Judge Erich Asperschlager used to have friends, a long time ago, before he joined the Witness Protection Program.
"Here it is: first day of college. What do you say, Veronica? New school. Fresh start. How about you try not to piss anyone off this time around?"
After spending its first two years in perpetual fear of cancellation, the third season of Rob Thomas's stylish noir comedy-drama Veronica Mars marked several changes for the series—not only was it Veronica's first year at Neptune's conveniently located Hearst College, it was also the show's first (and last) on Franken-network The CW.
Some of the changes—from new characters to an emphasis on romantic relationships—left many a Mars fan, myself included, underwhelmed and suspicious that the series was trying too hard to win over the network's demographic of Aerie teens and Gilmore Girls fans.
But there's something special about TV on DVD: It cleanses and clarifies by reclaiming shows from the hype, network politics, and long layoffs between episodes—presenting the story as it was meant to be seen. For Veronica Mars, that means enjoying what was, even at its weakest, one of the best shows on TV.
Facts of the Case
I wish I could provide spoiler-free episode summaries, but I can't. I won't give anything really major away, but if you want to stay pure (and I don't blame you), skip ahead to "Evidence."
• "My Big Fat Greek Rush Week"
• "Wichita Linebacker"
• "Charlie Don't Surf"
• "Hi, Infidelity"
• "Of Vice and Men"
• "Lord of the π's"
• "Show Me the Monkey"
• "Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves"
• "There's Got to Be a Morning After Pill"
• "Mars, Bars"
• "Papa's Cabin"
• "Un-American Graffiti"
• "I Know What You'll Do Next Summer"
• "Weevils Wobble"
• "The Bitch Is Back"
It's always a shame to see quality TV become a ratings casualty. Many an excellent program has been given a premature heave-ho by well-meaning network execs standing firmly on the bottom line. It happened to Arrested Development after three seasons—each shorter than the last, leading to the ultimate indignity of having the final four episodes burned off in a Friday night two-hour block against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics—and it happened to Veronica Mars.
We wonder why these shows never gain an audience, and while theorizing tends to come down on the side of the maxim "people are stupid," the truth is more complicated. Who knows what might have happened had Mars started somewhere other than the UPN. Maybe it would have built viewership early; or maybe it would have hit the chopping block a lot sooner. Whatever the could-have-beens, three seasons of Veronica Mars is all we got, and this third season—despite mixed fan reactions—proves our girl detective's P.I. license was revoked too soon.
The biggest change from the first two seasons to the third was the elimination of the season-long mystery arc. Watching Veronica solve Lilly's murder, and track down the bus bomber, over the course of 22 episodes was immensely satisfying. Giving the overarching story a full season to unfold allowed the writers to drop clues, explore character motivations, and balance the big mystery with the smaller, weekly, ones. By the time Veronica unmasked the baddie, it was all the more shocking because we knew them so well. (Don't worry, newbies. I won't spoil.)
This time around, Thomas gave us two shorter arcs—the first continuing the mystery of the Hearst campus rapist (introduced during season two), and the second a murder investigation. In both cases, while the mysteries are well-crafted and the twists and turns are fun, without as much time to build suspense, the big reveals lack the impact of past season finale shockers.
On paper, eliminating the bigger arcs in favor of stand-alone mysteries for the final episodes looked like Thomas was trying to coast through the end of the series. In actuality, the last five episodes are some of the season's best. Not having to cram two mysteries and face time for an ever-growing cast of characters into an hour of TV meant the writers had the breathing room to get back to basics. The season ends with a particularly excellent episode, featuring the surprising return of a character from Veronica's past, and even though it ends with a bummer of a cliffhanger, it could have been a lot worse.
Besides the core cast of Veronica, Keith, Logan, Wallace, Mac, Dick, and Sheriff Lamb (Michael Muhney, Numb3rs), season three introduced Hearst collegians Piz and Parker; hunky criminology professor Hank Landry (Patrick Fabian, 24) and his smug T.A. Tim; crusty Dean O'Dell (played to sarcastic perfection by ex-Spinal Tap drummer Ed Begley Jr.); and a host of frat boys, sorority sisters, athletes, and feminists. Though college lacks the haves vs. have-nots dynamic of Neptune High, there's plenty of social and political conflict, and perpetual outsider Veronica finds herself at odds with more than one group during the course of the season.
There was a lot of fan grumbling throughout the season that too much attention was being paid to new characters at the expense of veteran players. It's true Wallace and Mac disappear for episodes at a time, and a lovesick Logan spends a good part of the year oddly neutered, but I don't envy the writers having to strike a balance between returning favorites and the fresh faces needed to build a new audience. Though that balance never quite tips in favor of the old-timers, newcomers Piz, Parker, and Dean O'Dell seem more essential (and less like interlopers) as the season goes on.
