Veronica Mars, 10 Years Later: Rob Thomas on the TV Show's Heartbreaking Path, and the Two Big Decisions That Changed Everything

It's been 10 years since the cult-hit series starring Kristen Bell premiered and its creator is looking back—and ahead

By Chris Harnick Sep 22, 2014 6:00 PMTags
E! Placeholder Image

Ten years ago today, the world met Veronica Mars. A fresh-faced newcomer named Kristen Bell made her TV debut on UPN as teenaged private eye, ostracized by her fellow students,who  solves crimes on the side, including the murder of her best friend. Boiled down to it, it doesn't sound like the makings of a hit TV show. And Veronica Mars was never a hit TV show. Yet 10 years after the show premiered and seven years after it was canceled, Veronica Mars returned to life on the big screen. A book tie-in hit the New York Times best-seller charts. Veronica Mars is now as relevant, if not more than ever before. Why are we still gaga over this snarky blonde detective?

"I always wish I could sort that out, and then figure out a way to replicate it. I think the character of Veronica is a special character," creator Rob Thomas told us. "And certainly we have some similar DNA of other shows with kick-ass female heroines, whether it's Buffy or Alias. But in a lot of ways, I feel like Veronica, her superpower is being able to say what she feels. To speak the truth, which I think for teenage girls is an especially empowering notion..Though she has no special fighting power or super power, her ability to speak her mind, I think made her special to fans."

The character is still mighty special to fans. The Kickstarter that got the movie made brought in close to $6 million. It beat its targeted goal within 24 hours. For Thomas, the ultimate goal for Veronica Mars was to be the go-to name when it came to pop culture references.

"When I think about Veronica Mars, and I thought about this very early on, the ultimate goal is to become the teenage girl private eye of this generation. The grand ambition is to replace Nancy Drew as the iconic young, female detective and that somehow Veronica is more representative of the age we live in," he said. "Rather than Nancy Drew trying to find the secret jewels in the haunted cave, Veronica Mars is helping the girl whose boyfriend took dirty pictures of her."

Veronica Mars didn't have an exactly easy time of it when it was on the air. The show premiered on UPN on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2004 at 9 p.m. following episodes of sitcoms All of Us and Eve. Thomas said he never had any infamous battles with the network or studio, in fact he credited them both as being very supportive, but there were two notes very early on that would shape the series.

"The hardest part was getting it on the air and kind of the first five or six out of the gate, which are always very tough because everyone has a somewhat different idea of what the show should look like. Once it gets on and it starts airing and gets some response, there are fewer hands in—what's the expression? Pie?—the pie," he said. "They came to me, not at script stage, but actually while we were editing the pilot and asked if we could lose Veronica's rape. That would've ripped out the guts of the show to me. That was the motivation for why she became what she became and that would've killed me. I wouldn't have understood the show, really, at that point. I thought the scenes we had in the show coming for that were some of the most powerful and beautiful scenes in the show. They were just very nervous about that."

Thomas won the battle and the rape storyline stsayed, which shaped a large part of season one and factored in to season two's and part of season three's stories. But Thomas' original pilot script also had Veronica and her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) at odds by the end of the episode. "In the final scene of the pilot, Veronica breaks into Keith's safe and one of the things she found in there, initially, was a whole stack of letters that her mom had been writing to her and Keith had been holding them, keeping them from Veronica."

They'd eventually make up, but Thomas wanted them on the outs. The network had another vision in mind. "The network came to me at the end and said, ‘Listen: Her best friend's been murdered, she's been raped. Her mom left her, her boyfriend broke up with her, please let her have her dad. Please keep that as a loving, sweet relationship. You can't take her any further down.' And it was a great note…I think they were right about that note and I'm glad that I did take that note because people might not have stuck around if there wasn't a bit of light in the show."

The show followed Veronica through her junior and senior years of high school before jumping into college when the series hopped over to The CW after UPN and The WB merged. Thomas said looking back, there are episodes he's not proud of, but overall the one thing he questions is the jump from high school to college.

