearly emotionally fraught for Veronica, with her best friend’s murder and the subsequent scapegoating of her father for a botched investigation, the tone of the narration is detached and factually-driven, with Veronica presenting the story more as an investigator than someone who is emotionally involved in the case.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 This flashback thus helps situate the narrative status of Veronica’s voiceover narration. After revealing Lilly’s death, she says, “But everyone knows this story, the murder of Lilly Kane…. And, of course, everyone remembers reading about the bungling local sheriff, the one who went after the wrong man. That bungling sheriff was my dad.” This narration suggests that Veronica is explicitly speaking to an audience within the storyworld, assuming our familiarity with the tabloid-covered events. While the narration is never overtly identified as fitting a particular frame of reference, like a diary or therapy session as found in other programs with first-person voiceover, this mode of direct address distinguishes it from a more objective narrational tone like in Dragnet. Whereas in Dragnet there is no implied audience hearing Friday’s narration that functions like an orated police report, Veronica is clearly talking to somebody, explaining her perspectives and asking us to go along for a ride. This style of narration firmly embeds the viewer within the storyworld, making us an unspecified but important part of the diegesis that functions as a sounding board for Veronica’s inner thoughts and plans, providing access both to details of her investigative procedures and emotional life.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Subsequent flashbacks follow these established parameters, presenting crucial backstory plot, relationships, and lingering mysteries. Questions remain central to the use of flashbacks, as with the sixth flashback introduced with the voiceover, “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I,” before showing the scene of Veronica’s drug-induced date rape. The seventh flashback is cued by another character’s questions―Logan is taunting Veronica about her absent mother, asking, “Do you know where she is? Any clue?” Veronica stares him down as he drives away, but then answers his question via voiceover: “It’s been eight months since I’ve seen my mother.” A flashback shows the morning after Lianne left, setting up the season-long arc about her status and Veronica’s relationship with her mother. Throughout the pilot, questions are articulated either to immediately answer them to orient and educate viewers, or to establish enigmas inspiring viewers to continue watching in hopes of discovering the answers.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 1 The flashbacks also cue some important parallels and repetitions that draw characters together, deepen the storyworld, and cue narrative pleasure. For instance, in Wallace’s flashback, Sheriff Lamb mocks Wallace by saying, “You need to go see the wizard, ask him for some guts.” Veronica interrupts in the present tense, “’Go see the wizard,’ he said that?” a comment that seems unremarkable at the time. 22 minutes later, the comment becomes clearer―during a flashback to Veronica reporting her rape, Sheriff Lamb cruelly dismisses her by saying, “I’ll tell you what, Veronica Mars―why don’t you go see the wizard, ask for a little backbone.” Besides clearly aligning Wallace and Veronica together against Lamb, this parallel sets up an episodically contained revenge plot that implicates the Sheriff’s department in exchanging favorable treatment of a strip club for sexual favors. Since the show does not call attention to this parallel dialog, viewers who have been paying attention can get a brief frisson of pleasure upon recognizing the repetition. Such moments of recognition and connection are an important facet of watching serial television, as drawn out links that may span across episodes or even seasons offer dedicated viewers an acknowledgement of, and reward for, their dedication and attention. Although this intra-episodic repetition requires no long-term commitment, the moment helps establish the broader norm that the series will expect viewers to pay attention, forge connections, and reward their dedication via pleasurable connections and revelations.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Another narrative pleasure is signaled by a subtle repetition. Around halfway through the episode, Veronica’s father Keith Mars returns home from an attempt to collect a bounty on a bail jumper―Veronica greets him with an inquisitive, “And?” Keith pauses for drama, and then offers a pseudo-cool, ““Who’s your daddy?”, which Veronica dismisses with typical adolescent exasperation, “I hate it when you say that.” This exchange creates a bit of playful tension between father and daughter, as Keith goes on to mockingly claim a degree of coolness that amuses Veronica, but underscores their generational divide. Toward the end of the episode, a parallel scene occurs as Keith finds Veronica in the Mars Investigation office at night, where she has discovered that Keith has been withholding information from her about the Kane murder case. He tempts