That Championship Season: Veronica Mars, Season One

vmarslogo

As with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was a latecomer to Veronica Mars. Frustratingly enough, it was my overt appreciation of Buffy that got in the way of me trying out Veronica Mars when it arrived to largely positive reviews. Surely the lesson I should have learned from avoiding Buffy partially because its high school setting seemed to ensure it would automatically be uninteresting to a mature fellow such as myself was that I shouldn’t prejudge a program on the basis of its setting or presumed target audience. Instead, that was exactly the mistake I made again, spurred on somewhat by the fact that I was a little disgruntled about the last couple seasons of the Slayer of Sunnydale, so when UPN seemed to fill their petite, blonde high school heroine void with a similar–though notably less supernatural–program around a year after Buffy went off the air, I decided that the show certainly wasn’t for me. To put it more simply, I can be a real dope sometimes.

Veronica Mars was the second series created by Rob Thomas that made it to air, and luckily my partner in all things was a fan of the first. Cupid, which aired on ABC in 1998 and 1999, was an odd bit of business. It starred Jeremy Piven as a man who believed himself to be Cupid, the god of love, forced to live as a mortal until he fulfills a charge to unite one-hundred couples in blissful, everlasting love. It’s the one time that Piven got a sizable role that suited his talents (I don’t care how many awards he won for his acting on the onerous Entourage), the zippy banter modeled on classic Hollywood screwball comedies reshaping his most obnoxious mannerisms into a jabbering charisma. He’s witty and even vulnerable. It was also one of the countless doomed series on which Paula Marshall drew a paycheck. Since Veronica Mars was touted in certain corners as Rob Thomas’s long-awaited follow-up to the earlier series, much-loved in our house, it was sure to play on our television set whether I paid attention or not. Eventually, almost through osmosis, I figured out that I was making a mistake sitting in the other room.

vmars

I will now sheepishly concede that I didn’t start watching its new airings until the tricky, rework-in-progress third season (more on that a couple hundred words from now), but the miracle of modern technology helped me catch up. In a way, that may have been for the best, as gorging on the first season helped me see its key, influential place in the rapid evolution of episodic television. It may not have been meant to be viewed in a single sitting (or a few sittings, since this is twenty-two episodes of an hour-long series being discussed), but its strengths could be seen more sharply using that approach.

I’ve already noted in this feature that I think of The Sopranos and Buffy as among the first series that shifted seasons away from collections of episodes that perhaps added up to something and into cohesive, long-form stories, stealth novels divided into chapters of uniform time. The Sopranos was a little sneakier about it, while Buffy was more overt, using the presence of a “big bad,” a season-long villain, to provide a clear through-line. For me, the beauty of the first season of Veronica Mars is the way it artfully combines those two approaches, revealing it’s done so towards the end of the run as proudly as a magician finishing a trick by producing a previously plucked playing card that was almost forgotten about.

The primary mission of the first season of Veronica Mars is spelled out clear as can be in the early going: the title character (played with shrewd, sardonic charm by Kristen Bell) is out to solve the mystery surrounding who killed her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried, a marginal actress thankfully relegated to the occasional flashback). This isn’t simply something Veronica undertakes because she’s the protagonist and that’s what protagonists do, an all-too-common narrative shortcut in this sort of drama. Investigating crimes is built right into her DNA–or at least has been nurtured into her–because her father is Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), former sheriff and current private detective. Veronica tries to find Lilly’s killer because her primary role model–and the warm, believable father-daughter relationship played by Bell and Colantoni is one of the strongest elements of the series–has taught her this is exactly the way to solve problems.

vmarslaptop

The series debuted in the fall of 2004, so there was still an expectation that individual episodes of a show would have some capability of standing on their own. Viewers could be theoretically be joining a series at any time, and it was the responsibility of creators to structure their work in a way welcoming to newcomers. To that end, Veronica Mars used an approach similar to that of Buffy, which spent much of each season relying on the “Monster of the Week” while layering in the longer story arc as subplot. Veronica kept chipping away at the larger investigation that consumed her, but most weeks also had time for her to take on a mystery simple enough that it could be wrapped up in time for the closing credits and the urging to “Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s Veronica Mars.” The series came across as a amalgam of any one of the countless detective shows from the nineteen-seventies (none of which would have deigned to have a sixteen year old female as the crackerjack crime-solver) and the emerging new model of stories that developed gradually across a full season.

