‘I’m Terrified’: ‘Veronica Mars’ Creator Rob Thomas on That Shock Ending
This post contains full spoilers for the new Veronica Mars season on Hulu.
He’s created shows including Party Down, iZombie, and Cupid, but Veronica Mars will always occupy a special place in Rob Thomas’ heart. The series began in 2004 as the story of a teenage private eye (Kristen Bell) looking into her best friend’s murder. It survived the death of its original network, UPN, lasting one more season on the CW. It returned in 2014 as a movie, largely funded by fans through a groundbreaking Kickstarter campaign. And last week (in a surprise early release timed to Comic-Con), it came back to life as a TV series, with an eight-episode Hulu season featuring Bell, Enrico Colantoni, and many of the other original cast members. Bell has joked about wanting to play the role until she’s as old as Angela Lansbury was on Murder, She Wrote, and Thomas would like to keep writing Veronica’s adventures for that long.
That desire to make the Hulu season the start of something, rather than the end, is the reason the finale ends in such a dark place, with serial bomber Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt) murdering Veronica’s longtime love Logan (Jason Dohring) shortly after their wedding. Given that the most vocal parts of Veronica Mars fandom tended to ’ship the couple they referred to as “LoVe,” Logan’s death will prove controversial at a minimum. Even Thomas knows the fans may never forgive him: “I’m terrified,” he told me last week of the potential audience response to the tragic turn of events. But he explains why he felt he had to go there(*), and offers a lot of other behind-the-scenes details from the new episodes, here.
(*) I think this was a necessary call, because Logan had become too well-adjusted and happy to fit the bleak film-noir ethos that’s informed the entire series. But I’m also a LoVe agnostic at best, having never fully bought into his reform from the monster we met in the series’ early episodes.
How are you feeling?
Nervous. I’d like to do more of [this show] in the future. Pins and needles.
How soon after you made the movie did you and Kristen start talking about continuing to follow Veronica in adulthood?
Kristen and I talked about it during the movie — if we got to do more, what would we want to do? And the idea of a short order was at the top of both of our lists. And then we kept talking about it when we’d be interviewed for other things. People would ask about Veronica Mars, and we’d put out the idea, “Maybe someday, maybe a miniseries.” I guess [Veronica executive producer] Joel Silver read this quote so many times from Kristen and me that he called up and said, “Well, when are doing it?” There was some question about whether NBC [where Bell stars in The Good Place] would let Kristen do it. Joel called NBC directly and made sure to get their permission.
How would you compare the approach to making this new season to the process of writing the movie?
The movie was intentional nostalgia and fan service. It was a fan-funded movie. It was like making a list of all of the things that we thought fans wanted to see, and trying to build a mystery plot that would allow us to get to those bits of dessert. That was what we set out to do. These episodes are a bridge to what Veronica Mars is going forward. If we started off with something that was half teen soap, half noir-mystery show, these episodes are taking us to a place where we are pretty strictly a detective show.
When you set out to do the Kickstarter back then, did you realize that it would make you feel compelled to go as fan service-y as you wound up going?
Honestly, it’s a little hard to remember the specific choices. I knew there was a chance we would never see Veronica again, so there were certain things I wanted to do. The ending scene of Veronica sitting down in that chair in Keith’s office, I thought, “If she never exists after this, I’m happy with fans believing that’s where she is.” That said, I know one of the first things I thought of, the timing is pretty much right that we could believe there was a 10-year reunion. The harder part was believing Veronica would go to it. And if we do that, I can knock off a lot of the people I want to catch up with. And certain things like, “We want to see Veronica punch Madison Sinclair, let’s see how we can do that.” That’s not ordinarily how I would write a story.
How would you compare the tone of this new season to the movie?
It’s not as insidery. There’s more emphasis on the mystery. The movie was fluffier. There’s certain things that we want to be consistent. It’s a real weird balancing act. We’re trying to use all the elements of noir while being pretty jokey. The templates that [co-writer] Diane [Ruggiero-Wright] and I talked about when we were writing this version were FX’s Fargo and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Now we come to the diametric opposite of fan service. Why did you decide to kill off Logan?