her to leave with promises of pizza and the South Park movie, and offers a repeated “Who’s your daddy?” This time Veronica sighs and smiles, and warmly replies, “You are.” The repeated moment reconciles the earlier tension like a musical phrase, replaying a dissonant theme with a resolved harmonious chord. This moment highlights the stability of this relationship that will anchor the entire series, as well as foreshadowing the forthcoming plot developments when Veronica starts to question and investigate this precise question of her paternity. Additionally, the repetition calls attention to the show’s well-crafted storytelling, using an overt parallel to inspire confidence in viewers that the producers are in full control of their fictional form. It’s a self-aware moment of narrative construction that, at least for some viewers, provides a moment of playful pleasure in admiration of the show’s creative craft, a moment of the operational aesthetic in action.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 As is typical of all pilots, the episode introduces and focuses our attention on a number of characters and relationships. Clearly Veronica is the central figure of the storyworld, appearing in every scene except Wallace’s flashback, and virtually every character exists primarily in relationship to her. The credit sequence introduces the list of major characters in the order: Veronica, Wallace, Duncan, Logan, and Weevil, with Keith getting the final billing as “and Enrico Colantoni,” a position conventionally reserved for more established actors in supporting roles, as well as parents in teen dramas. The actual screen time for characters is differently balanced―Wallace appears in around 25% of the episode and Keith in 20%, a proportion that effectively establishes those two characters as Veronica’s most trusted and stable allies in the ongoing series. Duncan’s third billing seems contrary to appearing only in 7% of the episode, an imbalance that persists throughout the series―the character is narratively central to many of the ongoing arcs, but his presence is less vibrant and active than the other supporting actors, culminating in the character leaving the show midway through the second season. Thomas has suggested in interviews that the character never quite worked as they imagined it, partly due to Teddy Dunn’s performance and partly because his function was too defined as isolated from Veronica due to their often estranged relationship. While certainly the romantic link and familial history between Duncan and Veronica are core dramatic elements, the pilot shows little of their connection and effectively confines Duncan to the margins over more colorful supporting players.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Logan was not initially conceived as a main character, but Jason Dohring’s compelling performance prompted the producers to make Logan more central to the show and establish an ongoing romance with Veronica. In the pilot, Logan and Weevil share nearly equal time at around 13% of the episode time, helping to establish the two as rivals culminating in their confrontation toward the end of the episode. Functionally the two characters share a volatile bond with Veronica, serving both as allies and enemies at various times. These proportions also mirror a legalistic aspect of storytelling unique to the television medium―contracts often stipulate the number of episodes per season each actor will appear in. Thus the actors playing Veronica, Wallace, and Keith were contractually obligated to appear in every episode in season one, while those playing Weevil, Logan, and Duncan were only available for approximately 75% of the episodes, forcing the producers to devise stories that allowed them to disappear for a week.9 The pilot effectively establishes this balance in character prominence that carries throughout the first season.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 The pilot also establish the show’s norms for balancing multiple plotlines. Although like many pilots, much of the episode’s time is spent introducing the setting, characters, and relationships rather than focusing on narrative events and storylines, the episode does introduce a remarkable number of events and plots. Typically, a Veronica Mars episode features a self-contained A plot concerning a case that is introduced and solved within an episode, alongside B and C plots focusing on long-term arcs of ongoing mysteries and relationships. The pilot is less typically structured, with six definable plotlines: the robbery at Wallace’s store, the investigation into the Seventh Veil strip club, the Jake Kane infidelity investigation, Lilly Kane’s murder, Lianne leaving the family, and Veronica’s rape. As is common for the show, the plotlines are not rigidly distinct, as they interweave both in terms of events and themes―the strip club plot ends up merging with the robbery case, and the theme of sexual indiscretion and mystery permeates many of the storylines. It is therefore hard to define a clear A plot; although the Jake Kane investigation takes up the most time at nearly a quarter of the episode, it blurs into nearly all of the other plotlines and lacks the resolution common of A plots in subsequent episodes. The Wallace and strip club cases are resolved, but lack the central focus typical of other episodes’ A plots.