Monday, November 19, 2007

TV on DVD: Veronica Mars (The Complete First Season)

Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Jason Dohring, Francis Capra, Enrico Colantoni, Teddy Dunn, Amanda Seyfried

Original Airdate: 2004

**** (out of ****)

"Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears no resemblance to life as I know it but I can't take my eyes off the damn thing."
-Stephen King

"Best. Show. Ever." -Joss Whedon

"Some of the best TV ever produced." -Kevin Smith

When you have those people saying things like that about a television show you know we're dealing with something special. Unfortunately I wasn't smart enough to listen to them when Veronica Mars first aired on the now defunct UPN network in Fall 2004 and later concluded in 2007 on the CW.

No, it's not that I sampled the show and decided it wasn't for me, but rather I didn't even give it a chance and refused to watch a "teen drama" about a high school sleuth. "You have to see Veronica Mars!" everyone told me with such fervor you'd think that my life was somehow incomplete having not viewed it. They said the same thing about Arrested Development and I ended up cursing myself for not listening originally. The same mistake will never be made again. When people whose opinions I hold at a high regard and genuinely respect tell me to watch something I'm going to watch it. I've learned my lesson.

As a critic I feel it's my duty in every review to share with people why something does or doesn't work and why. That should really be the job of every critic. What then do you do in the case of something like Veronica Mars, a show so original and unlike anything before it or since on television that it has to actually be experienced to fully understand how it's so special? It doesn't present itself as obviously brilliant right away, but it sneaks up on you slowly and I think what makes it so is tough to pin down and explain its genius.

For the longest time I avoided watching Arrested Development out of the fear that it couldn't possibly live up to the incredible expectations that surrounded it. Those fears were unfounded. I had the same fear with Veronica Mars but now after watching it I can officially say it's not as good as everyone has been telling me. It's FAR BETTER.

It's been a year since Veronica Mars (a revelatory Kristen Bell) ran with the in-crowd at Southern California's Neptune High and her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was brutally murdered. Her sheriff father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) wrongfully accused Lilly's billionaire dad of the crime, causing him to lose his job as the real murderer sits on death row. The Mars family's reputation is shattered and they're held up for public ridicule by most of the residents of the posh Neptune zip. Complicating things further for Veronica is her relationship with Lilly's brother, Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), which crumbles as result of her father's obsession with the case.

Veronica has a choice: Her father or her friends. She chooses her father and that decision leaves her a social outcast who spends most her spare time assisting her dad at his recently opened "Mars Investigations" detective agency. Her mother made her choice and fled, leaving the family high and dry, although her reasons for doing so may be more complicated than we're led to believe. Keith still holds on to the belief the wrong man is in jail for the crime but has lost hope that any justice will be served. Veronica hasn't and stages her own investigation to find out who really killed Lilly Kane, how it connects to her mother, and most painfully, find the guy who took her innocence one night when she was drugged. Each episode unravels this major story arc while also focusing on the "mystery of the week" where Veronica uses her investigative skills to solve crimes, each of which someway or another involve the students of Neptune High and sometimes involves the help of her new best friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III).

What I like most about these cases in every episode is that they're not just throwaways meant to stall time while the writers take their sweet time unveiling the secrets of the big murder and frustrate viewers. This isn't The X-Files Lost, or even Heroes where all of the sudden the creators decide to just take a break from giving us new information out of fear they'll burn through the story too quickly. This show's creator, Rob Thomas, knows better. The main storyline, the murder of Lilly Kane and Veronica's quest for answers, is always in the front of our minds in every single episode and never takes a breather.

In each one we're presented with flashbacks, more clues and new information as Veronica briskly moves closer to the truth and many of those cases directly relate to the big case. And if they don't, they relate directly to Veronica's feelings about it. There were only a few instances (like Episode 4- "The Wrath of Con") where I thought they deviated from that game plan and went out of its comfort zone, suffering a little because of it. Of course that's not to say any episodes are bad because there isn't a single stinker among them.

Some of these cases are so intricately plotted and cleverly written they seem more like something you'd see on the big screen and just the pilot episode alone tied together more loose ends than most shows' entire seasons are capable of. The third episode ("Meet John Smith") has an absolute jaw dropper of a twist in one of Veronica's cases involving a boy looking for his father that I didn't see coming from 10,000 miles away. I nearly hit the floor. Not only was it shocking and made total sense, it exposed an important emotional truth about Veronica's relationship with her own mother. Television shows are not supposed to be this smart. There are surprises on top of surprises and twists on top of twists and as each piece of the puzzle is pieced together something new is learned about every character we previously assumed we knew everything about. How good is this show? Even a cameo appearance from Paris Hilton can't ruin it.