It’s like severing the arm to save your life. I tried to imagine writing Veronica Mars mysteries the way we want to tell them going forward and her still having a boyfriend or husband waiting back home. The fan service is that they actually got married. I know that sounds funny, but I feel like the fans would forgive that more than if Logan became such an asshole that they broke up, or if Veronica had cheated on Logan with Leo. The latter would have been more likely than having Logan revert to bum fights. It’s just hard to imagine a detective show with a 35-year-old woman with a boyfriend. I just don’t want to write that. I love Jason Dohring and I love everything he’s brought to the show. I’m sure I will work with Jason again at some point in my career. But I feel like for this show to work as a detective show, it has to be with Veronica as a single woman.
Because that’s the nature of the genre?
I think it’s more interesting to write. If you can’t have your detective have romantic interests, it’s hard. And it teeters on phony trying to get Logan involved in the case somehow to keep him present. If he’s just going to be the boy she goes home to at night, that’s less interesting to me. I can’t say that it’s impossible. But it didn’t appeal to me as much.
How healthy did you see the relationship at this stage? He’s come very far from the bum-fight guy, while she seems stuck in old patterns and at times seems to be trying to sabotage things between them.
We often see stories of men in their thirties, sometimes even forties, struggling with putting away childish things. It’s the story of men afraid of commitment, marriage, kids, mortgage, settling down. I thought it would be interesting to see Veronica struggling with an addiction for adventure, for the unknown. To not be settled down or confined by things. So the Logan marriage proposal in the first episode was meant to bring that to a head. Wallace is there to represent marriage, mortgage, kid, a life settled down. And this new friend she makes in Nicole was to represent being footloose and fancy free and your own boss. Leo was in there to tempt her in that direction. I was interested in putting Veronica at those crossroads. Logan, his behavior is mostly someone who has managed to keep his demons at bay. They’re still there; he says in the show that he struggles with it every day moments before he puts his hands through a cupboard. Logan has done a better job, possibly, of coming to grips with his demons. But they’re still there. I’ve also been intrigued by this notion: What if you are Veronica’s age, and for most of the last 20 years, you’ve been taking pictures of infidelity? It’s what you’ve seen. How does someone like that settle down? It should feel hard, and I wanted it to feel hard for Veronica.
How are you expecting the fans to react to that explosion?
Well, I’m terrified. It’s placing a bet. And I don’t know whether we’ll win or not. No idea. It’s possible that the fans hate me and give up on the show. I hope that’s not the case. I’ve talked now to a number of reporters who watched the whole thing and said they were a fan for a long time, and, “I was so shocked and devastated in that moment, but I understand why you did it.” Other than that, I have no virgin opinions. It was part of the pitch, though, to Hulu. It has been part of the plan. Jason knew going in; we didn’t blindside him with that last script. But I felt like it’s the thing I needed to do to make the show the thing I want it to be if we do it in the future. If this happens to be the last thing we ever see of Veronica Mars and I devastated the audience with the death of Logan, then I feel a bit bad about it! The only way I feel good is if we get to do more. If we don’t, then I fucked that up.
I remember conversations we had after the original series finale, with the downer ending where Veronica screws up Keith’s shot at being re-elected sheriff. Your argument was that this is a noir show and it works best when it gives the audience what the story needs rather than what the fans want.
Right. But what I will admit is I want to make more of them. And that Season Three ending meant we got to make more. If I had given it a nice bow, we never would have seen more Veronica Mars. At the time that I wrote the Season Three finale, the CW was telling us, “Hey, you might want to tie this up. There’s a good chance you may not be coming back.” And that was one where I fought it: “We’re going to go down swinging, if that’s the case.” But I think that feeling of there not being a conclusion, of leaving Veronica midstream, was why we got to do more. I like bittersweet endings, and the movie ended bittersweet, even though it felt there was more of a conclusion with Logan leaving and her dad in the hospital. If there are no more, I can live with where this season left off story-wise. I will feel a little bit dumb for making this big call if it ends up being the death of the series. Creatively, I’m still fine with where this ends. But as a person who would like to make more, that’ll leave me kicking myself for a while.
So what factors are at play regarding the chance to make more?
How many people watch it. That and that alone. Hulu has already been checking Kristen’s and my availability. We had a great relationship with Hulu this year. We dug working with them. If people watch it, then I think we’re going to be able to make more. Kristen has often said she will make it until it’s Murder She Wrote.
