So, on a whim, I ordered the complete first season box set of Veronica Mars (currently in its second season on UPN). The set arrived yesterday morning, and with anticipation, I watched the first three episodes with my wife last night, expecting great things.
I was not disappointed.
The "pilot" and first two episodes of this series met -- and exceeded -- all my expectations. How often can you say that about a TV show these days? Frankly, I'm kind of flabbergasted. Here's a series where the writing is smarter, snappier and wittier than anything else on the air. I wasn't prepared for a program - in the first friggin' episode, no less - to vault over ALL the writing I've seen on TV this year so far (and I'm including Surface, Invasion, Threshold, Supernatural, Night Stalker, Ghost Whisperer, Prison Break, Reunion, Boston Legal, My Name is Earl, even Lost and Medium).
Yes, I know I'm in the early stages with Veronica Mars here, but it's pretty rare for a series to come out of the box swinging so hard, and finding a confident narrative voice so quickly...
The DVD box describes Veronica Mars as "a little it Buffy. A little bit Bogart," and I think that's pretty apt. The series is set in and around Neptune High School- a playground for the very rich kids of privilege in California. There, cynical (but sweet...) Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) suffers under the weight of her new status of "unpopular" after being dissed by the popular kids in school, including her former boyfriend, Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn). You see, Duncan's sister, Lilly, was murdered last year, and Veronica's dad (formerly the Sheriff, now a private eye...) fingered Duncan's dad, billionaire Jake Kane, as the culprit. Protecting its own, the town-at-large didn't care for the accusations, and Veronica's Dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) was thrown out of office in a recall election. Veronica was given the option of renouncing her father and his beliefs to stay popular and "cool," or joining in him in exile. She chose exile.
Now, Veronica and Keith work together in his detective agency, solving petty, sleazy cases about adultery and the like. But Veronica still wants to know what really happened to Lilly, as the case was never closed to anyone's satisfaction (despite a convenient arrest by the new sheriff). This is doubly important to Veronica because her Mom split town during the hassle with Keith, and somehow, she's also involved....
I'm no push-over as a critic (see my reviews on the blog of Threshold, Supernatural, and Ghost Whisperer, plus certain episodes of Lost and Night Stalker if you don't believe me...), but Veronica Mars has me totally entranced at this stage. "Pilot," "Credit Where Credit's Due" and "Meet John Smith" all move with grace and humor on a carefully layered double-track. On one narrative track is the sort of "case of the week," and on the other is the continuing story-arc about Lilly and her death. The mix is just right, and everything is held together by creator Rob Thomas's noir sensibility and the performance of Kristen Bell as Veronica.
And I have no reservations about stating this: Veronica Mars herself is a great character. She's Nancy Drew with attitude, and - like Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Bell brings an interesting and potent combination of strength and vulnerability to her performances. I find it interesting that both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars take as series leads' a "post-popularity" high school girl. That is, a girl who has been inside "the in-crowd" and ultimately rejected that shallow life, choosing instead a life of individuality. This choice (and it is a choice, mind you...) isn't easy, and both Buffy and Veronica take their lumps at school because they have moved outside the confines of the popular kids, the accepted norms. But what both characters have found in choosing self over group politics is an inner strength, one that can never be found by "joining," but only through, ultimately, doing your own thing in your own way.
Buffy and Veronica are thus both strong role models for not just girls, but any high school age kids going through the travails of high school. But I'm not addicted to Veronica Mars because it "teaches" good lessons or is morally valuable, but because the series is so damn compelling. Who doesn't love a good mystery?!
Again, I'm only three episodes in, but all those people who recommended this series are absolutely right. This is really, really good stuff. Can't wait to watch more. One more thing: why did I wait so long to catch up with this series? Well - mea culpa - I knew that Veronica Mars was set in high school, and the last thing I wanted to do was get into another teeny-bopper show. You know, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I get tired of all the "teen" programs on the WB, and so something about the idea of Veronica Mars and ANOTHER HIGH SCHOOL SHOW just turned me off. Let me just state for the record, if you're struggling with that same concern -- don't. The "teen" factor on this show is small; you won't be annoyed or irritated once. The performances and writing are both outstanding, and the high school as a setting is used cleverly and humorously...and not annoyingly. Just wanted to bring that up.
Veronica Mars, the complete first season, is currently available on DVD.