The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round One: The Wonder Years vs. Veronica Mars

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Ryan McGee judges The Wonder Years versus Veronica Mars. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.

Apples and oranges. That’s what it looks like on the surface when comparing The Wonder Years and Veronica Mars. The former’s a nostalgia-laced late-’80s dramedy about American life in the Vietnam War era, while the latter’s a wide-eyed modern-day detective noir. How does one compare Wayne Arnold to Wallace Fennell? How does one draw the line between Paul Pfeiffer and Stosh Piznarski? The answer is that you can’t, although I’d argue the two have more in common than it might seem at first blush. Both demonstrate how the political is always personal, which makes them resonate far beyond their high-school settings. One show just happens to do it a little better than the other.

But we’ll get to that.

I’m a firm believer that the point in life during which you encounter a piece of pop culture has a significant part in your reaction to it, even more so that the actual quality. It helps if it is in fact really good, but it’s not really the prime factor in bypassing your defenses and lodging itself deep in your heart. When The Wonder Years debuted in 1988, I was the same age as Fred Savage’s Kevin Arnold, and by the end of that show’s pilot, I was hooked. I can objectively say now that the script by show creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black is fantastic, and the performances by Savage and Danica McKellar in its final scene are top tier. But at the time, I only knew one thing: I wanted to kiss Winnie Cooper.

It helped that the relationship between Kevin Arnold, Winnie Cooper, and Paul Pfeiffer is so winning, honest, and, yes, frustrating. But it’s frustrating in ways that feel relatable: They were always pulling and pushing against each other, testing boundaries, crossing lines, and ultimately forgiving one another. The Wonder Years is set during a time in which both the characters and the country were forced to figure out how to preserve innocence. It’s easy to remember the Kevin/Winnie kiss set to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It’s more difficult to remember that they start the episode attending the newly renamed Robert F. Kennedy Junior High School and later learn that Winnie’s brother died in Vietnam. That shadow doesn’t cast a pall on all of the proceedings in The Wonder Years, but perpetually sits offscreen and more than occasionally bleeds into it.

On Veronica Mars, the titular character lives in the shadows, although these are drawn as much from pulp narratives as political overtures. If the trauma of the Vietnam War hung on the edges of The Wonder Years, the trauma inflicted upon Veronica herself was etched upon the face of Kristen Bell, who for three seasons (and one Kickstarter-funded movie) served as the center of the seedy actions taking place within Neptune High School and the town as a whole. This wasn’t a show that depicted high school as frivolous fun. Instead, Veronica’s life is a living hell when we first meet her: We learn that her best friend has been murdered and she herself was raped, and now all of her old friends have shunned her. That’s a helluva way to introduce a character. And yet, with Bell delivering creator Rob Thomas’s crisp, often shockingly funny dialogue, it never feels like torture porn. These setbacks did not defeat Veronica. If anything, they activated her. The many voice-overs in this show gave insight into what drove Veronica throughout the series:

"Tragedy blows through your life like a tornado, uprooting everything. Creating chaos. You wait for the dust to settle, and then you choose. You can live in the wreckage and pretend it's still the mansion you remember. Or you can crawl from the rubble and slowly rebuild."

Whereas The Wonder Years parceled out aspects of late-’60s/early ’70s political turmoil, Veronica Mars anticipated the anger of groups such as the Occupy movement with its analysis of economic disparity in small-town America. In Neptune, the one percent takes the form of “09ers,” called so by those living in the wealthy 90909 Zip Code. They lord over the town, leaving those on the other side of the tracks (including a bike gang run by one Eli “Weevil” Navarro) angry and disenfranchised. Before the murder of Lily Kane, Veronica dated an 09er, Lily’s brother, Duncan. When Veronica’s County Sheriff father Keith implicates the Kanes' father, Jake, he’s removed from office via emergency recall vote. Veronica decides to side with her father rather than the 09ers, which ostracizes herself from that group. With sudden free time on her hands, Veronica volunteers part-time at her father’s private-investigation firm, and shows a keen knack for solving mysteries, being smarter than just about everyone, and throwing in enough quips to put most sitcoms to shame.

Both shows had ridiculously good first seasons, and then good, albeit uneven, seasons that subsequently followed. The first season of The Wonder Years was only six episodes long, which is something NBC would currently air in August over a three week period. But those six episodes were good enough to win the Emmy for Best Comedy that year. Veronica Mars' first season is only one of the best start-to-finish seasons in the history of the medium; yes, I said it, and yes, I will fight you if you disagree. (And by “fight,” I mean “go to a bar with you, where we will calmly discuss our differences over drinks until you either agree with me or we both end up onstage singing karaoke.”) Yes, television is riddled with long-gestating mysteries that end up disappointing either by being too easy to figure out or so ridden with logic flaws that they feel cheap, unearned, and unfair. But, guys — GUYS — the investigation and solution to the Lily Kane murder is airtight. On top of that, Thomas and Company knew how to craft stand-alone episodes that worked on their own in addition to contributing to the whole. If you asked me for my five desert-island TV seasons, this one would go on the list.

In terms of the way both shows ended, they are remarkably bittersweet. The final episode of Veronica Mars ended with our hero in defeat, but that feels of a piece with its noir roots. You expected The Wonder Years to end happily, and it did, sort of, although anyone (really, everyone) expecting Kevin and Winnie to eventually marry were shocked to find out this wasn’t the case. They weren’t as angry as, say, fans of How I Met Your Mother when that series ended, but it was surprising to see a show with that relationship as the apparent endgame understanding that what seems inevitable often isn’t. With Veronica, she wasn’t merely fighting criminals: She was fighting an entire system of imbalance and inequality. She was fighting what J.R.R. Tolkien once described as “the long defeat — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” Veronica could never truly “win,” but that’s not the point: The point was to ensure others couldn’t prosper at the expense of her friends, family, and fellow citizens of Neptune.

The Wonder Years and Veronica Mars are both keenly interested in what it means to be a kid when the world won’t let you be one. The Wonder Years had great characters across the board, especially in its central family. Yes, many were archetypes (the put-upon father, the cheerful stay-at-home mom, the rebellious older sister, the bullying older brother), but all had room to grow and show weakness, compassion, and, yes, ugly anger. The Wonder Years was a comedy, but never elicited belly laughs. It provided smiles, but more often than not it had a wistful eye toward people who only understood things much later in life.

The heart and soul of Veronica Mars lies in the relationship between Veronica and Keith, which is both charming and heartbreaking in equal measures. The two often act like peers, which makes Keith’s more-than-occasional fatherly orders all the more jarring. It’s easy to forget that they aren’t both adults, only because Veronica so infrequently is allowed to act her age. (She and Buffy Summers could opine long and hard on this topic.) On The Wonder Years, the social and cultural fallout from the Vietnam War and the generational divide it engendered doesn’t cast a pall over the generally lighthearted antics, but it does put a ticking clock on them. The show’s narrator (Daniel Stern) obsesses over his childhood memories because they ended so quickly. The hope and promise of the show’s final images are undercut by the reality of what ensued. 

So, where does the ultimate decision go? It’s not as simple as choosing Kevin and Winnie over Veronica and Logan. The Wonder Years was a very popular show that’s almost been forgotten. Veronica Mars was a barely watched show whose fans can’t let it go. The former deserves more respect. The latter deserves more eyeballs. Ultimately, the sharp dialogue, strong plotting, and sheer number of memorable quotes tips the scale toward Neptune. Fear not, Marshmallows: You’re going to the next round.

Winner: VERONICA MARS

Ryan McGee is a freelance TV critic. You can find his work at BoobTubeDude.com.