Hello and welcome to TUIW’s Summer TV Club coverage of Season 1 of Veronica Mars. I’m Jonah and I’ll be your guide through the quirky and splintered world of Neptune, California but, before we get into that, a couple of notes:
-Unlike other Summer TV Club entries, we’ll be covering two episodes a week here. The reason is that Veronica Mars is the only show with a traditional 22-episode season and we only have 11-13 weeks to get through this.
-Also unlike the other shows, I’ve seen all of Veronica Mars so I’m still getting used to recapping a show when I already know where it’s going. However, for those of you following along and watching for the first time, I won’t be spoiling anything before it happens, so these recaps will be safe to read. That being said, I will, from time to time, include a veterans section at the bottom of the review (like Alan Sepinwall does with his Wire recaps) to talk about some of the long-term table setting. So if you’re a VM rookie, make sure to avoid that part (which will be clearly marked).
-Finally, if you’re going to post spoilers in the comments, please clearly mark them as such.
All right, that’s enough of that. Let’s get going.
When the 2000s retrospectives were written, Veronica Mars was mostly left out of the conversation or ranked rather low on the Best Shows of the Decade lists (ours excluded). The general reason being that the show’s second season was complex and ambitious to a fault and the third season was hindered by the compromises the show had to make to stay on the air. This gets at (what I see as) a fundamental flaw in how we evaluate television. Given potential shifts in personnel both behind and in front of the camera, general network instability, any number of unpredictable real world problems that could crop up, and the fact that shows aren’t produced all at once, it makes much more sense to me to evaluate a TV show like you would a band, and each season like you would an album. From season-to-season a show can change wildly, but within an individual season, there’s usually a plan and some sort of unified creative direction. I’d argue that it is more useful to analyze and criticize shows season-to-season than as a whole. So why am I engaging in a largely theoretical discussion here? Because there are maybe only 5 or 10 seasons of television that are better than season one of Veronica Mars.
A lot of the credit goes to Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy), a former teacher and novelist who had written a number of books about high schoolers before cracking into TV with Cupid (which featured a young Jeremy Piven). Thomas followed that with a program on UPN, a channel that still existed when I was your age. UPN was probably looking for the next O.C., but under Thomas, they got something much different: a season-long crime mystery that doubles as a thorough examination of the class issues at play in Neptune, California (which Veronica describes in the Pilot as “a town without a middle class”), a clear stand-in for Orange County.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. For starters, there’s “Pilot,” which opens in medias stakeout as Veronica Mars, a blonde 17-year-old girl spitting narration straight from a Raymond Chandler novel, sits in a parked car spying on an illicit meeting at a love motel. Unlike the high schoolers of Brick, the people of Neptune don’t all talk like this. Veronica Mars’ hard-boiled nature was created and this hour sets about showing us how.
Honestly, “Pilot” played a little wonkier than I remembered it. Pilots are always an iffy affair since they’ve been extensively focus tested and the elements that are conducive to good television are just starting to fall into place. However, Kristen Bell doesn’t disappoint. She had done pretty much nothing before this show, and it’s obvious to see why, despite the fact that Veronica Mars was never a ratings success, Bell has become a very in-demand actor. She manages make some very stylized dialogue grounded in a real emotional place. She also never forgets that she’s playing a high school junior. Despite her cynical facade, Veronica Mars is (as Wallace puts it) “a marshmallow.”
But why the cynicism? As we learn in “Pilot,” Veronica was in with the cool kids (09ers, in the parlance of the show, named after their zip code) and dating the most popular boy in school, Duncan Kane, until Duncan’s sister and Veronica’s BFF Lilly was murdered. Keith Mars, Veronica’s dad and the local sheriff, suspected software billionaire Jake Kane (Lilly and Duncan’s father) of committing the crime, which was a problem because Jake Kane is a billionaire and the most popular man in Neptune. Keith pursued Jake until a recall election kicked Keith out of office. Veronica’s mom disappeared and all of her friends abandoned her because of her father’s crusade. Veronica went to a party to prove that she wasn’t affected by them, only to be drugged and raped.