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Despite a fuzzier distinction between plotlines than will become the norm for the show, the pilot’s atypical multiple story threads do help orient viewers on how to watch the series. The episode’s self-contained plotlines (the robbery and strip club cases) are presented with Veronica in firm control of the action, effectively rescuing Wallace and manipulating the sheriff’s office with minimal stress and effort. These plots situate Veronica as more knowledgeable of events and backstory than viewers. For most of the episode, we are unsure of the relevance of the strip club plotline and are not privy to Veronica’s master plan to connect the case with the robbery via a videotape swap―the connection is revealed at the moment of Lamb’s humiliation, rather than positioning us as riding shotgun to the ongoing procedures of Veronica’s investigations. For most episodes, the self-contained cases do little to challenge Veronica’s investigational mastery, and they function more as games for viewers to try to guess the culprit, outcome, or Veronica’s investigative strategy.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 The long-term story arcs, involving the Kane family and Veronica’s emotional traumas of rape and maternal abandonment, align us more closely with Veronica’s limited knowledge, as we learn about new developments along with her and she treats us as confidants sharing vital backstory. Veronica’s investigative approach foregrounds posing and answering questions, and the show’s serial storytelling follows this paradigm. In the final minutes of the episode, Veronica herself asks a number of key questions: “The Lilly Kane murder file—what’s Dad been up to?… My surveillance photo from the Camelot—why is it in the Lilly Kane file? What was Mom doing there, and what business did she have with Jake Kane? And the million dollar question: why did Dad lie to me?” After the scene with Keith in which she reconciles his deception, Veronica narrates, “I’ve got too many questions swirling around in my head to wait until he’s ready to share. These questions need answers―that’s what I do.” The narrative logic of this sequence sets up the key season-long arcs while clearly establishing the show’s erotetic narration, as well as making sure that these arcs will not dangle unanswered. As Veronica’s final monologue asserts, “I promise this: I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again,” a statement that serves to also assure viewers that these questions do have answers that will be revealed in due time and deliver emotionally satisfying resolutions, at least as long as the network allows the show to continue to air.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 The only question during this sequence that gets answered immediately is Keith’s “Who’s your Daddy?”, which prompts Veronica’s sentimental assurance to cement the stability of their relationship in the face of broader uncertainties—although later in the season, the question of Veronica’s paternity becomes more than joking repartee and emerges as a key storyline. This answer helps divide the long-term arcs into two categories: plot arcs that posit enigmas and mysteries, and emotional relationship or character arcs that are more clearly delimited in the moment. This division is typical of many primetime serials, where plot mysteries use complex storytelling strategies around narrative enigmas, while character arcs are more conventional in its presentation of narrative statements. These differing modes of presentation allow for distinct modes of engagement and narrative questioning―the emotional plots about relationships encourage us to ask “what will happen?” going forward, as with Veronica’s romantic entanglements and rocky relations with her mother. Conversely, the mysteries frame the narrative as “what really happened in the past?”, privileging the forensic mode of hunting clues, connecting pieces, and positing theories alongside Veronica’s own investigation. We know that the answers to emotional relationship questions, however temporary and fleeting, will likely arrive soon in the story, but the enigma-driven mysteries linger far beyond our expectations and take unanticipated twists along the way.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 The dual narrative modes of mystery and relationship drama are tightly tied to codes of gender and genre, suggesting that formal analysis can help illuminate broader cultural questions. Robyn Warhol has effectively argued that serial form has been tightly linked to “effeminate feelings” of sentimentality and overt emotional expression. She contends that late-20th century modes of serial storytelling clearly bifurcate gendered pleasures by genre, with soap operas and melodramatic literature appealing to effeminate audiences, and action-adventure serials like Patrick O’Brian’s maritime novels and science-fiction television addressing an anti-effeminate audience.10 But I believe that many contemporary complex serials embrace both of Warhol’s “technologies of feeling,” marrying the effeminate affects of sentimentality and weepiness with the masculine responses of heart-pounding thrills and rational puzzle-solving. Veronica Mars is exemplary of some key ways that these appeals are balanced and structured into contemporary narrative forms, a topic addressed more in depth in the Genre chapter.