Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Charlie Don't Surf" (season 3, episode 4)

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Veronica Mars - "Charlie Don't Surf" (season 3, episode 4)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. I will cover each TV episode (and eventually the film), several days a week; this will conclude just as the revival (which I will also cover) premieres on Hulu. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 24, 2006/written by Diane Ruggiero & John Enbom; directed by Jason Bloom): Veronica reconciles with Parker, revealing her own past trauma, but the reconciliation doesn't last the episode. Soon after, Dick hilariously shows up at the Mars apartment in one of those delightful "oh yeah, we've never seen this character in this place"-type interactions that can only occur on a show we've been following for a few years. He's there to hand Veronica exactly what she's been looking for: an excuse to openly infiltrate the Pi Sigma fraternity, poking around to narrow down the who, where, and when of Claire's rape. Dick offers this opportunity in the belief that it will prove the brothers' innocence and Veronica is more skeptical (she justifies her role to Nish and Parker by claiming she's there to pin them down). Ultimately, she finds an ATM photo of Claire with a non-frat dude hours after the haunted house where the Pi Sigma brothers got their gropey hands caught in rat traps - so it looks like they weren't the culprits. Turning away from the cheerful guys, Veronica is confronted by "the Greek chorus of angry feminists," as she describes them, scowling beneath their shaved heads. She insists to Parker that finding the real rapist is the only path to true justice but most people feel like Veronica is taking sides in a culture war, not just asking questions.

Keith meanwhile has a fairly routine "cheating spouse" case onhand; old acquaintance Harmony Chase (Laura San Giacomo) hires him to spy on her husband, explaining that their marriage is loveless but she needs a real reason for divorce and he's been acting strange lately. Keith does eventually spot him embracing a woman, but surveillance shows that he rejects her approach and does not want to have an affair. This is as hard a pill to swallow for Keith as for Harmony, because this investigation isn't so routine after all...it's clear that both are very attracted to one another and perhaps looking for any rationale to start their own affair. Instead, Harmony walks out of the Mars office with a look of embarrassment and Keith watches her go with a sense of regret. No one, however, feels more regret than Logan. Early on, we see a family dinner involving Keith and Logan, overseen by an amusingly high-strung Veronica who tries to mediate the conversation as it quickly turns toward Aaron as well as Logan's possible upcoming appearance on Larry King. When Logan hires Keith to find out why his trust fund is drying up, Veronica digs a little deeper to discover that the "Aaron's Kids" charity, to which some of the funds are diverted, is literal: the money goes to Logan's unknown half-brother Charlie Stone, a schoolteacher. Logan quickly bonds with the long-lost "Charlie" (Matt Czhuchry) until Veronica reveals that this man is actually Norman Phipps, a Vanity Fair reporter looking for access to Logan. Blaming his real brother (Ryan Eggold) for throwing him under the bus, Logan blows his cover only to find out that this isn't true; Norman had Charlie's phone tapped. One last time, Logan leaves an apologetic voicemail for the missing Echolls with little expectation that it will be returned.

My Response:
On the strongest episodes of Veronica Mars, the narrative threads tend to form parts of a bigger picture. "The Girl Next Door" and several other favorites don't fit that bill, of course - I do love many of the standalone episodic mysteries the show offers up. But "Charlie Don't Surf" (these episode titles, man) reminds us that the show is often at its best when it gives us a glimpse of the characters' messy, ongoing lives and slices up a narrative that can't be squeezed into a single hour. Logan provides the best example of this. If the previous episode struggled to find something for him to do, making him a subsidiary to Veronica's trust issues, this one suddenly remembers that he's the son of a dead and deadly celebrity, that he's lost his entire family, and that an entire show of its own could be spun out of this material. The casting and performance of Czuchry (and Eggold) is subtly effective - something about the guy just doesn't ring right and the dramatic twist of having Logan be the one who screws over his actual brother is as deft as it is dismaying. I hope this thread continues although the shot of Logan alone on his balcony, an isolated frame flickering out of reach in the corner, may be the most effective punctuation for this lonely little story.

Keith's case is a standalone, but it is as much about him as its ostensible subject - the real question is not if Harmony's husband is cheating on her but if Keith is going to allow Harmony to cheat with him. His decision to show her the kissing photo and only then play the explanatory recording is an effective gesture to demonstrate how close he came, even if it toys a bit cruelly with Harmony! (The purpose may even be at test, to see whether her reaction is relieved or distraught - does she really want to leave her husband; is just looking for an excuse?) Of course if the series wants to keep this narrative going, it could have Harmony's husband show up in the next episode...asking Keith to follow her! Veronica's case is the least personalized of the three stories, although her conversation with Parker reminds us that there's still a personal aspect for her. This investigation presents a similar challenge to Keith's, in that she can't fully disentangle herself from what should just be professional duty. Looking for the truth seems like taking sides, in a prescient if probematic harbinger of the decade to come, in several senses.

In the bigger picture, Veronica's vindication of the frat kids can seem like a cute dramatic irony - they're obnoxious, but don't judge a book by its cover because...they're innocent! - that misses the larger context of rape as an epidemic in college life. That said, it does anticipate some very high-profile examples - most notably, the notorious Rolling Stone cover story that turned out to be a hoax as well as the Duke case...which is explicitly mentioned in the episode itself (all the more ironically, the charges had not yet been dropped at the time this episode was shot.) There's also the question of how the show wants to place itself in a culture war that looked quite different in 2006 than it would less than a decade later; Veronica Mars belongs to a cultural moment that began in the late nineties - when crude ruled and cheerfully callous machismo was widely celebrated, including by liberals anxious to prove they weren't uptight prudes or censorious spoilsports. Think Tucker Max and Entourage (I'm always struck by how the series ended with acclaim in 2011 but a mere four years later, when the cinematic spin-off was released, it was received as a relic from a long-ago era). The show is colored by this sensibility: Dick Casablancas is mocked affectionately but he's provided with more charisma and even redeeming qualities than most of the feminist characters have been so far. They're not only depicted as humorless but wrong on their merits in their drive to sentence Pi Sigma without evidence. Unmentioned thus far is the notion of "rape culture" - a concept more prevalent in the teens - which recognizes that their "just kidding" targetting of Claire could have real-world consequences.

It's worth remembering, especially for those who came of age in the zeroes or afterwards that the decade's embrace of lowbrow, casually sexist party culture was not due to an unconscious "pre-enlightenment" attitude but rather a very conscious reaction to the ascendent "political correctness" of the early nineties (the decade that began with Kurt Cobain ended with Fred Durst). We're straying a bit from the episode onhand but I'm fascinated by the way the show exists in these crosshairs, and curious to see where it ultimately positions itself. Given its own ingrained social awareness, with feminists vs. frat boys positioned to be this season's PCHers vs. 09ers, as well as the its existence at a a certain point in pop culture, Veronica Mars can't help being attuned to both the subversive perspective of the feminists and the cultural cache of the Pi Sigma bros. As such, the show finds itself caught in the middle, much like Veronica herself. How will the creators navigate the pull of both subcultures in a reactionary cultural moment?

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