It’s been several weeks since I gave up, but I still have a lot of feelings about The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.
It would be so easy for adult me to disregard Shelby Woo now that I’ve rewatched the first season. Granted, there may be a lot more character growth in later seasons, but since I have the stomach for only so much camp and bad acting, I’ll base this entirely on what I saw in this rewatch of the first season.
The entire time I watched the show I thought, why couldn’t Shelby be more like Veronica Mars? (Why can’t we all?) Did a combination of nostalgia and blind optimism color my memories of Shelby as a more active, aggressive participant in her own stories? By comparison, Veronica was more methodical and exacting in her actions. They had a lot in common on paper. But where Veronica was sometimes spontaneous but generally more thoughtful in her pursuit, Shelby was a lot more impulsive and over eager. Shelby was easily distracted from her pursuit, whether it was by the promise of a more obvious solution or the promise of date.
I made a super helpful chart, in case anyone was interested in reducing the shows to their character tropes.
As my annoyance with Shelby grew, I realized I was annoyed for the wrong reasons. While Veronica was created to subvert tropes of high school girl protagonists, Shelby was created to be the “Every Girl.” Perhaps the single greatest factor around their divergent characters was their race.
Despite what my expert chart may indicate, Shelby isn’t entirely comparable to Veronica. Veronica has every reason to be motivated by vengeance and rage. Her best friend has been murdered. Her mother is a raging alcoholic who has run out on her. Veronica herself has been drugged and raped at a classmate’s party. Already, she has more than enough to deal with as she’s been saddled with Tragic Backstory ™.
Shelby doesn’t have tragic backstory in a traditional sense. Her parents have sent her to live with her grandfather in the U.S. for her education. For immigrants, this isn’t an uncommon story. Families are often fractured in search of a “better” future, free from political oppression, free from religious suppression, etc. However, her story isn’t played as a traditional Immigrant Tale dealing with her assimilation and her appreciation for the U.S. While Veronica is created to add nuance to the blond pretty cheerleader type, there are few recently-arrived Asian female protagonists for Shelby to play off of, or comment on. Shelby is a singular character in many ways, mostly because of her typical “Americanness” with her teenage pursuits (chasing boys, surfing, eating burgers with friends, going to concerts) and because of the way her immigrant past colors her experiences.
Tonally, the shows tell very different stories. Veronica Mars is all gritty and film noir, while Shelby Woo is fun surf music and family-friendly hi-jinks (if you can consider illegal international ivory trading, family-friendly). While Veronica Mars tries to create a complex character by showing the variety of her experiences, Shelby Woo tries to normalize a character, in some ways simplifying or refining her character, despite a complex identity. Shelby’s typical teenage experience doesn’t diminish her immigrant, racialized background, but the show isn’t trying to position her gender, race, immigrant experience as a primary aspect of herself. While Veronica Mars is allowed to comment on the ways her gender helps or prevents her from doing her work, Shelby’s outsiderness isn’t brought into discussion because the discussion that would’ve included these issues is already so limited by the lack of visibility on TV.
Although I couldn’t take the tone, mood, music, costuming — okay, maybe everything — about Shelby Woo very seriously, I can’t completely deny the impact Shelby had on me, especially when placed in conversation with Veronica Mars. These characters may share a lot of similar traits, but their differences have continued to make them impactful for different reasons. Veronica exists in the pantheon of badass TV women, and while Shelby may be mostly forgotten, she exists in the hearts of young children of color (and some adults) who were looking so carefully for representation and affirmation that they also belonged in the idealized America they saw on their TV screens.