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 The cast of characters establishes this balance at the show’s core―the titular character is clearly the female center of the narrative universe, but she is surrounded almost exclusively by male figures, especially in the first season. However, Veronica herself is far from a simple embodiment of feminine norms―her present-tense persona is defined in opposition to her pre-rape femininity, with shortened hair, heightened sarcastic attitude, and an emotional detachment that alienates her from nearly all of her high school peers. As established in the opening scene, Veronica eschews romantic sentiment and embraces personal risk in the service of her rational, procedural detective work. In terms of narrative pleasures, Veronica’s core storylines fit more neatly into the typically anti-effeminate mode of action and detective drama than the effeminate realm of romantic melodrama.11 And arguably the male characters serve more effeminate roles―Wallace as supportive counselor and confidant, Keith as nurturing parent, and Duncan as sensitive romantic who eventually becomes a single parent himself. Even Logan and Weevil, who first appear as hyper-masculine, aggressive, and hostile threats to Veronica, undergo a process of becoming more sensitive, emotionally engaged, and feminized throughout the season, a process of gender transformation that Janice Radway has argued is central to the romance genre.12 Arguably the only regular character who neatly fits into typical gender norms is Dick Casablancas, whose hyper-masculine doltishness is played for comic relief and restricted to the margins of the story (and doesn’t even appear in the pilot), whereas each of the more central figures embody gender contradictions and complexity.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 The pilot comments on its own atypical gender norms―when Veronica gives Wallace the incriminating videotape, he thanks her and tries to get her to acknowledge that she did him a favor. He says, “underneath that angry young woman shell, there’s a slightly less angry young woman, who’s dying to bake me something. You’re a marshmallow, Veronica Mars, a Twinkie!” Veronica’s dual gender identity is echoed in the pilot’s final lines―following Veronica’s assertion that she will solve the mysteries and reunite her family, she says, “I’m sorry, is that mushy? Well, you know what they say: Veronica Mars, she’s a marshmallow.” The prominence of this repetition as the show’s final moment contrasts with the highly rational procedures that Veronica has followed in both explicating and pursuing the mysteries, reminding us that she’s acting not just out of a rationalist mode of justice and detection, but a sentimental and effeminate urge for family unity and lost friendship. Thus the final scene sets the stage for the broad range of gendered appeals and identities to be explored within the series, and cues us to be alert to the complexities of both character and plotting rather than assuming clear cut binaries and conventions.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 1 In the end, the pilot of Veronica Mars teaches us how to watch the series, manages our expectations for what is to come, and inspires us to keep watching. Most pilots focus on establishing the setting, characters, and narrative situation, and thus are quite atypical of what future episodes might bring. The Veronica Mars pilot employs more flashbacks, voiceover, and exposition than typical, but also establishes many norms of tone, style, and theme that future episodes will typically adhere to. As such, it is one of the more effective pilots for a complex serial drama, performing an astounding degree of narrative work while also offering clear pleasures and moments consistent with the series as a whole. While the series as a whole might have resolved with anti-climactic disappointment, the pilot remains a landmark in serial storytelling, positing narrative questions in a style that transcends the quality of the eventual answers. And by looking at such an exemplary pilot in slow-motion, we can better understand the complex poetics involved in television storytelling, both at the beginnings and ongoing episodes of a series.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Notes

