Sunday, February 27, 2011

Answering The Essential Question: "Whatever Happened To Steve Guttenberg?" And More! Veronica Mars - Season 2!

The Good: Excellent acting, Decent storyline(s), Great characters, Excellent serialization
The Bad: A little light on DVD extras for my tastes
The Basics: When Veronica Mars returns for a second season on DVD, there is an even more intense and immediate mystery, more subplots, but no more substantive DVD extras.

Given how much attention I pay to popular culture in film, television and music (I'm not a part of it, but lists intrigue me and I've been known to acquire information for the sake of information), it takes quite a bit to surprise me with something being pretty amazing without me hearing about it before hand. That is, however, precisely what happened with Veronica Mars - The Complete First Season (reviewed here! ) when I picked that up on a lark late last year. It blew me out of the water and since watching it (over and over!), I have been eagerly awaiting the time when I could pick up Veronica Mars - The Complete Second Season. Now that that day has come and I've devoured with delight this boxed set, there are only two words that come to mind:

Even better.

Veronica Mars - Season 2 falls just shy of being a perfect season of television - mostly because of the preoccupation the series has with one of the least interesting characters (not a fan of Duncan Kane . . .) and on DVD it makes less use of the medium than one might prefer, but that's it. That's all the bad in this set right up front. Sure, it doesn't have extensive commentary tracks or a recap of Season One that adequately prepares new viewers for the full weight of all of the allusions and callbacks needed to "get" everything in this boxed set, but it is otherwise close enough to perfect to rate it with the five stars.

It is a rare thing that a show I did not catch in first run lives up to such high expectations, but Veronica Mars - The Complete Second Season was everything I was waiting for when I waited the months to pick it up.

For those unfamiliar with Veronica Mars (the full series is reviewed here!), this hour-long drama is set in Neptune, California, an extraordinarily wealthy community that is ethnically and economically divided between the fabulously wealthy and the middle/working classes and the predominately white students at Neptune High and the latino students who have a very different social/economic strata. It's an intriguing juxtaposition: the Hollywood wealth of SUV driving rich kids paired with a motorcycle gang. Literally. And Veronica Mars makes it work.

In the second season, protagonist Veronica Mars steps into her Senior year of high school to find Neptune more deeply divided than ever, mostly a result of elements from the prior season's finale. Having spent the summer bouncing between her new job at a coffee house, dating Logan who is under indictment for murder, and finally settling on Duncan, Veronica tries to avoid doing private investigation work until the moment Wallace is accused of using drugs. Things in Neptune almost immediately take a tragic turn when a school field trip ends in disaster as a bus carrying several students crashes through a guardrail and plunges the passengers to a watery death at the bottom of a cliff.

The mystery is made more complicated by the fact that many of the students - including Veronica - who were on the field trip - were not on the bus when it was destroyed and a peripheral to the accident ends up dead with Veronica's name written on the palm of his hand. While Veronica and her father, Keith, investigate who killed the students and try to determine why, Keith becomes overwhelmed with a case of hero worship/disappointment when his favorite ball player from the Neptune Sharks - Terrence Cook - who is working for the new mayor, Woody, becomes the prime suspect. While Woody works to pass an incorporation ballot initiative that will further separate the haves from the have nots, Keith follows the clues that put him at odds with Sheriff Lamb and in more danger than ever.

The thing about Veronica Mars in its second season is that this is a heavily serialized television show, but it is going somewhere. While on the surface it appears to be a standard "a-plot/b-plot" series with the a-plot being a bottle "mystery of the week" and the b-plot being the overarching question of who sent the bus over the cliff and why, this is an ingenious series where everything is serving the larger story. All of the little mysteries inevitably provide clues to one of the major mysteries of the season.

What is especially smart about Veronica Mars is that for a series titled after the female detective protagonist, there is ample material that only peripherally involves her, which lends itself to a much richer feeling television show. So, for example, when last seen at the end of "Season 1," Logan and Weevil were about to have it out on a bridge with Logan surrounded by PCHers (the latino motorcycle gang). It does not take long in the first episode of the season to reveal the outcome of that encounter: Logan knocks Weevil out immediately before being beaten by about five other people. The thing is, there is a greater mystery here that comes to involve Veronica not at all: Logan awakens to discover a knife in his hand and a dead body on the bridge next to him. The divide between the classes explodes when Logan is able to escape prosecution from lack of evidence and the PCHers begin to feel that Neptune doesn't care if their people get killed. This leads to a whole thread through almost the entire season wherein Logan struggles with being branded a murderer and Weevil's authority within his gang is challenged, usurped and fought for.

