Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time #8 - Veronica Mars

(2004 - 2007)

It took me a while to begin watching this show.  I had heard good things about it, but all I got from the promos was that it was a high school Nancy Drew.  This concept, while somewhat interesting, didn't really appeal to me.  I probably would not have picked it up except a strange thing happened.  Even though the show aired on the UPN, it was owned by CBS.  And so one Saturday when there was nothing on I was flipping stations and came upon an episode.  This was especially strange because the show was only in its first season and nowhere near ready for syndication, yet here it was having its repeats aired on a more popular network.  

I only saw about 5 minutes of it.  But that was enough.  I was hooked.

The show revolves around teenager Veronica Mars (a breakout Kristen Bell), who works after school for her father, private investigator and former sheriff Keith Mars (a fantastic Enrico Colantoni).  This outsider uses her detective skills to solve mysteries surrounding her high school classmates, but this often leads to larger issues.  

There are a number of things that make Veronica Mars stand out.

1.  Mystery inside mysteries.
Each episode brought to Veronica a fresh mystery that would most likely be solved by the end of the episode.  But within that mystery would often be a little clue to a larger mystery that would build for the entire season.  In season one, Veronica's best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) is murdered.  This sets off a chain of events that sets Veronica as an outcast and her fathered fired from law enforcement.  As she solves the mysteries of her classmates, she finds more and more out about the events that led up to Lily's death.  The show does an even better job in season 2.  It was incredibly fun and engaging to watch all of the little mysteries add up to the bigger ones

2.  Radical Character Development
It is really incredible to watch the pilot to the show and see the drastic journey the characters make over the course of 3 short years.  Long-form story telling like TV or comic books allows such an opportunity to slowly grow and change a character.  Most shows are too afraid to do so for fear of alienating viewers from the qualities that made them connect to those characters.  As a result, they remain static.  But Veronica Mars allowed their characters to grow, evolve, and sometimes devolve.  This is best seen in Logan Echols (Jason Dohring) who went from a flat villain you loved to hate into the true heart of the show.

3.  Acting
As a show on a lower-rated network, Veronica Mars never had the budget to make most of its episodes look as polished as they should have been.  But the series more than made up for that with its actors.  Bell, to my mind, will always be a star.  Strong, smart, vulnerable, flawed, and heroic all come through her performance in a completely believable way.  Colantoni was a real surprise for me, having only been familiar with his comedy work.  But there was a strength mixed with kindness and danger that I have rarely seen in a television performance.  And I already mentioned Dohring who is so charismatic that even when he comes off as evil, there is enough good will there to keep you rooting for him.

"An Echolls Family Christmas"

I think that it takes about ten episodes to really appreciate Veronica Mars.  This was the random episode I caught on CBS that hooked me.  This episode revolves around a late night poker game where all the cash was stolen.  Everyone at the game suspects the other and the only neutral person they can turn to is Veronica.  Not only does she come through, but she does it in a way that drops the mic.

On top of this, the episode brings in some important elements of Lily's murder forward into the story.  It is really here that you begin to see the anthological and mythological elements of the show come together.

"Show Me the Monkey"
This was the episode that jettisoned the year-long mystery.  Instead, the series resolved the main mystery the episode earlier and began another one.  But unlike years past where the mysteries seemed to develop organically from the story, this felt tacked on.  As a result the main series mysteries felt rushed and disconnected from the main lives of the characters.

"One Angry Veronica"
Usually the writing for the show was very sharp and smart.  But this one felt forced and completely artificial.  While Veronica and her boyfriend were broken up, he impregnated another classmate.  That classmate wakes up from a coma in this episode and is desperate to not have her baby raised by her own parents because of their radical Christian beliefs.  Not only did this feel like a soap opera, but it also felt like an unnecessary jab and Christians.  To be very fair, there were many times the show could have taken the low and easy road of making devout Christians the bad guys because of their Christianity.  But to my surprise this was often not the case.  This episode was a regretful backslide.

"Not Pictured"
This was the big finale to big mystery this season: someone caused a bus crash that killed many students at Veronica's high school.  Slowly over the course of the season the pieces began to fit together.  I cannot say too much without giving anything away, but this episode gave us an answer that was both surprising and inevitable.  The final confrontation was also scary, gut-wrenching, cathartic, and masterfully acted.  Not only that, but a dangling mystery from the first season is brought up in the end in a devastating way that could feel contrived but instead felt like an anguished character revelation.  If Veronica Mars never had another good episode, this one would be enough.

Ultimately, one of the reasons I love mystery shows is that they are the search for truth.  Perhaps it is the Catholic or the Philosopher in me, but I am so attracted to shows where characters are dedicated to the search for what is true no matter what the cost.  Veronica (whose name means "true image") is always looking for the truth, as should any honest person.

Those who are fans of the show are completely devoted.  It was a minor miracle that creator Rob Thomas got the show made the way he wanted and then even more of a miracle that he was able to make a feature film sequel.  I have always hoped that Veronica Mars would have a bigger audience so that more people can appreciate this little oasis of TV excellence.

1 comment:

  1. Big fan of season one for all the reasons you mentioned above.

    I have the same problem here as with Justified, the series peaked too soon, and the later seasons felt, to me, like they were playing 'catch up'.