Friday, August 19, 2011

A Look Back at TV: Veronica Mars Revisited

This week I was compelled (for obvious reasons, among them an appreciation for snark, ownage, and good writing, not to mention a considerable lack of such quality on air currently) to revisit the heavily lauded and now defunct legend that was Veronica Mars.

In rewatching the first season, for probably the third time since it aired back in 2004, all my respect and love for this show remained untouched. Despite originally intending just to entertain myself, and produce a few victory noises to celebrate Veronica's inevitable triumphs, I realized I should take any opportunity to promote awareness of this gem of a program. Hence, this look back, which I've done before with Harper's Island.

That was about a television experiment with genre. This goes beyond genre, this is Veronica Mars. Unique, unprecedented, unsurpassed, it's a shockingly elaborate mix of soap, noir, mystery, suspense, drama and comedy.

Hit the jump to read more. And maybe if you're not a fan yet, you will be. And then you'll buy the DVD. And then DVD sales will skyrocket, And then....can anyone say Serenity?

Despite the fact that every episode of this series is worth watching--there may be far less important episodes or less exciting ones, but there are no fillers--the first season of Veronica Mars is a feat of storytelling that even the show itself was unable to outdo it. (Though there are some parts of Seasons 2 and 3 that recreate the thrill and importance of that initial storyline.)

Veronica Mars is a 17 year old girl, living with her father in Neptune, California, a town heavily divided by income. As Veronica tells us, there is no middle class here; there are the rich, the '09-ers (thus named for their zip code) and there are the poor, who generally work for the former. The high school is a microcosm of the town, with the students inherently sorted by their parents' wealth. Veronica was once one of the "cool" kids. Though not rich, her father was the Sheriff of Neptune, her boyfriend was Duncan Kane, of the rich and influential Kane family, and her best friend was Lily Kane, his sister.

Then things went sour. Duncan broke up with her for unknown reasons. Lily was found murdered by the pool. Sheriff Mars, convinced that the Kane parents were hiding something, investigated them aggressively, incurring the town's wrath and losing his job. Veronica's mother, bereft at the loss in social standing and income, abandoned them. Veronica herself, in an attempt to prove her resiliency to herself and her schoolmates, attended a party alone where she was drugged and raped, and when she reported it to the spiteful and incompetent replacement Sheriff, was ridiculed and brushed aside.

Needless to say, she wasn't the same girl anymore. Instead, she's the girl we meet initially, only learning her story through well-timed, brief, and interesting flashbacks. No, the present Veronica is a different person altogether, potentially unique in all the world. 

Nowadays, she works with her father, who has set up shop as a Private Investigator. She stakes out cheating spouses in seedy motels, nabs the money shot, tracks down bail jumpers and parole violators, taps phones, follows paper trails, and basically helps her father in the less-physically-dangerous (usually) facets of his trade. At school, dressed in a modest but clear don't-mess-with-me rocker chick style (as opposed to her former long blonde tresses and summer dresses) she helps fellow students who, knowing her reputation and abilities, approach her with mysteries or tasks; searching for a lost dog, looking for dirt on their parents, blackmail, harassment, a rigged student election, the list goes on.

She can verbally skewer a tall, built, bold bullying jock in the middle of a crowd, or fend off a biker gang at 4am on the side of a road using her trusty pit bull, a taser, and the power of logic. She is an incredibly resourceful, intelligent, strong young woman, with a good heart and an intimidating sense of morality.

However, it's not purely altruism that motivates her day-to-day activities. Aside from the monetary compensation she usually receives for her work, she is driven by an almost obsessive, overwhelming sense of justice to find Lily Kane's murderer. You see, a man named Abel Koontz randomly confessed to the murder and was put on death row, however her father was unconvinced and Veronica, in her own search, quickly discovered evidence that proved Koontz was innocent. So despite whatever mystery or case-of-the-week she is working on throughout the first season, every episode sees a development in this primary storyline, her investigation of her best friend's grisly death.

The characters in this show are remarkably well-acted and fully formed, be they Veronica's closest allies or the client of the week. The school and town Rob Thomas, the creator and no he's not THAT Rob Thomas, have...well, created here are dense, believable, seemingly infinite in its layers and complexity and rich in stories. Between her past and present, the possibilities for cases are endless, and Veronica always has something to keep her busy.