In other words, it is a complex television show that actually demands attention and devotion. DVD is actually the ideal medium for this series as there are details that one will want to explore and re-explore and, frankly, when one episode ends it is near impossible to not keep going to see what happens next. The web is a tangled web on the plot front and it leads Veronica into the lives of each of the victims as well as those peripheral to them.

And the beauty of the series is that it all comes together amazingly well.

Actually, and this is a very simple pleasure of mine, one of the things I respect immensely about Veronica Mars is that by its second season, it has a pattern that comes from the precedent established in the first season which makes for great television. Before the season finale, we know who the guilty party is. The finale, then, does not hinge on "whodunit" but rather how the characters reconcile that and the attempt to serve justice.

But the key to any great television - especially serialized television - is in the quality of the characters. Veronica Mars - Season 2 has great characters, most of them continuing on from the first season. The key characters in season two include:

Veronica Mars - A high school student and coffee house waitress, she is reluctantly pulled back into private detective work to help Wallace and to try to determine why several of her peers were killed. Caught between her love for Duncan and circumstances that continue to push her and Logan together, she becomes distressed when it becomes clear Duncan is not over his ex-girlfriend Meg (the only survivor of the bus crash). When Duncan runs off, she becomes obsessed with the bus crash, putting herself in more danger, even as her father tries to encourage her to look toward college,

Wallace Fennel - A good guy who is Veronica's best friend, he no longer is her tool as he no longer works in the main office. Attracted to a new student, Jackie, Wallace becomes a true basketball star and in the process grows away from Veronica some when her priorities do not match his,

Eli "Weevil" Navarro - The head of the local motorcycle gang, he is poor, works with his uncle at his bodyshop/junkyard moving cars, and becomes disillusioned with his gang when some of the members begin to run drugs into Neptune. Eager to destroy the relationship between the PCHers and the psychotic Irish gang in Neptune, Weevil enlists Veronica to aid him in smoking out the rat in his gang without resorting to violence. When that fails, Weevil and Logan determine they have a mutual adversary and an unlikely partnership is formed,

Logan Echolls - Mostly on his own as a result of circumstances surrounding his parents, Logan is deeply wounded by Veronica leaving him. He soon finds comfort with the Casablancas's eager stepmother, Kendall, and he works to learn what truly happened on the bridge that night. When his house is destroyed by those who framed him, Logan moves into the penthouse suite with Duncan, which puts him even more in the path of Veronica,

Duncan Kane - The bland boyfriend of Veronica until it becomes clear that his feelings for Meg Manning are not so much a thing of the past and the comatose girl reveals her secret. Kept away from Meg and his unborn child by her parents, Duncan must choose between being the father to the baby - if it will survive Meg's coma - and Veronica's boyfriend,

Dick Casablancas - Logan's simple friend who likes shooting guns, having sex with lots of girls and playing video games. He is the archetype of the spoiled rich kid and when his father flees as the result of a real estate scheme, Dick rolls with it by simply tapping his trust fund and going back to his games,

Cassidy Casablancas - Dick's younger brother, called "Beaver" by virtually everyone, he is a shifty boy who is neglected by all. When his father abandons Dick, Kendall and him, Cassidy sets up his own real estate business and goes into business with Kendall. He begins to date Mac, though Dick picks on him mercilessly for that,

Jackie Cook - Daughter of Terrence, she seems spoiled and conceited, though Wallace warms right up to her. Her father's problems - gambling, possessing explosives, etc. - quickly spill over into her life and leave things very strained for her on all fronts,

and Keith Mars - Veronica's father, he is a laid-back detective and former sheriff who now has some measure of celebrity for having written a book about the Lily Kane murder investigation. Still pragmatic and loving, Keith goes out of his way to protect Veronica and still solve the bus crash case, a case that becomes emotionally difficult for him when the prime suspect appears to be his baseball hero.

There are other prominent recurring characters, like Sheriff Lamb - Keith's nemesis, Mayor Woody - whose incorporation plan makes him enough enemies that Keith has to aid him, Terrence Cook - the washed up ball player idolized by Keith, Thumper - one of Weevil's rising adversaries in the PCHers, Mac - Veronica's technically brilliant friend who begins to date Beaver, and Kendall Casablancas - the gold digging mother-in-law of Cassidy and Dick who is sleeping with Logan and (it sure seems) Duncan.

