I can’t remember the last time there was such a disconnect between the material in the first episode and the time and location at which it was aired – Veronica Mars was shown on E4 last summer (around July 2009) at about 8am every week day, as part of the channel’s youth programming. The first episode contains the rather grisly death of the lead character’s best friend and the drugging/date-raping of the lead character at a high school party – and they say comic books aren’t kid-friendly any more … This is not the sort of material you might expect from a supposedly teen-orientated show; fortunately, the rest of the series wasn’t quite as depressing as that first episode, with the exception of the episode later in the series where the date rape is focussed on: E4 made a specific point of airing this episode at a post-watershed time.
The rest of Veronica Mars was much more entertaining than my first paragraph suggests – in fact, the first season was one of the most enjoyable programmes around. Veronica (Kristen Bell, who is fantastic throughout, able to handle the serious emotional stuff along with the sassy attitude and throwing out pop cultural references with aplomb) is a great female lead character – she’s suffered the death of her best friend, the local shaming of her father, the abandonment by her mother and ostracism from her influential social group at school, but she is still a decent, hard-working, concerned individual who tries to do the right thing. And she’s really funny.
Where to start on what it’s all about? Set in the fictional town of Neptune, California, Veronica is a high school student who is also a private investigator of sorts, working with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni, who is fantastic in this; probably my favourite character, he has a strong moral sense of duty and honour, loves his daughter and encourages her to be all she can, and is really funny), who is now a private investigator after being sacked from the position of sheriff after he arrested the most powerful man in town for the murder of his own daughter, Lilly Kane (played by Amanda Seyfried before she hit big in Mamma Mia!, and who was so good in the flashback scenes that she appeared more and more throughout the first series), which was also the reason why she was ostracised at high school – she was part of the in-crowd when she was dating Lily’s brother, Duncan, so she was hated by everyone else before being hated by the in-crowd. Throughout the first series, she solves a ‘mystery of the week’ at school or for friends while investigating the murder of her best friend after discovering evidence that the man who confessed to the killing may be innocent.
The set-up is the basis for a really fun show: the playful banter, the character interaction and the pop cultural riffing made for entertaining television. For the most part, and with the exceptions of the more miserable parts (the murders, the date rape, a school bus going off a cliff, the rape storyline in the third season, etc.), the show was a lot of fun. Veronica nearly always has an answer for everything, preferably with a geeky reference (although how she was able to develop such an intimate knowledge of film/television/comics while she was working so hard at school and learning how to be a detective …), something which the rest of the characters joined in with as well. It was no wonder that Joss Whedon was such a fan – a feisty teenage blonde girl who fights crime with slang dialogue and a team of support characters: sound familiar? He liked it so much he even appeared in the show in the second season, as did Kevin Smith, who appeared as a convenience store clerk in the second season. Others appeared in the show to boost its cool credentials – the Buffy connection is bolstered by recurring roles for Charisma Carpenter and Alyson Hannigan – and there were other stars appearing: Steve Guttenberg, Harry Hamlin (as an Oscar-winning, A-list actor), Ed Begley Jr, and Laura San Giacomo (for a Just Shoot Me reunion with Colantoni that was rather lovely).
The show wasn’t perfect – the soap opera antics of teenage relationships did get in the way of things. Veronica was in a relationship with the more normal Duncan (although they made him chemically unbalanced to spice things up later on) but then ended up in a relationship with ‘bad boy’ Logan, son of Hamlin’s actor and who had been going out with Lilly, something that weakened his character from a sarcastic and arrogant rich boy into a whining wuss. The other characters also got into various relationships (Keith nearly had some, but Veronica seemed to make him feel guilty and he would stop it), but never quite as annoying as Veronica’s. Another aspect at which the show tried but eventually failed was showing diversity – Veronica’s best friend was a black guy called Wallace, who was around in the first season but faded into the background later on; Veronica also was friends, sort of, with Eli (aka Weevil), the head of the local Latino biker gang (thus providing an in-road to the criminal side of local life), who again was prominent in the first two seasons but who had to be forcibly inserted into the third series to keep continuum.
The series did suffer as it went on – the first series was a complete entity unto itself, with an overall mystery that was successfully and grippingly concluded. The second series set up another mystery for the series (the school bus going off a cliff) but also included further complications to the mystery of the first series, thus slightly invalidating the completeness of the first series. The third series suffered the Buffy curse when they went to college and the series didn’t work as organically as before; I’m not against shows trying new things but it seemed to twist on itself in order to keep the cast together in the same local college, and it never regained its rhythm, not helped by a decision to have smaller mysteries over shorter arcs in order to keep the dwindling ratings from collapsing. But the show seemed to lose some of its spark all round, with the clever pop-culture references becoming just reciting of dialogue from films line-for-line instead of sly asides, and the aforementioned banality of the Veronica–Logan relationship (and don’t get me started on the incredible irritation that was the Piz character).
But when Veronica Mars was on form, it was one of the best shows around. Good mysteries, a clever examination of the different cliques in a California high school, a great father–daughter relationship, really funny dialogue, hip cultural references but without being annoying, and a central character who was believable, delightful, three-dimensional, human and a delight to be in her company – Kristen Bell deservedly became a star because of this performance and is the main reason why people want to see a Veronica Mars film. The idea of her as an FBI agent sounds too good to miss. I’m glad that E4 decided to put the entire series on throughout last summer because, overall, it was more enjoyable than not. Hell, I even liked the theme tune. If you haven’t watched the show, do yourself a favour and check it out; my discussion of it doesn’t do it justice.