It’s a lot of exposition to swallow, but the show does a good job of moving us through it. And, psychologically, it makes sense that Veronica would latch on to her father – the only stable, supportive human left in her life – and try to be more like him. But by the end of “Pilot” things are looking up for Veronica. She has befriended newbie Wallace and become frenemies with Weevil and the local bike gang.
But as much as I love the long-term storytelling, I had forgotten how much fun the week-to-week mysteries can be, and especially Veronica’s solution to those mysteries. Here we get a pretty good one, as Veronica unleashes a plan that brings down Logan (who I’ll talk more about when we get into the next episode) and the Sheriff while taking care of Weevil’s case and Cliff’s. Even though it’s still a very tightly written mystery, there’s still some extraneous elements (like the helpful firefighter) that the show will get better about not using as it gets more comfortable.
All in all, “Pilot” does a good job of introducing us to the world of Neptune and setting up this season’s main concerns.
“Credit Where Credit’s Due”
There are two kinds of quality TV shows. There’s the kind like Mad Men and The Sopranos whose ambitions are immediately obvious and who announce themselves as being different from other TV shows. But then there’s the shows that have to work within a genre and the viewer has to accept that before moving on. Battlestar Galactica looks and feels like a Sci-Fi original movie and The Wire starts like a cop procedural. And, in Veronica Mars’ case, you have to put up with a heavy dose of post-O.C. teen angst (complete with a soundtrack of hot new buzz bands like Fountains of Wayne) and a cameo from Paris Hilton to get to the good stuff.
But even this episode has a lot going for it. For one, “Credit Where Credit’s Due” starts to tackle the season-long concern of just how different Veronica is from the 09ers. In high school, feelings tend to be exaggerated, drama blown up, and the differences between each other expanded. Is Veronica an outcast on the fringes of high school society? Or is she a popular girl who is just posing? Weevil certainly thinks it’s the latter, accusing Veronica of assuming he was guilty of the credit card fraud. Also, freed of the expository concerns of “Pilot,” “Credit Where Credit’s Due” can be a little more fun and take its time to give us great character moments like the scene between Keith and Sheriff Lamb in the diner.
Plot-wise, this episode is relatively straightforward, as it once again finds Veronica being brought into the worlds of the bikers and the 09ers, because of some credit card fraud. While both Weevil’s grandmother and Weevil take the fall, it’s pretty obvious that the culprit is actually Weevil’s cousin, who was using the credit cards to take out 09er Paris Hilton behind Logan’s back. The cousin gets his ass kicked by everybody, Weevil (and Grandma) get out of jail, all thanks to the investigative prowess of Veronica Mars (with an assist from Wallace, who now works in the office).
I think the mystery here is a little thin and the resolution is nothing too special (not to mention that it has Paris Hilton dragging the whole thing down). There’s also some iffy logical issues (like the woman in the police station who is apparently the only person in the town who doesn’t know the Kane family or Lilly’s murder) and, like a lot of second episodes, this one feels a little like the show is ramping up. Still, I think where “Credit Where Credit’s Due” really succeeds is in turning the relationship between Veronica and Keith, which felt a little awkward in “Pilot,” into a much sweeter and more believable one. It also does a good job of pushing the master plot forward just enough (the Kanes’ airtight alibis aren’t so airtight, as proven by the traffic photo of Lilly).
It can be a lot to keep track of, and the show’s web is only going to get wider and denser from here. Still, as a start, it’s a damn good one. The show’s mystery is well-established and we’re already starting to see its class warfare concerns come up (although right now, it can be a little too on-the-nose about it). And, at the center of it all is Kristen Bell, giving an absolutely phenomenal performance. The pieces are starting to fall into place, and it’ll only be a matter of time before things really kick into gear.
“Pilot” – 82
“Credit Where Credit’s Due” – 73
“Pilot” – A-
“Credit Where Credit’s Due” – B