The real star of the show, though, is and always has been the writing, which sparkles with as much wit as ever—proving that even when the setting and characters change, the show's high standards and pitch-perfect comedy don't.
No doubt most Mars fans, whatever their feelings about the season as a whole, are considering buying this set because of the included Veronica-as-FBI-agent concept footage—put together to convince The CW to greenlight a fourth season revamp of the series. The FBI footage is presented in two ways: the full "Season 4 Presentation"—a 12 minute montage of what Veronica at the FBI could have looked like—and "Pitching Season 4": that same presentation broken up by commentary segments featuring Rob Thomas and supervising producer Dan Etheridge. As a look into network politics and the creative process—and a glimpse of what might have been—it's pretty fascinating, and a real gift to Mars fans.
It's not a bad pitch. It's just a shame to see Thomas having to rush what he admits would have been Veronica's ultimate destiny had the show lasted into a seventh season. If you found the change from high school to college too drastic, imagine a version of the show where Veronica, the only returning castmember, is running around wearing a suit and taking down terrorists. Had I seen the pitch closer to the show's announced cancellation, I probably would have loved the idea—fueled by a desperation to see the series continue. Now that I've had a summer to accept the things I cannot change, I'm relieved the show ended when it did.
At around 84 minutes, the longest (and best) bonus feature is a meaty series of interview-commentaries called "Going Undercover with Rob Thomas." Thomas, with occasional help from Dan Etheridge, addresses fan concerns about things like the changed opening titles, the show's political point-of-view, and whether third season Veronica was "too mean." "Rob's Directing Experience" dissects the scenes he helmed, and "Favorite Guest Star Moments" gives he and Etheridge a chance to reminisce about some of the season's best cameos—from hilarious series semi-regulars Daran Norris (Team America: World Police) and Ken Marino (The State) to lovable loser Paul Rudd and the sweetly seductive Laura San Giacomo (Sex, Lies, and Videotape). (Absent from the discussion is the painfully wooden sweeps week performance of non-actress Patty Hearst.) Rounding out the "Undercover" feature are "favorite moments" between Veronica and her two main men (Logan and Keith), a discussion of scenes Thomas wishes he could "do over," and personal favorite season "Highlights."
For a show Thomas says has fewer deleted scenes than most, there's still nearly a half hour of "additional" material. Rather than presenting the scenes in an out-of-context montage, Thomas provides background for each, giving insight into the show's production and explaining planned subplots that didn't make the cut. The gag reel is fine, though forgettable; and the webisode gallery makes painfully clear the disconnect between the show's adult wit and the CW's positioning of its stars as Tiger Beat material.
The strangest thing about the mostly excellent extras (which blow the previous DVD sets' meager features away) is that the talking head commentaries were obviously recorded near season's end—Thomas and Etheridge talk as though the series might not be cancelled. The lack of closure is a little sad.
Veronica Mars has always been a show with a strong visual style, playing warm reds and oranges against strong shadows and cooler tones, and the widescreen presentation on this set looks great. The 5.1 audio mix plays mostly out of the center channels, except for sequences with prominent background music.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although watching the third season on DVD solves some of the peripheral problems I had with its CW incarnation, not all of the series' changes sit well with this long-time fan.
Whether a defensive measure or not, dividing the season into shorter mysteries hurt the impact of those arcs. They're good, compelling who-dunnits, but nowhere near the level of the major high school mysteries. Some of the shorter-arc problems can be tied to the addition of so many new characters. I get it: it's college; the crowd has to change. But by keeping Veronica close enough to home to justify including past characters, the writers made a difficult job for themselves giving everyone the screentime they deserved.
Another major element missing from the third season is the grittiness of previous seasons. While trying to catch a campus rapist isn't standard sunny teen drama fodder, considering Veronica has had to deal with infidelity, kidnapping, mass murder, and sexual abuse, this season's mysteries seemed somewhat tame—feeding into a general sense that by trying to find an audience among the Gilmore crowd, the series was forced into more soft-boiled territory.
My complaints about this season are mainly in comparison to the show's stellar first two years, which were so good—with compelling mysteries and engaging characters—that any change was bound to disappoint. I'm happy to report that the third season fares much better when separated from the network hoopla that surrounded it.
Come on, Veronica Mars fans. Put away your feelings of bitterness. Our show is gone. What's done is done. It's time to let the healing begin and give the third season a second chance—without distractions—on DVD.
I'm not even gonna bother making Veronica prove herself innocent…again. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Additional Scenes with Introductions by Show Creator Rob Thomas"
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