Friday, February 11, 2011

The Surprise Greatness Of Veronica Mars (The Complete Series)!

The Good: Three wonderful seasons of a quirky dramedy, Good DVD extras
The Bad: It ends, "Season Four"
The Basics: Easily the best series I've found on DVD (as opposed to it initial airings), Veronica Mars is smart, funny and worth the buy!

Sometimes, I discover a bundle pack that pleases me, but makes me wonder. Veronica Mars was a television show I discovered first on DVD and it remains the best television show I did not see in the original run, but wish I had.

Veronica Mars, at first glance, embodied much of what I do not like about quite a bit of television (specifically geared toward late-teens). Originally on UPN, I would catch the beginning of new episodes of the series when it followed immediately after Gilmore Girls the last season Gilmore Girls was on. And it appeared to me to be exactly what I loathe about Hollywood television: stick-figure, Hollywood-beautiful girls acting like women beyond their years, flawless guys who have more money than anyone their age ought to and a kind of bland generic quality to everything that might include the obvious attempts to appeal to more than just white middle America by including token cast members of other ethnicities (Veronica Mars has exactly one black and one latino character).

Despite this, Veronica Mars is a surprisingly smart show and on DVD, it is bundled all together as Veronica Mars - The Complete Seasons 1 - 3. This is a very simple bundle pack with the packages for Seasons 1, 2, and 3 shrink-wrapped together. There are no additional bonus features, featurettes or incentives to purchase this pack in this fashion (save that it has great programming!). Annoyingly, this pack does not save any space over the original packaging, either, as it is the season packs put together.

Set in the affluent California suburb around Neptune High School, about a year after the murder of socialite heiress Lilly Kane's murder, Veronica Mars finds herself trudging through high school, unpopular and alone until the day that she cuts a fellow student down from the flagpole. Wallace, the boy she rescued, is a new arrival at Neptune and he quickly becomes Veronica's steady friend and accomplice in the right place. Ironically, Veronica manages to befriend the head of the motorcycle gang that was tormenting Wallace, a troubled young man nicknamed Weevil. She finds herself often at odds with her former friends, the very popular ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane and his best friend, a jerk named Logan.

Veronica lives with her private detective father, Keith, having been abandoned by her mother as a result of Keith losing his job as sheriff during the Lilly Kane murder investigation, which was solved almost immediately once Keith was no longer the sheriff. Keith has severe doubts about the validity of the confessed killer's story and has quietly continued an investigation into the Lilly Kane murder, an investigation Veronica - as his assistant and Lilly Kane's best friend - is very interested in. Keith had many suspects, focusing mostly on the Kane family, Logan and Weevil, but everyone becomes a suspect again when Veronica stumbles onto information that illustrates Lilly's time of death was off by hours. Veronica and Keith follow trails of money, broken alibis and personal histories to try to piece together why Abel Koontz confessed, why the investigation caused Lianne Mars to flee town, and who killed Lilly Kane!

Along the way, Veronica investigates other mysteries and tries to piece together what happened to her the night of a party when she was drugged and raped. In the course of the first season, she uncovers a dog thief, a secret society of elite students who might be manufacturing fake i.d.s, a cult that actually is pretty all right, and a young woman who has been spurned by her jerk boyfriend whom she wants to break up with.

Season Two focuses on Veronica's Senior year of high school, where she finds 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.

Season Three follows Veronica to college. Veronica, Wallace, Logan, Dick and Mac, adjust to college and their new friends, Parker and Piz. Parker, a victim of the serial rapist, quickly adapts to college by casting off her parents' influence, while Veronica begins to attract the attention of both the college dean and her Criminology professor. Supported by Professor Landry, Veronica begins to studiously investigate the serial rape case and then the murder of Dean O'Dell, which Landry is a prime suspect in. While Veronica gets closer to solving the rape case, her romantic relationship with Logan suffers because of his protective instincts.

Meanwhile, Keith Mars works to solve Dean O'Dell's murder following his disastrous attempt to save Kendall Casablancas from the Fitzpatricks. In the process, he takes on a case involving a dissatisfied wife whom he finds himself attracted to and later to investigate bars serving underage students. He remains protective of Veronica and tries to live up to her high expectations of him.

And yes, most of the characters are Hollywood-beautiful and ridiculously wealthy, but that's addressed. It's part of the setting. Neptune High is where the well-off go and given that virtually everyone local works under Jake Kane's multibillion dollar Kane Enterprises empire, it makes sense. Furthermore, Veronica and her father are two of the poorest characters in the series. While Logan and Duncan run off to Mexico whenever they feel like it, Veronica works for her father and the two have very real concerns, like paying for college, affording gifts, and coming up with seed money for investigations.

That level of detail and authenticity brings a true sense of reality to the show that is frequently lacking in other series'. Moreover, it made the first season come alive in a way that was very engaging. Veronica makes sense as a protagonist helping out the downtrodden in Neptune because she herself is an outsider and frequently pushed aside or ridiculed.

