Significant spoilers for Veronica Mars, the movie, follow. You have been warned!
At one point during the Kickstartered revival movie Veronica Mars, our heroine tells her dad, sheriff turned private eye Keith, that he’s “the George Bailey” of Neptune, California. It becomes clear pretty soon that Veronica herself is the George Bailey of Neptune, and that her own private Bedford Falls won’t let her go. By movie’s end, she’s given up New York City, given up her law career, given up poor Piz, and accepted the destiny of defending the downtrodden in a town that would turn into Pottersville without her.
How you respond to this ending may depend in part on how you feel about the same development in It’s a Wonderful Life. I recognize that I may be in the minority here, both among Veronica Mars fans and Christmas-movie watchers: I must have seen It’s a Wonderful Life a couple dozen times at this point, and I never fail to wish against all reason that George would get in that cab, shake off the clingy neighbors trying to suck away his dreams of seeing the world, and never look back. So the fact that I had that same feeling at the end of Veronica Mars may say something about me as much as the movie.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the movie. It was great to see the cast, as Veronica put it with characteristic self-awareness, “falling right back into our old rhythms”; I loved the familiar-yet-mature rapport between Veronica and Keith. But there was a difference between how I felt while watching the movie and how I felt after having watched it. The ending nagged at me, not so much because of any choice Veronica made–though again, poor Piz!–but because it felt like the need of the project to continue the story and keep it going in the future finally overruled any natural growth on the part of the characters.
When we left Veronica and her friends, they were post-adolescents, not long out of high school. The movie picks up almost a decade later–a decade during which people do a lot of changing. If you took the story of anyone’s life from around age 20 to around age 30–Veronica’s, mine, yours–you would find a much-changed person at the end of it. Veronica Mars did, in a way: it set up a premise in which Veronica had changed considerably over the course of nine years just in time for us to see her change back for us.
It’s tricky, because in many ways the movie ably handled the theme of changing vs. accepting your fate, informed in a meta way by the awareness that this was a movie enabled by fans who had been deprived of more stories from Veronica’s youth when the show was cancelled. It was, for most of its run, a funny but bittersweet story about a woman who had a tough history going home again to confront her past one more time. But in its ending, with Veronica deciding that she was “addicted” to Neptune and to solving its problems, it felt more like a story engineered to return her to her past, presumably in the name of making possible future movies (or at least future Veronica Mars books, which are planned whether the movie franchise continues or not). It was the difference between going back for a ten-year high school reunion and, well, going back to high school. And it felt less like something Veronica needed to do than something we–who Kickstarted and supported the movie–needed her to do, to make up for the time we lost.
I don’t think the movie had to be this way. Another recent TV revival, Arrested Development, also brought back beloved characters from a beloved show, but–ironically, given its name–it recognized that the passing of time meant that the characters, and thus the show, needed to be a little different. It was not just structurally different, but darker, sadder (while still funny). It may not have pleased everyone–it couldn’t–but it accepted that it had to be a different story than it had been seven years ago.
Now, it’s easier to evolve the characters and tone of a show like Arrested Development while still keeping the cast and the premise, because it’s a story about family. True enough. But to work in the end, rather than just please people in the moment, a story needs to let its characters grow, even if that means letting some stories end for good. I’m still glad we got a Veronica Mars movie. But having had some time to think about it–I wish it gave us a little less arrested development.