Veronica Mars is such a smart show that it easily attracts amazing guest stars. Kendall is played by Charisma Carpenter of Angel and there is a delicious scene for fans of Joss Whedon's works in this boxed set that puts Carpenter opposite Buffy The Vampire Slayer costar Alyson Hannigan for a sparring match. Fans of those shows will get a kick out of that and those who aren't will simply experience it as a function of this series. Stars of Arrested Development Michael Ceria and Alia Shawkat are reunited for a mystery that foreshadows the final season of the series and they are wonderful.

And for those of us fans of films from the 1980s, Veronica Mars - Season 2 is where Steve Guttenberg ended up. He plays Mayor Woody and he's surprisingly good in the role. Originally appearing goofy, Guttenberg has the ability to infuse subtle menace into his performance to present a character who has an underlying dark side and the brilliance of his performance (yes, I'm using "Steve Guttenberg" and "brilliance" in the same sentence!) is that Guttenberg plays Woody as a terribly liar who thinks he's on top of everything. It's subtle and truly amazing. Who would have thunk that from the star of the Police Academy franchise?!

But it is the regulars who sell this series. While newcomers Tessa Thompson (Jackie), Ryan Hansen (Dick), and Kyle Gallner (Beaver) fail to light the world on fire - none carries the weight or presence of Tina Majorino when she recurs as Mac - they have about the same screen resonance as Teddy Dunn, who plays Duncan with a very whitebread quality. Sadly, Francis Capra and Percy Daggs III are too frequently neglected in this season on the character front, giving them little time to stretch their acting wings. Capra's best moments come when paired with Dohring or in scenes that put him at odds with his character's gang.

But there are three performers who consistently knock the socks off their performances and make the show gripping every moment they are on screen: Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, and Kristen Bell. Dohring plays Logan and he shades in the character with far more depth than he was even allowed to in the first season. Dohring is able to play complex emotions with minimal movement and facial expression. Tormented in many ways by his family life and the growing divide in Neptune that he is the cause of, Logan makes for an intriguing character. Dohring slouches through much of the role until he is required to explode and he sells the transformations masterfully.

Enrico Colantoni, who I find myself constantly impressed with, from his work on NYPD Blue to Just Shoot Me, all pale in compared to his embodiment of Keith Mars. Keith is a wonderful character and Colantoni is able to make the biggest character shift in Keith completely plausible with his performance. Keith is dating Wallace's mother when he learns a truth from her past that ought to change everything between them. It does, but given Keith's character it seems like he might be emotionally desperate enough to let it slide. Colantoni completely sells the plausibility of a divorced, often insecure, middle aged man booting a hottie to the curb on principle. There's nothing more that can be said about his performance in this set that will top that; it's the stuff acting classes ought to revolve around and his performance in this set ought to be the masterwork to strive for.

The show rests on Kristen Bell as Veronica and in this season, she takes the role and makes her performances her own. In my evaluation of season one, I compared her to Jennifer Garner of Alias. In this boxed set, there is no hint of Garner in her performance, it's all Bell progressing the character in her own way and she is compelling and interesting. One of the few DVD bonuses, a Day On The Set featurette exhibits what a wonderful actress she is as it illustrates how Bell is able to embody a strong, together, articulate character from a series of clips that insinuate she is anything but.

It's easy to look at this boxed set, see the Hollywood beautiful teens and think this will be dumb fare aimed at young adults, but it is far too smart for them and the (mostly) young cast is surprisingly mature and astonishingly good. Anyone who likes drama and has the patience for a true twenty-two episode mystery will love Veronica Mars - Season 2. While it is certainly enhanced by season 1, it stands on its own remarkably well as the first episode immediately ties up the cliffhangers lingering from the first season and establishes the new mystery.

On DVD there are deleted scenes and a few featurettes. There is also a quasi-preview of "Season 3" which is essentially clips of seasons one and two and announces that there will be a season three, so that seems pointless and dated now.

It's not enough to drag this set down. This is one of television's big surprises and it's a shame more people didn't tune in. Because now I only have one more season to track down and given how amazing this set was, I know there is disappointment coming either way. Either the third season is even better and then it is followed by nothing or it cannot live up to the wide shadow Veronica Mars Season Two casts.

More people ought to be watching and adding this to their permanent collection!

For other works featuring Kristen Bell, please check out my reviews of:
Couples Retreat
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Heroes Season 3
Heroes Season 2


For other television set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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