Chief among her supporting characters is Wallace, the new kid who we first meet tied to the flagpole naked at high school, punishment for reporting a legitimate crime perpetrated by a gang member. The school body gathers around, laughing and taking pictures, but only Veronica is the one who goes up to him and cuts him down. They quickly become fast friends, and Wallace remains her good-hearted, loyal friend throughout the show, an underrated beacon in her life to remind her that not everyone is sordid, selfish and cruel. As for Wallace, he recognizes her true worth, looking beyond her tough exterior, right off the bat. As he puts it: " I can either go hang out with the punks who laughed at me, took pictures of me while I was taped to that flagpole, or I can hang out with the chick who cut me down."

However, the most important character in Veronica's life, and thus in the show, is her father Keith Mars. The relationship between these two is probably the best father-daughter relationship that has ever been seen on television. Ever. The chemistry and rapport between them is just one part of it; infinitely enjoyable, I could watch them interact forever, making references and Private Eye jokes and teasing each other with impunity. But the underlying meat of their bond is what makes it so special. Despite their happiness and love, they are both, honestly, rather unhappy. Jilted by the community, despised and mocked, abandoned by their loved ones, poor, both of them endure a daily struggle to stay above water and maintain their self-respect. They work hard, an effective team in their business and, while it's not typically a field a 17 year old girl should be in, as Keith often brings up, it's one of their biggest connections. They share a dogged pursuit of the truth and an honest enjoyment in the tricks and leads and maneuverings inherent in their work.

In addition, the desire to find the truth about the Lily Kane case is strong within both of them, regardless of what Keith may express. Despite their honesty and deep connection, there is still much they keep from each other, often working privately and even at cross-purposes, pursuing their own instincts and leads. Inevitably, as the viewer can surmise, their paths match up. When the stakes get high, no matter what conflicts or secrets may exist between them, nothing matters but the truth and each others' safety and well being. No matter what Veronica gets into, Keith will be there to rescue her. And if she doesn't need rescuing, which is often the case, he'll be there to love her, without judgments and conditions, to ask her to be careful and to let her find her own way.

As the season progresses, they both come to terms with certain sacrifices that must be made for other, and Veronica in particular learns to abandon some self-involved desires in order to ensure the happiness of her beloved father. She also doggedly follows leads, and never gives up on what she thinks is right and in doing so, sticking firmly to her principles and never hesitating to throw herself in harm's way with risky deceits or set-ups, she ends up discovering the true murderer of her best friend, though she needs a little help to survive that climax.

The show would have been nothing without Kristen Bell, who is in practically every single scene of every episode. The exhaustion Bell must have felt is hardly worth thinking about, except inasmuch as understanding just how impressive a performance this was. Pitch-perfect as a hard-assed, hard-boiled teenage private eye, cracking heads and taking names, defender of the downtrodden, avenging the slighted, hated and despised and rarely ruffled, Bell also brought a vulnerability and innocence that was honestly staggering when it showed itself. Most of the time is spent watching her kick ass, exposing corruption and revealing cruel, duplicitous villains to the world. Thus, when we see the pain she's in, the loss of her friends and love, the upheaval in her life, we not only realize the depths of her passions and motivation to be who she is, we see she's not nearly as invulnerable as she tries to be.

And when things get physical and scary, or at least when they do a wide shot, we see just how petite, how short and skinny and effectively helpless she seems. It reminds us of how precarious her life is; no matter how brilliant and prepared and fearless she is, it just takes one of these bad guys to snap and she could be in danger of losing everything. That acting, the lighting of the show, the brilliant way it is filmed, the neo-noir aspect, the biting, fast-paced, highly intelligent dialogue, it all comes together and paints a completely singular world.

Veronica Mars creates a highly stylized fantasy, one that can appeal to all of us; the revenge of the downtrodden and the domination over the cruel. A high schooler mature and skilled and strong enough to put adults in their place, to never suffer fools or corruption, who does not except the world as it is and works, successfully, to change it. And yet it also offers us an often grim reality. People lie, cheat and steal. Others look on and let bad things happen. Friends and family can betray. This is a show that doesn't pull it's punches. But instead of being depressing and bleak, the contrast is what matters. Veronica is a good person, and so is her father, and every now and then she makes a true friend. Even in the midst of a town of lies and secrets and violence, goodness and morality prevails.

I don't believe Neptune is a town anyone would want to live in, but aside from being a whole lot of fun to watch, it's a world that shows us all what is worth fighting for. To reiterate, this show is genius, and if you haven't seen it yet, you're in for a huge treat.

Happy Friday.

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