If “Veronica Mars” had ended after its first season, it still would have almost been enough to last a lifetime. Of course, creator Rob Thomas went on to bottle lightning again in the second season, doubling and trebling the mysteries and their revelations until the show became jaw-dropping and mythic in the way it presented the intertwined lives of these conflicted, yearning, and complex men and women. Season Three is good on its own terms, but it falters by ditching the serialized format in favor of miniature story arcs that don’t pack the same punch as the first two years. And for all of Season Two’s glory and sweep, the second year is still an extension of the first, both in tone and story, and it’s Season One that remains the sharpest crystallization of what “Veronica Mars” promises: A show about a girl solving the mysteries and exploring the dangers of her own life, from the death of her best friend to the truth about her own family. There’s a comforting beauty in the season’s structure as each episode shifts between levels of intrigue and plot, ranging from the mystery of the week, which was solved by the end of the hour; the gradual evolution of stories closer to the heroine’s heart, including her parentage and more; and through it all, driving like a steady pulse toward an inevitable conclusion, the question driving Veronica to the edge and back: Who killed Lilly Kane? Far more than just a teen drama, “Veronica Mars” was a drama about a teen, a dark and complicated and unavoidably heartbreaking show that did something only the best ones do: It respected its audience enough to ask them to take the ride for something intricate and intelligent and brutally honest.
The pilot episode perfectly encapsulates everything the series will eventually become: ruined lives, broken relationships, and a sense that something wrong needs to be put right. Veronica (Kristen Bell), a high school junior, spends her free time helping her dad, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), a private investigator in the town of Neptune, California. Through a jaded, noirish narration that factors heavily in the series’ identity, Veronica walks viewers through a series of flashbacks setting up the complex inner workings of Neptune. One year earlier, Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), was found murdered at her home, which finally ended Veronica’s relationship with Lilly’s brother, Duncan (Teddy Dunn). Keith, who was sheriff at the time, suspected Lilly’s father, Jake (Kyle Secor), of being involved with the killing, but Jake was a local software tycoon beloved by the town, and Keith’s dead-end investigation led only to an emergency recall election booting him from office and installing the unforgiving Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) in his place. Soon after, a man named Abel Koontz (Christian Clemenson) comes forward and confesses to the crime. As a result of Keith’s botched attempt to solve the murder, his wife, Lianne (Corinne Bohrer), leaves him and Veronica, unable to take the social scorn and the fact that they’ve tumbled from the town’s upper class. Veronica and Keith move into an apartment on the rattier side of town, Keith opens up a P.I. shop, and Veronica goes from being a popular cheerleader to the misfit who’s dad helped ruin everything. The thing that pushes her over the edge? She attends one final party with the cool kids, only to wind up drugged and raped before the night is over.
That’s an entire season’s worth of action right there, but it’s just the backstory that informs the pilot. It’s as if Thomas is admitting that the show will go further than you expect, and he’s right. “Veronica Mars” isn’t just about tragedy, but what happens after, and how you pick yourself up and keep walking. He takes the most violent sexual crime that can be perpetrated against a female protagonist and gets it out of the way before the series even properly begins, raising the stakes and demonstrating that life in Neptune is anything but pretty. Veronica is made out of steel, and she walls herself off from the pain in her life by holding it all in, refusing to let it control her. The rest of the incredibly packed pilot sets up all those mysteries while introducing the central characters: In addition to Duncan and the rest of the Kane clan, there’s Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), son of movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) and ringleader of the egotistical band of merry jackasses whose wealthy parents live in the coveted 90909 ZIP code, making them 09ers; Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), the new kid in school whom Veronica helps out by cutting him down from the flag pole where he’d been left naked; and Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), school thug and leader of the PCH Motorcycle Club, who had a beef with Wallace and trussed him up in the first place. On top of befriending Wallace and sorting out his gang troubles, Veronica helps out on a case that requires spying on Jake Kane, whose wife suspects him of cheating. Veronica tracks him to a seedy hotel and discovers that Jake is indeed there with a woman: It’s Lianne, Veronica’s mother. What’s more, Keith waves Veronica off the discovery, but she soon discovers he’s still working on a case file for Lilly’s murder. That’s all the impetus Veronica needs to go from hurting young girl to young girl on the warpath bringing justice like mighty waters. “I used to think I know what tore our family apart,” she narrates. “Now I’m sure I don’t. But I promise this: I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again.” That’s Veronica Mars (and “Veronica Mars”) right there: Broken, confused, but absolute in her conviction to find the truth and do what is right, to restore what’s been lost even when she pretends not to miss it.
