Sunday, January 16, 2011

'Veronica Mars' Season One (2004)

Starring Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni and Percy Daggs III
Created by Rob Thomas

Veronica Mars: The Complete First SeasonI don't endorse teen dramas lightly.  The majority of them are vapid, soap-opera trash.  But every so often one of them comes up with a twist, and coupled with some excellent writing that goes beyond your standard "Dylan slept with Kelly this week OH.  EM.  GEE."  "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was one of those, taking standard teen drama tropes and wrapping them up in a funny and charming supernatural universe.  When that show ended, I wasn't sure there'd ever really be anything like it.  The CW's "Supernatural" takes care of part of it (guess which) but what about the other?

That show is "Veronica Mars."

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is the teenage daughter of Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), a private detective in Neptune, California.  A year earlier, Veronica's best friend, Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered.  At that time, Keith was the Sheriff of Neptune County, but was run out of office when he implicated Lily's rich and powerful father Jake (Kyle Secor) in the murder.  Neptune is essentially split into two zones: the rich and powerful "09" zip-code, and everyone else.  The "Oh-Niners" as they are referred to are the school's elite, which used to include Veronica, since her father was an important town figure, as well as Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), also Lilly's brother and Veronica's girlfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), Duncan's best friend and Lilly's boyfriend.  Logan is the son of Lynn and Aaron Echolls (Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, married in real life and on the show).  Aaron is a powerful Hollywood high roller, having starred in dozens of films.

On the other side of the tracks is Veronica's (pretty much only) friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) now that she's been shunned along with her father. There's also Eli "Weevil" Navarro, leader of the PCH biker gang.  The new Sheriff, Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) is an incompetent glory hound more interested in making headlines than in actually solving cases.

Veronica works as her father's assistant, and moonlights herself as a private detective for hire at Neptune High School.  Not long after being shunned by her friends and schoolmates, Veronica attended a party where she was drugged and raped, further destroying her reputation for good.  She must figure out a way to infiltrate that high-class world she's been ejected from in order to solve her friend's murder.  The list of suspects is long, and the evidence starts to obliterate the alibis of those closest to both Veronica and Lilly, the danger also mounts for Veronica and her father.  Who murdered Lilly?  Who ran Veronica's mother out of town and is now threatening her life?

So, I have a confession to make, and it's really kind of nerdy: The first time I watched this first season of "Veronica Mars," I watched the entire 22-episode season in a single weekend.  But it doesn't end there... because I've just done it again.  There's an upside to the fact that I've pretty much been laid out in bed all weekend, and it's totally coupled with the fact that "Veronica Mars" is goddamned addicting.

What makes "Veronica Mars" just so plain awesome?  It's a mixture of a lot of elements that just click.  Firstly, the cast.  Kristen Bell is dead sexy and full of sass, easily capable of exuding both strength and vulnerability when the script calls for it.  She delivers a sarcastic wit with a cut like a Japanese ninja sword.  The show's entire emotional core rests on her, and it works beautifully.  Equally important is how well she works with her father, and Bell and Colantoni pull it off with flying colors.  Their frustrations with each other are believable, but just as charming, if not more so, is how much the two characters clearly care about each other.  After being abandoned by her mother, Veronica and Keith realize that they're all they've got for each other.  Their bond, regardless of what happens between them, is unshakable for any great length of time.

The other cast members are good, but not quite the revelation that Bell is.  Jason Dohring is hilarious as mean-spirited rich-kid Logan Echolls.  He clearly enjoys having his status, but he also hates being in the limelight, and his relationship with his parents is strained, at best.  Percy Daggs is fine as Veronica's long-suffering friend Wallace; he has good comedic timing, but sometimes he can seem flat.  Oftentimes, the Wallace character functions as little more than a go-fer for Veronica, so it's good when the focus returns to the fact that they are indeed friends.

The show's structure follows Veronica as she gets closer to solving the case of Lilly's murder while also solving standalone cases at school.  This allows the show to explore a number of other themes throughout the season, mostly focusing on the class struggles between the elite Oh-Niners and everyone else.  Veronica will get involved in cases including a teacher impregnating a student, voter fraud during class elections, stolen poker money, missing fathers, and more.  Sometimes the mysteries can be a little to predictable, sometimes you wonder why it seems so hard for Veronica to solve them, but for the most part, it's not a problem.

Part of what makes "Veronica Mars" so enjoyable is its fresh grafting of noir tropes onto a modern-day teen drama.  Veronica herself is the hard-boiled detective, operating in a world full of femme fatales, nefarious criminals, snitches and more.  She narrates each episode with her learned sarcasm, navigating a Neptune that is sunny and seemingly happy by day, but a dangerous, neon-lit world by night.  It's an incredibly satisfying fictional universe these writers have created, one that's easy to get lost in.

"Veronica Mars" is funny, fascinating and quite worth your time.  I've roared through this first season in a single weekend, twice now.  If you're looking for a show with engaging characters, a great cast and a razor-sharp wit, you'd be hard-pressed to find one better than "Veronica Mars," even if (like me) teen dramas usually bore you to tears.