Saturday, January 5, 2008

Hollywood Update #29: Everything I Know I Learned From You Guys

March 29, 2006

Veronica Mars has a loyal, adoring fan base—think Trekkies but without the polyester uniforms and pointy ears. Like aficionados of any kind, Veronica Mars viewers pride themselves on their detailed knowledge of the show—the tangled plotlines, the characters’ twisted backstories, the clues about the season’s secret villain. Some fans maintain extensive online archives, such as the unofficial—if we’d ever mentioned Lilly’s birthday or Wallace’s middle name, the folks at have a record of it. This is helpful and face-saving for the creators. Because besides being dedicated and complimentary, the show’s admirers also delight in catching bloopers.

There’s a concerted effort at Veronica Mars to keep the show within the realm of the possible, or at least hovering around the margins of believability. Any television show requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to a degree, but its important to stay true to a show’s own established history—and there’s also pride in solving mysteries with clever tactics that are possible, but new to the audience. Making certain that the show maintains this continuity and factual accuracy requires research—my favorite part of the job.

Veronica Mars employs a writers’ assistant whose job is, well, to assist the writers. At a bare minimum, this means taking detailed notes at the writers’ table and posting them in “the pubes”—the public intranet files. Luckily for me, this is all our assistant deigned to do, since he spent his non-table time researching locations for his upcoming wedding and trying to find cheaper car insurance (Geico. Duh). So I got to put on my Super Librarian cape and do the majority of the show’s research myself.

I love research—it’s like trying to solve little puzzles, and there’s great satisfaction in locating a fact or a useful idea that helps someone. I also love the variety—in My Real Life, this means helping a kid locate a topographical map of one of the “stan” countries, or a list of the seven deadly sins, or Eminem’s birthday. At VM, it’s not so different, except I never have to bust anyone for drinking Mountain Dew in the stacks or ninja-kicking their friends when they’re supposed to be checking out books.

In his book The Tipping Point, author Malcom Gladwell describes the kinds of people elemental in the spread of information. Connectors—people with an extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances and linking them together—and mavens—information specialists; especially those who have particular knowledge in a certain area and enjoy sharing that information with others—play a huge role in my life as a librarian, researcher, and writer. I used my connections and called upon my mavens to find the following for the show:
• an STD that was non-lethal, treatable, and asymptomatic;
• a Spanish insult strong enough to provoke a fight but which didn’t suggest the insultee do anything to his or dog/mother/own privates (thanks, KJ and Chris!);
• a college that had a leprechaun mascot or other Irish symbol;
• how to deal with an obnoxious, manipulative, threatening co-worker (thanks, Sheri, Christina, Jill, Michelle R., Laural, Jen, and Anna);
• the FBI’s email-investigation capabilities (thanks, Agent Cleary!);
• designs for a physics class egg-drop experiment (thanks, Mark Toney!);
• whether or not there’s such a thing as a bracelet encoded with a person’s medical information (Not yet. But thanks, Ryan P.!)
• the percentage of Stanford applicants accepted annually (About 10%--thanks Laural!).

Besides connecting me to people, research for Veronica Mars afforded me some unusual experiences, including trips to a psychic, an overpriced dating service, an electronic surveillance specialty store, and a naked yoga class. By far the most interesting was the World Investigators Conference in Las Vegas in October. Veronica Mars’ private investigative consultant, Corey Friedman, director of the Nick Harris Detective Agency in L.A., offered to send one writer to the conference, and I was the only one interested, even though I knew I’d probably be the lone woman among hundreds of paunchy middle-aged men with comb-overs and bad suits.

The 280 miles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is comprised mainly of the Mojave Desert. A few small towns, such as Baker, California, which brags that it is The Gateway to Death Valley as well as being Home of the World’s Tallest Thermometer. I expected to see some interesting roadkill on the drive—you know, squished armadillos or jackalopes or something. But nada. The drive was uneventful except for my singing.

The conference itself afforded me to meet the real J.J. Armes, the double-hook-handed detective whose life story inspired a TV show in the 70’s, as well as the proprietor of the Private Investigators’ Museum. Like mavens of many sorts, Ray Lipset maintains his collection of P.I. memorabilia sheerly out his own fascination, and his museum survives solely on donations. His “quick tour” of the selected items he’d brought with him to the conference took about 45 minutes, primarily because just when we appeared to be done, Ray would say, “Oh, wait, it’s worth mentioning that…” and led me to another display.

The conference did satiate my interest in homicide investigation—I attended one session on geographic profiling (using math and maps to solve crimes, basically) led by Dr. Maurice Godwin, who, although logarithm-obsessed and boring, is a nationally-known, talented investigator. I also attended “Investigating Murders: The Ugly Truth” led by former NYPD detective Dr. Vernon “I’m a death mechanic” Gerber, and saw a lot of gory slides of people who’d met with unfortunate ends, and learned the three principles of practical homicide investigation (just in case).

I think any job—any experience, really—affords us with opportunities to learn, and I’m thankful for the on-the-job education I got during my tenure as a writer for Veronica Mars. It’s been a pretty incredible slice of my life so far, and not just because of the stuff I got to Google or the weird places I went. It’s reminded me how much there is to love about the world—information, ideas, novelty, and situations that take us out of our comfort zone and into new realms, where we can examine life from a whole new perspective. I’ll be back in Bellingham soon, thanks to my road-trip maven, Laural, and I plan to stay there. At least until the next learning experience drags me away.

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