Judge Joel Pearce gives a thumbs-up to this show about a Nancy Drew for the postmodern era.
Who killed Lilly Kane?
How's this for a bizarre coincidence? Midway through studying Rob Thomas's book Rats Saw God with my Grade 11 class, the first season of Veronica Mars shows up on my doorstep for review. The series creator? Rob Thomas. Turns out the novel and series have quite a few things in common: They are both smartly written, capture how it feels to be a teenager, and include a number of the same themes. In the case of Veronica Mars, that means that this is one of the best teen-oriented shows ever made.
Facts of the Case
17-year-old Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, Spartan) has had a rough year. Her best friend was murdered. Her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni, Galaxy Quest), once the sheriff of the small Soouthern California town of Neptune, was fired during the investigation because his search led him to the very wealthy Kane family, including Veronica's ex-boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn, The Manchurian Candidate). After being fired as sheriff, Keith became a private investigator and Veronica's mom disappeared. She lost her considerable popularity at the prestigious Neptune High, and now works for her dad, when she's not carrying on her own investigation of her friend's murder. She will stop at nothing to find the truth, even if it puts her own life at risk.
Plot descriptions for shows like Veronica Mars always feel too simplistic. Although each episode does include Veronica's ongoing investigation, so much more happens as the series progresses. The episodes also house independent mysteries, most of which are fantastic. They run the gamut from trivial to funny to chilling, and are always clever enough to keep the audience guessing until the end. These mysteries weave in and out of the main plot, which gradually reveals the web of lies and secrets that surround the major characters. Although it is fairly contrived and full of coincidences, it never feels forced or silly. This is a well-written series, perhaps among the best television writing I have ever seen.
Much of the credit needs to go to Rob Thomas, who obviously remembers clearly what it feels like to be a teenager. The teen cast is impulsive, uncertain, and frustrated, and watching them interact is almost uncomfortably reminiscent of high school. This could be a drawback for viewers who forget how it feels to be a teen, but it's an impressive feat to those able to remember with immediacy the uncertainty of teenage life. While that alone helps Veronica Mars stand against the competition, the adult characters are also surprisingly well-written. Some of the teachers come across as parodies, but the relationship between Veronica and her father is well developed, and avoids the usual TV parent stereotypes. The series also does a fine job of juggling references to pop culture and high culture. It's quite savvy, making references to things that are still fresh a year after the episodes were broadcast, but it also has a deep well of high culture references. Holders of useless English Literature degrees are going to eat this series up. Culturally adept viewers will also enjoy the celebrity cameos and inside jokes, none of which I will spoil here. Needless to say, it's a very cool show.
Equal credit needs to go to the cast. Kristen Bell is truly fantastic as Veronica Mars, with enough charisma to easily carry the show on her own. Veronica is funny, smart, and fiery, but also wins our sympathy through her sincerity and vulnerability. She's good at what she does, even though she often makes very stupid choices. At first glance, the remainder of the characters are stereotypes. There's Weevil (Francis Capra), for instance, the tough local gang leader. A major antagonist early in the season comes is Logan (Jason Dohring), the spoiled son of a rich and famous actor. Wallace (Percy Daggs III) is one of Veronica's only friends at the start, a new guy to the school. As the episodes unfold, we gradually see beneath the generic surface of the characters. None of the characters are who they seem at first, and their web of relationships becomes ever more complicated as they interact through the season.
After the first two episodes, I was a bit worried that Veronica Mars would settle into a bland SoCal TV series groove. It also looked like it may have had too many balls in the air, much like Joan of Arcadia. I didn't need to worry. As the show progresses, a dark edge starts to creep in. There are still a number of funny incidents, but they begin to be overwhelmed by the grim investigation of the main murder. The suspense surrounding the case builds throughout the season, leading to a final few episodes that are nail-bitingly suspenseful and even a bit creepy. Every detail in the series winds up being important, even the details of the cases that aren't part of the main plot. By the end of the season, whole sections of the jigsaw puzzle start to fall into place, until the truth is finally revealed at the very end. I'm looking forward to a second viewing of the season, if only to watch once again how all these details come together.
Which brings me to another high point regarding Veronica Mars. Although some threads are left slightly open at the end of the first season, the show has the decency to close off the main plot thread in a satisfying way. If the series had been canceled after the first season (which it thankfully wasn't), it would still be a great story. So many series now seem to be constantly pushing towards the next big twist. Networks are so afraid of failure that they try to string viewers along viewers with the proverbial carrot—always held in front of us, but never within reach. I appreciate this approach more. I want to see the second season of Veronica Mars, not because I just have to find out what will happen next, but because the journey of this first season was such an enjoyable one. Whatever Veronica's next big case is, I don't want to miss it. And should the show jump the shark in the future, this season will still stand on its own as a monumental success.
The DVD set is attractive but lacking in additional features. The transfer, presented in flawless anamorphic widescreen, is one of the nicest looking shows I have ever seen. The colors are vivid and clear, there is great shadow detail and a strong black levels. The sound is also as good as can be expected for a stereo track. The only extras are a series of deleted scenes, house on the final disc, which add little to the series. A few commentary tracks from Rob Thomas and the cast would have been a nice addition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ultimately, though Veronica Mars is a teen series, it should still appeal to the twentysomething crowd as well. The depth of the adult characters may also give it some level of appeal with parents of teenagers. Ironically, it probably will never be popular with young teens, who will be turned off by the adult themes and unrelenting complexity. It's a great series to watch on DVD, because viewers don't have to fear missing a critical detail along the way.
I hadn't heard much about Veronica Mars before I reviewed it, but I'm sure glad I did. It's one of the best-written television series I have ever seen, and it has a lot to offer people still mourning the loss of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's smart, funny, edgy, and rewards patient viewers with one hell of a mystery.
Not even executive producer Joel Silver could screw this one up! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Deleted Scenes
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