That dichotomy between what Veronica hopes for and what fears will happen colors the entire series, making it darker and more honestly moving than most dramas ever try to be. When Keith tells Veronica, “I never want you to think your mom is the villain in all this,” she replies, “The hero is the one that stays, and the villain is the one that splits.” Keith softens a little when he hears how hard his daughter has become. “I don’t think that’s a healthy perspective,” he says. Veronica simply says, “It’s healthier than me pining away every day, praying she’ll come home.” And yet often that’s just what Veronica does, even going so far as to send cell phones to her mother’s old friends as a way of throwing a lifeline into the ether, hoping to get some kind of contact or information from the woman she can’t stop loving. Wallace calls Veronica on her real nature inside a week: “That might play with the masses. But underneath that angry young women shell, there’s a slightly less angry young woman who’s just dying to bake me something. You’re a marshmallow, Veronica Mars, a twinkie.”
Veronica Mars is all about overcoming the crap she’s been dealt, and high school gives her ample opportunity to suffer. Setting a series like this in high school isn’t just a way to conjure up the emotional trials everyone goes through; it allows the characters from different social strata to interact in a more terribly open and uncaring way than they could anywhere else. They don’t pay rent, most don’t have jobs, and they grow up learning to hate each other. High school is off the radar for the real world, and these kids know it. Veronica puts up with all kinds of jabs at her reputation — the story of her rape has been transformed into an urban legend branding her a willing slut — while Weevil deals with a barrage of racist slurs from Logan and the other 09ers. The characters exist in an exaggerated reality that lets them get away with (literally) murder, and that heightened tone is beautifully conveyed in the noirish camera angles and gorgeous lighting that make the series a joy just to look at. There’s stained glass everywhere, from Keith’s office to the school. The real-world versions of those places would be bathed in drab fluorescence, but “Veronica Mars” is shot through with strains of pink and blue and yellow to stand against the shadows.
But for all its darkness, the show runs on sharp, character-based humor, thanks to Thomas and a team of nimble writers. Veronica is given the lion’s share of the one-liners and witty retorts, but there are plenty of wonderful exchanges between her and other central characters:
Weevil: If you’re looking for my trophy, it’s back by auto shop.
Veronica: A lube job? Or can you medal in stealing hubcaps?
Weevil: Is this 1970? Rims, baby.
Veronica: So you got a trophy for a rim job?
Weevil: Forget it. Look, I got some information for you.
Veronica: Finally, a Deep Throat to call my own.
Weevil: I’m not going to touch that one.
The writing is never less than engaging, breezing through convoluted plots and major mystery-solving inferences that are peppered with pop culture references and quick humor. The moment between Veronica and Keith in the pilot episode is hard to top:
Keith: Who’s your Daddy?
Veronica: Ugh, I hate it when you say that.
Keith: You know what, this is important. You remember this: I used to be cool.
Keith: ‘77. Trans Am, Blue Oyster Cult in the eight-track, a foxy, stacked blonde riding shotgun, racing for pink slips. Ah, wait a minute, I’m thinking of a Springsteen song. Scratch everything, I was never cool.
Veronica: I don’t know which bothers me more, “foxy” or “stacked.”
Keith: I nailed our bail jumper 100 yards from Mexico. Twenty-five hundred bucks. No sack dinners tonight. Tonight, we eat like the lower-middle class to which we aspire! Fire up the hibachi!
