As part of the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars, spoke about the show's pilot and how the series came to be.
He started at the very beginning. The show actually began as a concept for a novel - a teen detective in Texas by the name of Keith Mars, who has since aged and transformed into a beloved character on the show, Veronica Mars' father. Thomas spoke of how early on, he'd pitch and frame the show in just two words, "teen noir". Short and sweet. The challenge he believed was to actually create a world where a teenage detective solving real-world crimes was plausible and believable. Despite, or rather, because the show was heavily dipped in the film noir genre with its Raymond Chandler-esque voice over, mystery driven plot, stories of the underclass and injustice in affluent California surburbia - it did set itself apart and seemed more 'believable' compared to others aimed at a similar age bracket in the mid 2000s (the OC, Gossip Girl).
Thomas spoke about the relationship with studio and network during the casting process and the rigorous test screenings before the show went to air. A good portion of the 90 minutes he spent talking reiterated the eternal struggle of creating a pilot and long-running series that maintains great story, whilst also pleasing the network's expectations of what will please the audience as well as actually pleasing the audience.
Veronica Mars was a show that unfortunately fell victim to the pressures of this balancing act and was cancelled after three seasons. Thomas revealed that he often wonders whether it would have been better for the show's story engine if he had started the second season and each subsequent season afterwards with a clean slate - same protagonist and central characters, but introduce fresh faces pivotal to the season arc storyline, then delete the rest. Similar to what The Leftovers are doing this second season. I'm willing to bet it's something he's been contemplating for years after the cancellation...what if. I see his point. The supporting cast are all pivotal to the Lily Kane murder storyline, the story engine of season one. But after that mystery's solved, how much more crime and high stakes drama can these same supporting characters be personally involved in before it becomes stupid?
Getting rid of characters and introducing new ones is definitely a valid creative solution, and one which happened in season three - but it was too little too late. Thomas' hands were tied and the audience had grown to like characters. This was self-evident during the talk, right after he brought up his 'what if' scenario and an audience member quickly interjected on behalf of fans, "No!". Viewers get to know and love the characters not only as individuals, but their attachments and relationships as well. Thomas plucked Veronica, a few supporting characters and put them in college for season three, it was sort of familiar but it was strange - it wasn't the same (the Veronica Mars movie is even stranger, but that was inevitable).
It's a Catch 22. For the longevity of a show and story engine it would have been wise to introduce new characters and settings with every season and retired irrelevant characters, but for audience emotional engagement and retention of viewership it's a lot to ask to invest in new characters and relationships from scratch.
I'm still unclear what/who was to blame for the show's cancellation - maybe the network became impatient with the show's performance, maybe it was the dip in writing quality (so many plot holes), maybe the viewers were generally too stubborn to let go and tolerate change for the sake of good story...could have been a mixture of all three. Or maybe the show was just ahead of its time? Viewers are more open to narrative unpredictability and self-contained mini-series-like story structure (Game of Thrones, True Detective, Top of the Lake) nowadays. Thomas had run out of time by the time he concluded show-and-tell with clips from the pilot so there was no Q & A, but it would be have been a great question to ask his opinion for.