"I wonder if we should've gone for at least one more year of Veronica in high school. If some of the magic left the show, that part of the appeal was she is a high school aged private eye, but at that point I know why these decisions were made. At that point we were floundering. Reputation or critical response to the show probably kept us on for that second season, but I knew it was put up or shut up time. So we tried some new things in season three: shorter arc mysteries and moving her to college, and I'm proud of those episodes and that season, but I wonder if part of the joy was lost in taking her out of high school? We needed to try things; we were desperate to see if there was any tinkering that could be done that might bring in more viewers."

The tinkering didn't work and Veronica Mars was canceled in 2007. But where there was cancellation, there was new hope. As Veronica Mars production came to a close in 2007, Thomas said the network had all but said this was it. Enter the FBI Hail Mary. The network had been looking for a young FBI show, so Thomas rallied and produced a Veronica Mars, FBI presentation. The mini episode featured a gun-toting newly minted FBI agent Veronica Mars.

"I was pretty saddened," Thomas said regarding the network's passing of the pitch. "To understand that, you have to understand the hope and journey that I was on because by the time we did the FBI spinoff, we knew we were dead…When we screened it for The CW brass, we thought we were back on the air. They loved it. They flipped out for it and I had seen them when they kind of intimated that we were going away, and it was like a whole 180. I became completely hopeful. I thought we had done it; we had pulled the rabbit out of the hat."

But it wasn't a done deal. Far from it. Thomas said somewhere between that pitch meeting and a new season, the pitch died. "So I actually had to go through the death of Veronica Mars twice in a space of a couple months, so yeah, it was a drag. I would have loved to have kept it on the air. You feel like you luck into someone like Kristen Bell. She is such a star. Finding her before the rest of America felt very fortunate. We liked working together. It takes so much to get a show on the air and to get a positive response from it," he said. "Professionally those three years of having the show on the air were about as happy as I've been. It's a great thing to go to work and be proud of the thing you're doing and have people care about what you're doing, then to be treated very well by the studio and network, it was sort of a dream situation."

Following the cancellation of Veronica Mars in 2007, speculation about the show's future ran rampant for years before the movie finally got Kickstarted and premiered in March. But is that the last we've seen of Veronica Mars?

"In a way it feels too soon [to talk about a sequel] because I'm in the middle of a TV show and I don't know when I'll be available again or when Kristen and I will have similar time off. But the movie did well. Warner Bros. is really happy with it, with how we did. So I think it's an option. Veronica Mars in some other iteration…I get so nervous saying that out loud because after the movie came out, it's sort of a sigh of relief," he said. "I had been hoping for so long to get it and hope the fans were happy, contented and honestly, if we never got to see Veronica on screen again, I liked the final moment of the movie. I liked where it put Veronica. If you never see her again, leaving her sitting at her dad's desk having given up sort of the better life for that, I would be totally happy with that image. That said, if somebody, if Warner Bros. says let's make another one and Kristen is game, then I'm game too."

Ten years later, Thomas said he never expected Veronica Mars to have such a treasured place in pop culture history, but he's sure delighted it's stuck around. In fact, if Veronica Mars is what he's forever known for in Hollywood, that's totally fine.

"I'm proud of the show. I'm prepared for that if that happens," he said. "Between Veronica Mars and Party Down, those are two shows I'm really proud of. I feel pretty fortunate to have those two. I would love to round that out with one show in which I open up the Nielsen ratings and I'm happily surprised by. I'd like one office where I can nail things to the wall and unpack. That would be nice at some point in my career. But barring that, yeah, there are worse things I could have on my tombstone than ‘Creator of Veronica Mars.'… The real test will be if there's a 20-year retrospective. Then I'll know we've really made it."

As if you weren't already feeling nostalgic enough, here's Kristin Dos Santos' first-ever visit to the set of Veronica Mars, 10 years ago. And the very first interview Kristen Bell ever did about the show, at the May 2004 upfronts.