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [1] I discuss pilots more in Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); see pages 46-52 for a discussion of the industrial practices of pilot production, and pages 258-67 for a detailed analysis of Lost’s pilot.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [2] See the Television Without Pity recap for a description of the originally aired pilot at http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/pilot_84.php. For more on the series, see Rhonda V. Wilcox and Sue Turnbull, eds., Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [3] See Rob Thomas’s site at http://www.slaverats.com/.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [4] Rob Thomas Interview on Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005,  http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/the_rob_thomas_interview_part.php.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [5] The line “that’s where I come in” is distinctly featured in the 1967 relaunch of Dragnet, although it certainly must appear in episodes of the show’s 1950s radio or television run, which are less widely available now. Interestingly, the line also appears in the 1955 pilot of Gunsmoke, a Western featuring a Dragnet-style introductory voiceover by Marshall Dillon.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [6] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [7] TV Tropes, How We Got Here.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [8] Noël Carroll, “Narrative closure,” Philosophical Studies 135, no. 1 (2007): 1-15.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [9] Showrunner Rob Thomas describes these contractual obligations in his interview with Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [10] Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003). Warhol is careful to distinguish between “effeminate” audiences and pleasures versus “female” identity, as she acknowledges that such modes of address and consumption are not essential to a person’s gender identity. She uses “anti-effeminate” not to suggest hostility toward effeminate pleasures, but because she contends there is no corresponding term evoking a masculine mode of affect and emotion.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 [11] Charting a clear gendered dichotomy between anti-effeminate crime fiction and effeminate romance is clearly an oversimplification, as both literary and televisual examples in recent decades have blurred this boundary. See Sue Turnbull, “`Nice dress, take it off’: Crime, romance and the pleasure of the text,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 67-82, for a discussion of such blending in crime literature. Yet despite this recent blurring, highlighting the traditional gendered associations of these genres helps us understand how Veronica Mars productively complicates assumed appeals and pleasures of serial form.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 [12] Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  • 69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0
  • 1 I discuss pilots more in Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); see pages 46-52 for a discussion of the industrial practices of pilot production, and pages 258-67 for a detailed analysis of Lost’s pilot.
  • 2 See the Television Without Pity recap for a description of the originally aired pilot at http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/pilot_84.php. For more on the series, see Rhonda V. Wilcox and Sue Turnbull, eds., Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).
  • 3 See Rob Thomas’s site at http://www.slaverats.com/.
  • 4 Rob Thomas Interview on Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005,  http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/the_rob_thomas_interview_part.php.
  • 5 The line “that’s where I come in” is distinctly featured in the 1967 relaunch of Dragnet, although it certainly must appear in episodes of the show’s 1950s radio or television run, which are less widely available now. Interestingly, the line also appears in the 1955 pilot of Gunsmoke, a Western featuring a Dragnet-style introductory voiceover by Marshall Dillon.
  • 6 David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
  • 7 http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HowWeGotHere.
  • 8 Noël Carroll, “Narrative closure,” Philosophical Studies 135, no. 1 (2007): 1-15.
  • 9 Showrunner Rob Thomas describes these contractual obligations in his interview with Television Without Pity, March 8, 2005, http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/veronica_mars/the_rob_thomas_interview_part.php?page=10.
  • 10 Robyn R. Warhol, Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003). Warhol is careful to distinguish between “effeminate” audiences and pleasures versus “female” identity, as she acknowledges that such modes of address and consumption are not essential to a person’s gender identity. She uses “anti-effeminate” not to suggest hostility toward effeminate pleasures, but because she contends there is no corresponding term evoking a masculine mode of affect and emotion.
  • 11 Charting a clear gendered dichotomy between anti-effeminate crime fiction and effeminate romance is clearly an oversimplification, as both literary and televisual examples in recent decades have blurred this boundary. See Sue Turnbull, “`Nice dress, take it off’: Crime, romance and the pleasure of the text,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 67-82, for a discussion of such blending in crime literature. Yet despite this recent blurring, highlighting the traditional gendered associations of these genres helps us understand how Veronica Mars productively complicates assumed appeals and pleasures of serial form.
  • 12 Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/beginnings/