As the season progresses, the individual cases Veronica solves each week become more closely related to the other big mysteries she’s trying to solve, including just why her mother left town, what happened at the party where she was raped, and most importantly, who killed her best friend. She begins to collect clues on all of these, and comes to discover that the Kane family’s alibis aren’t as tight as they’d originally seemed. What’s more, a delayed traffic ticket in Lilly’s name records her running a red light hours after her supposed time of death, pushing Veronica deeper into uncertainty about what might have happened. It would be criminal to delve too far here into the manner in which the larger mysteries unravel, not to mention a phenomenally detailed undertaking that wouldn’t do me or anyone any good.
But what is worthy of talking about is the extraordinary way these characters grew through the course of 22 dense and tightly connected episodes. There’s never an emotional home base for Veronica to default to at the beginning of an episode as if the trials of the previous week had never occurred. The show is heavily serialized in story and characterization; at any given moment Veronica (or Keith, or whoever) is dealing with something, she’s also filtering it through the lens of every experience she’s had so far. Clues pile up to lead to the truth, and relationships pile up in the same way to transform these characters into different people, constantly searching for meaning or answers or just a way out of a jam. And because Veronica, Wallace, et al. are forced to cohabitate in the halls of Neptune High, it’s only natural that they undergo gradual but marked change.
The turning point comes halfway through the season with “An Echolls Family Christmas,” which provides one of the better mysteries of the week as well as fantastic tie-ins to the larger arcs and a host of great scenes that allow the characters to play naturally off one another. Weevil buys into an 09er poker game run by Logan, but the $5,000 stashed in the cash box goes missing. Veronica takes the case, and it’s here that Duncan, Logan, and the others really begin to respect her work as a junior sleuth instead of just chalking it up to some weird hobby she picked up from her dad. The poker case is solved at the Echolls’ Christmas party, where Veronica angrily confronts Jake about his involvement with her mother while, out in the lobby, Aaron gets stabbed by a jealous ex. Veronica takes the whole evening with the kind of world-weariness she’s sadly earned, narrating: “What was I thinking? Christmas in Neptune is, was, and always will be about the trappings: the lights and the tinsel they use to cover up the sordidness, the corruption. No, Veronica, there is no Santa Claus.”
From there to the end of the season, the mysteries build in intensity and depth as Veronica learns more about her mother, her dead friend, and how everything she thought she knew is wrong. All of the mysteries become tangled up and finally brought to light by the end of the season, though their ramifications are still felt throughout Season Two. (And in fact, the second-season finale ties back into the pilot episode in a way that will knock you flat on your ass.) “Veronica Mars” never settles for one twist when four will do, and there’s always a reversal in every episode that leaves Veronica that much sadder and wiser. In “Return of the Kane,” Veronica attempts to help a fellow self-styled individual run for student body president in a bid to overthrow the reign of the 09ers, only to find that the girl is actually a narc who’s been ratting on her own friends to avoid going to juvy for possession. Or there’s “Mars vs. Mars,” in which Veronica defends a popular history teacher from allegations of sexual misconduct with a student; she proves the girl was lying, only to find out that the accuser was speaking on behalf of a friend too afraid to come forward, making the teacher guilty after all.
It’s no wonder, given the way the world keeps proving Veronica right, that she turns to her father for ultimate guidance. Bell and Colantoni have dozens of perfect moments together, their chemistry one of love and honesty and genuine caring. Veronica is following in her father’s footsteps in the private investigation business, but she’s really doing her best to follow the pattern he’s laid out for her of love and support. She called her father a hero for staying when her mother split, and that’s what Veronica does in every one of her friendships: She stays. She’s the hero. She will not turn and walk away. She does her best to cut herself off from things that could hurt her, but at the end of the day, she’s still too much her father’s daughter to do anything but stand by her friends and fight for them. You know what they say about that Veronica Mars: She’s a marshmallow.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Guides | June 17, 2008 | Comments ()