Saturday, April 20, 2013

The First Five of "Veronica Mars"

Yes, marshmallows, I'm joining your ranks at last. Some thoughts on the first five episodes of "Veronica Mars" below, with a few minor spoilers. Back in 2004, I erroneously lumped the show together with the "O.C." clones, sight unseen, due to superficial similarities, and a lot of chatter about which Southern California hunk the title character should end up. Can you blame me for mistaking this for just another teeny-bopper soap opera? And "The O.C.," really cheesed me off from the start, as someone who actually grew up in Orange County and wasn't happy that the show insisted on being about the tiny, unrepresentative corner of it where a bunch of rich white people lived.

Neptune, California seems to occupy part of that corner, with its high population of wealthy elites. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Neptune high schooler and private investigator, explains in voiceover that she used to be part of their world. She's the ex-girlfriend of Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn) and ex-best friend of his sister Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried), children of the most powerful man in town, Jake Kane (Kyle Secor). Unfortunately, Lily's murder eight months ago was the first in a chain of events that turned Veronica into an outcast. Her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), the sheriff at the time, suspected Jake was involved with the murder, which lead to Keith getting ousted and the town turning against him. Veronica's mother (Corinne Bohrer) became an alcoholic and then left town without explanation. Finally, Veronica was roofied and raped during a party, ruining her reputation even further. Now she helps her father run his new private investigation service, and avoids Duncan and his bad-boy pal Logan (Jason Dohring). Instead, she starts making new friends and allies, including the new kid in school, Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and the leader of a local Hispanic biker gang, Weevil (Francis Capra).

"Veronica Mars" has certain elements of a teen soap, but at heart it's a mystery series. Veronica is the newest incarnation of the girl sleuth, that great old trope that gave us Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I so appreciate smart heroines, and Veronica's brains are what she depends on to juggle the dog-eat-dog world of high school, the various cases that she investigates every week, and the ongoing mysteries of Lily's murder, her mother's disappearance, and the identity of her rapist. It's very satisfying to watch her working cases, maneuvering around her enemies, and navigating an especially rocky road to adulthood. I was a little worried after the pilot that Veronica would be a little too smart, manipulating everyone around her in complex schemes worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo. However, in subsequent episodes she's made more than her share of mistakes, and hit plenty of dead ends. I really enjoy Kristen Bell's performance too, the snarky cynicism, the outsider attitude, and every interaction she has with Enrico Colantoni as her father. They have one of the more entertaining father-daughter relationships on television that I can remember, both a working partnership and an occasionally tumultuous parent-child duo.

The big theme of the show so far seems to be that you can't judge a book by its cover. Though the pilot introduces Veronica being at odds with her old friends, the next few episodes show clear signs of reconciliation with Duncan and Logan. These two clearly aren't going to be limited to being typical bullies. Meanwhile, Veronica has already disposed of one potential love interest, Troy (Aaron Ashmore), who looked like a good guy on the surface, but turned out to be a baddie underneath when she finally listened to her doubts and dug deeper. I expect that this going to become a regular thing, playing with our perceptions of characters, and putting Veronica in situations where she's not sure how far she can trust those closest to her. It's already apparent that both of her parents are keeping secrets from her, and probably also lying to her. It's the sort of thing that forces a girl to grow up faster.

Some of the dramatics are a little over the top, but then Veronica's world is one where biker gangs roam the Pacific Coast Highway and there's no middle class – you're either filthy rich or one of the peons. It's more recognizably Orange County than the "O.C." version. At least there are a couple of minority characters, Wallace and Weevil. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the kids sling witty barbs at each other with spectacular timing. And yet, nobody intersperses the word "like" into sentences at random, with the proper Valley Girl abandon. Tsk, tsk. Points off for inaccuracy. Still, "Veronica Mars" under the guidance of its creator Rob Thomas, has been very well written so far. The individual cases have been solid, and the character building is strong. I especially like the use of flashbacks to fill in the details of Veronica's friendship with Lily and relationship with Duncan.

One thing I'm hoping will improve as the series goes on is the ratio of female to male characters. I get that Veronica's grieving for Lily and being socially isolated is a big part of her current situation, but all of her peers in the show are male so far, along with her major parental figure. Lily and Veronica's mother loom large for their absences, but the only regular female presence on the show other than Veronica Mars is her journalism teacher, Mrs. Dent (Sydney Tamiia Poitier).

That's a small complaint though. I'm already pretty hooked on the show, and looking forward to seeing it through to the end.

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