Veronica Mars is ultimately rather focused on the characters and they unify the series of mysteries that are explored in this boxed set. It helps to know who they are and they (mostly) are appealing. The principle characters in the series are:

Veronica Mars - A high school student and professional detective, she chose standing by her father when the Lilly Kane investigation cost him everything. Living with him, she still harbors the fantasy that she can find her mother and have an ideal family. A social outcast since Duncan broke up with her, she is aided by Wallace and Weevil in many of her investigations, and while she pines for Duncan, she opens up to a new boyfriend as well as forging new friendships, like with computer geek Mac,

Wallace Fennel - A good guy who is rescued by Veronica at the outset of the series, he tries to do the ethical thing and help others out. He works in the records office, which allows him to slip Veronica student files when she needs them. He has an unquestioning devotion to her and he is her most consistent ally and friend,

Eli "Weevil" Navarro - The head of the local motorcycle gang, he is poor, works with his uncle at his bodyshop/junkyard moving cars, and had a secret affair with Lilly Kane. Weevil and Veronica aid one another in a series of backscratches that keep Weevil out of jail and in school and have him punishing those who would do her harm,

Logan Echolls - The abused son of famed movie star Aaron Echolls, he is essentially a jerk and the on-again off-again boyfriend of the late Lilly Kane. He is very well-off and he acts as if he has a sense of entitlement as a result, often causing him to act out,

Duncan Kane - The bland son of billionaire Jake Kane, Lilly was his sister. Duncan suffers from fits and blackouts, for which he is medicated. He used to date Veronica and now avoids her for the most part,

Mac - The computer genius who Veronica grants amnesty to. She is traumatized by the events of the second season finale, arrives on campus somewhat wounded and she remains close to Veronica. She does some work for Veronica and Logan and finds herself attracted - eventually - to two different men,

Sheriff Lamb - The bungling moron of a sheriff has a reign of terror in Neptune, which continues through him offending campus security and harassing Weevil and Veronica. He and Keith have multiple run ins,

(2nd Season on) 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,

(2nd Season) 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,

(2nd Season) 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,

(3rd Season) Parker Lee - Mac's roommate who is characterized as something of a slut. Her promiscuous ways end rather abruptly when she is raped and her anger at Veronica for it (she walked in while it was happening and did not realize what was going on) compels Veronica to pick up the case. She and Piz become friends, but she soon develops an eye for someone else,

(3rd Season) "Piz" - The nickname for Stosh Piznarski, an audiophile and Wallace's roommate. He is shy, good-natured and somewhat bland,

and Keith Mars - Veronica's father, he is a laid-back detective and former sheriff who was virtually run out of town when he investigated Jake Kane as his prime suspect in Lilly Kane's murder. He has a clear love for Veronica and when he gives up on his estranged wife, he begins to look elsewhere for love and adult companionship.

Indeed, one of the things I enjoyed most about Veronica Mars was that Keith is not an incompetent detective. Veronica is the amateur and he's the professional, so while Veronica contributes and is the prime mover of most of the plots, Keith is neither an oblivious parent, nor in her shadow professionally. That level of realism - like when Keith realizes Veronica has cracked into his safe and he changes the combination - makes the characters seem quite vibrant and realistic.

The series is generally well cast and well-acted. Sure, there are a lot of white bread generic looking white teens in the first season of Veronica Mars and the casting of Aaron Ashmore as Veronica's new boyfriend (the first in the season, anyway) Troy is a poor one considering how much he looks like Teddy Dunn, who plays Duncan Kane. It is also worth noting that the series had Sydney Tamiia Poitier as a regular cast member - newspaper advisor Mallory Dent - but the producers didn't seem to know how to use her and she was written out after only a few episodes.

The cast that endures is quite good, though. Young actors Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra and Jason Dohring all each make an impression as Wallace, Weevil and Logan. the latter two, especially, are charged with playing multifaceted characters whose performances must turn from harsh to likable on a dime while staying in character. Capra and Dohring do that wonderfully in this series.

The two standouts of the cast - rather sensibly - are the Mars family members. Enrico Colantoni, whose work I was familiar with from Just Shoot Me, is incredible as Keith Mars. Unlike prior roles where he plays characters who are smarmy or mentally unbalanced, here he gives a perfectly convincing performance as a loving father and down-on-his-luck private detective. He has an ease of performance that makes the character seem effortless and like the ideal television father, something one might not have expected from Colantoni.

But it is Kristen Bell who got me to watch Veronica Mars and is responsible for much of the show's success. I did not enjoy Bell in her role on Heroes (reviewed here!) and I was curious to see how she got there, other than her Hollywood good looks. Bell is talented as an actress, easily portraying a young woman in that uncertain time between being a girl and woman, she has a quality to her that makes her believable when she stands strong as Veronica the enforcer and a spacy quality to her expressions that makes her Veronica the hurt girl portrayal work completely. Indeed, Bell has the ability to alter her body language and sense of character to play a versatile number of roles and emotions, the likes of which I've not seen since Jennifer Garner burst onto the scene in the first season of Alias. Indeed, Bell seems like a younger version of Garner in many of her affectations and her versatility. Indeed, part of my problem with the Season Four pitch on the final disc is that it seems like the show was remaking itself in to Alias, and Bell did a fine job at the mimicry needed to make that happen!

The DVDs have a few deleted scenes, commentary tracks and featurettes spread between them and they are certainly enough to keep the average viewer entertained and engaged. Sadly, there is also a proposed Season Four, which (fortunately) did not get made, as a bonus feature on the final disc.

This is a smart show with great writing, snappy dialogue and a must for anyone who likes mysteries, dramedies or just great television in general!

This is a simple bundle pack of Veronica Mars:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3


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

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