This approach wasn’t inherently striking at first glance–as I noted, it owed quite a bit to Buffy–but Thomas and his collaborators made an important pivot late in the year, in the penultimate episode “A Trip to the Dentist.” At this point, Veronica is very close to finally figuring out who’s responsible for Lilly’s death. As she’s putting the last pieces together, she winds up tracking through most of the encounters she’d had in the smaller mysteries that occupied her time during the season, sometimes going locker to locker in her high school to talk to key figures once again, coaxing out useful information that she’s just discovered they probably have. One of the problems Buffy had from time to time was the one-off stories could seem like filler, mere delaying tactics as the major story was stretched to the allotted twenty-plus episodes. If it seemed like Veronica Mars bore the same flaw, Thomas and his team found a way to make it not so. Every one of those earlier investigations gave Veronica something she’d eventually need, even if it was merely the developed intimacy to get a person to pass along details or, more commonly, the knowledge that this bold girl wasn’t going to be dissuaded so they may as well cough up their secrets at the first question instead of drawing out the ordeal. For all I know, this wasn’t the culmination of a grand plan. It could have easily been a late-season writer room inspiration to tie threads that were previously expected to be left loose and dangling. Either way, it gives the whole series up to that point, even things that could have otherwise been interpreted as distractions from the main story, a pronounced sense of purpose. Everything was there because it needed to be there. Without it, Veronica wasn’t going to make it to the end.

vmarsdentist

Veronica Mars would simply be a curiosity if all it had going for it was this interesting structural playfulness. But the show’s take on sunny noir bristles with energy, especially in the whipsmart banter bestowed on Veronica herself (Bell’s recent gratitude at the kickstarting of a Mars movie is no doubt genuine, given that she’s been unable to find another role that rewards her blessed gift for endearing snark). Additionally, the first season provided a slyly potent explication of the very real perils of being on the wrong side of the class divide, thanks largely to Veronica’s new place on that wrong side after spending time among the privileged class. The social circles of high school are depicted as interconnected snake pits, but they’re clearly stand-ins for the same virulent injustices that await once the tassle has been moved from one side to the other. Problems and interpersonal ugliness may be starker in high school, but otherwise it’s not so different out in the so-called real world.

It was a little miracle that the series pulled it all together as well as it did, as evidenced by the fact that it didn’t quite nail it again over the course of its other two seasons. The second season–largely revolving around a suspicious bus crash–quickly starts spinning in tiresome circles. By the third, the stalled viewership was wearing on the patience of UPN, and Thomas revamped things slightly, discarding the notion of a season-long storyline in favor of a couple of mysteries resolved in more clearly delineated and shorter arcs. The soapier elements of the characters’ lives (led by the ongoing saga of Veronica and Logan, the latter played by Jason Dohring as the quintessential good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules) were left to carry devoted viewers along the length of the year. Initially a little uncertain, the new approach held some promise, in some ways forecasting the accelerated arcs of cable series such as Justified. That promise never came to fruition, though, as Veronica Mars was canceled at the end of the third season, Bell walking away to the suitably downbeat strains of Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California.”

The fans were distraught to see their favorite marshmallow go, but there was only so much reinventing that Thomas could do (and he had a doozy in mind for the fourth season, even before the future Boyd Crowder walks through the door). He’d created the right show at the wrong time, and, like Joss Whedon, kept clinging to the notion of a broadcast network being his proper home when his storytelling sensibilities were clearly suited for the more forgiving world of cable, meaning he also had settled it in the wrong place. Coming away with a great first season is accomplishment enough, especially since it arguably represents the purest version of his vision, before the agitated suits started suggesting helpful changes. The story will continue, the devotees made sure of that. I’m hoping for the best, but whatever happens, I’ll still have the first season, even if it took me a little longer than I’d like to find my way to it.

Previously…
An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four