The movie shoehorned in everyone you could. These episodes bring back a lot of minor characters like Vinny Van Lowe, but they serve a pretty clear plot function this time.
I still wanted to bring back the people we’d love if there was an opportunity. Like, it made sense that Max is now running the weed dealership in Neptune. And you don’t have to rely on a ton of history so it won’t confuse people new to the show. Here’s what I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to jam all of our series regulars into the murder mystery plot. One of the things I found difficult in the series was when I designed Season One, I knew I would have a first-season mystery, and I built the series regulars I needed for that plot. Then you end up doing two more seasons and it does become Murder, She Wrote, where these same people are always involved in the mystery. With Wallace and Dick, I said, “You’re not going to get your own stories in this.” You’re going to be Veronica’s friend, comic relief. I didn’t want it to rely too heavily on previous knowledge.
Parker is someone I wasn’t expecting to ever see again, but there she is at City Hall when Logan goes to get the marriage license.
In the series, Veronica’s voiceover was all in present tense. So Veronica’s voiceover was never ahead of story. This year, the voiceover was all in past tense. What I wanted to do with that past tense was set up a sense of dread. Most of the voiceover in these eight episodes hints at a tragedy yet to come. I hope the fans start thinking, “Oh no, Veronica’s going to fuck things up with Leo!” Or, “Oh no, Keith is going to die.” Or if an ex-girlfriend shows up to say marriage is shitty, I wanted the audience to go, “Oh, no, Logan is going to bail.” The point of her there was just to put a seed of doubt in the audience’s mind that Logan is not going to show up.
Let’s talk about your guest stars. You already had a relationship with J.K. Simmons from Party Down.
[This] was certainly more expensive than when he did Party Down! No, he was great. The only script that we had to show people was the first script, and he’s not in the first one. Diane and I had broken the second episode, so the first thing we did was to write all the scenes he was in and send him those pages. You’ll notice he’s very heavy in Episode Two. We wanted to give him a lot of material. And, yes, we did have a little bit of a relationship from Party Down. So that was incredibly helpful.
Patton, it turns out, was a big Veronica Mars fan, and wanted to be in Veronica Mars. I watched AP Bio, and I knew he was in first position there. There’s not a ton of him in the first season, but then they said they were going to use him more this year. It was really how much Patton wanted to do Veronica Mars that made it happen. It meant being at the mercy of some other show’s shooting schedule. But I’m glad we did. It made things difficult at times. We couldn’t finalize our shooting schedule, waiting for AP Bio to finalize theirs. When you go in to pitch a show, you make this poster board that shows all the characters. You’ll put a picture of the perfect-world casting for that character, so the listener will have a visual representation, and both JK and Patton were our dream castings in those roles.
Is it a coincidence that Kirby Howell-Baptiste also works with Kristen on The Good Place?
I’d looked up Kirby Howell-Baptiste three times — watching Barry, watching Killing Eve, watching The Good Place. I keep going, “Who is that woman? She’s great!” And she keeps appearing in every show. We had written a fantasy sequence where Veronica almost starts making out with Nicole, and then they put it in The Good Place, and I’m like, “Fuck!” So we dropped it. I’ve got a Mexican hitman who is into determinism, and then they do a whole thing on determinism in The Good Place. That show is really screwing with me. Stop reading our minds and doing it before we do it!
Finally, one of the things that impressed me about this season, and going back to the original Lilly Kane mystery in Season One, is the way you’re able to juggle a bunch of potential suspects at once. A lot of other long-form mystery series just hit one red herring at a time, and it gets really predictable. How do you guys make it work?
It’s the hardest thing about the show, because neither Diane nor I would consider ourselves mystery writers in that sense. Whenever I hire a staff, I’m looking for people who can write funny, interesting character stuff. So it’s a whole lot of bozos in a room who do not know how to break mysteries. It was really particularly hard this year, because when you’re doing 22 episodes, you can introduce a lot of red herrings. With this, there are only five or six characters in the piece who you can imagine being the guilty party. With fewer suspects, it becomes harder to have quality red herrings on the chess board. The thing that we always do at the beginning of the year is figure out who did it, why they did it, and break the show trying to find ways that other people could have done it.
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