Where it succeeds the most, however, is within the halls of Neptune High and its frank depiction of high school as the worst time of anyone's life, especially Veronica's. There's a villain, Lilly's ex-boyfriend and Duncan's buddy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the spoiled son of a famous self-absorbed actor (Harry Hamlin, in what I'm guessing isn't much of a stretch). At first he seems determined to make Veronica's life at Neptune a living hell but as each episode unfolds the layers are slowly peeled away and we realize he may not exactly be who we thought he was. He's a jerk for sure, but there's more to it than that. No character on this show can be put into easily classifiable categories and each one is written with depth and importance. And it's done all in the midst of storylines involving attempted murder, rape, affairs, homeless fight clubs and cults.

The relationship between Veronica and her father is at the heart of the show and how they deal together with their sullied reputations and the absence of their mother. I like how the character of Keith is just a good man who cares about his daughter and believes in doing the right thing. That's not something you see often on television and Colantoni plays him superbly. Music also plays a big role on Veronica Mars, but it isn't used the same way as most other shows featuring teenagers. Rather than blasting the latest hit song of the week in every scene it seems there was a concerted effort for the music to fit what's happening at that moment. It slides right in and feels like an organic extension of the show, not just an add on meant to sell CD's.

Lately there's been a lot of controversy surrounding just how much writers contribute to a television show. I think all these protesters in the Writer's Guild should tape scripts of Veronica Mars to their signs because no show better illustrates the importance of writers than this. Without the writing we'd have nothing, but that's not to overlook the actors who deliver those words. One of which, there would be no show without. There isn't enough space here or enough praise available to properly do justice to the work how Bell does as the title character.

On the surface Veronica seems like a cute, plucky teen girl but the second she opens her mouth the acerbic, sharp-tongued sarcastic wit comes flying out and you realize she's not someone you want to mess with. But she's also hurt. And angry. Bell conveys her as someone who struggles everyday to stay strong in the face of it all, yet manages to get the job done. Every other show on TV now brags about how they have a strong female character as its lead. But do they really?

She's a real heroine and one of the few female characters to ever appear on television (maybe the only one) that could actually qualify as a positive female role model. Even though it explores serious issues and adult themes, parents actually didn't need to hide their kids when this program came on. That's a first. Had anyone but Bell been cast in the lead I'm convinced the show wouldn't have worked. Christina Ricci's a good actress but just thinking that she almost got this role makes me uneasy. Really, the thought of anyone but Bell in it makes me uneasy. Now I understand why every network was fighting over her when this show ended.And I don't believe for a second that I'm not in the target demographic for the show. Every age group and gender is in the target audience, no matter what the ratings may have said. This isn't a drama for teens like The O.C. or Dawson's Creek even if it was narrowly and mistakenly marketed as such. This is a drama for everyone and is operating at a whole other level that those shows couldn't even come close to touching.

It's easy to be upset at its cancellation but it's hard to be TOO UPSET. It's clear Kristen Bell is going to become a huge star and this hurts her as much as the demise of Dark Angel hurt Jessica Alba's career. Except with one key difference: Bell has talent. I have no idea whether this went out at a creative high yet, but as much as I love accentuating the negative I think we should all just be grateful a show this original made it to the air at all. What to make of the fact that neither the show nor Bell was ever nominated for an Emmy?

I don't even remember what I was doing in the Fall of '04 when this premiered but it couldn't have been anything productive and I have no excuse for not watching it. It did appear like UPN and the CW did do everything they could to save it and even aired some episodes on CBS in the summer of '05 hoping it would help ratings, which it did, at least for a little while. I don't know why this didn't do better. Maybe the country just wasn't ready for a show like this. Part of the problem may have been that it's becoming harder for the public to make viewing commitments every week.

A show like this that unfolds a huge story arc over the course of the season with episodes feeding into one makes it hard to truly appreciate unless you were watching since the pilot. Arrested Development had the same issue, but that issue also makes it the perfect viewing experience on DVD. That now nearly every television show is available on DVD is one of the most positive developments to come out of the entertainment industry in recent years and has allowed underappreciated or overlooked shows to find an audience.

Luckily, the grave injustice that surrounds its cancellation hasn't fallen on deaf ears and has been widely acknowledged as a terrible mistake. How this wasn't the number one show on television is a mystery Veronica probably couldn't even solve. As little as it may console its fans, the networks now seem much more likely to give fledgling shows a chance to find an audience. You don't hear the word "cancellation" as much as you used to and the networks are more patient. There's no doubt Veronica Mars played a big role in that, but I must admit it makes my blood boil that a show like Jericho is saved, while this lies in the television graveyard. The networks were just too late coming to their senses.

If you've seen Veronica Mars then you already know how special it is but if you haven't don't watch it based on my recommendation. I don't deserve to recommend it because as a viewer who didn't watch I share in the blame of its cancellation. But if you happen to hear a voice inside your head saying you have no interest in watching it-- make it go away. Fast. Moving on to season 2 will be challenging because this is a tough act to follow, but more challenging will be when I eject the final disc from season three and my time with these characters has ended. Then it's back to what we have (or don't have) on the air now- a frightening prospect. I still haven't figured out how I'm going to handle that.

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