Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who Woulda' Thunk?! Veronica Mars Season 1 Is Engaging And Wonderful!

The Good: Interesting characters, Decent acting, Engaging plot
The Bad: Predictable, Lack of significant DVD extras
The Basics: Following a chain of events surrounding the investigation of her best friend's murder, Veronica Mars, young detective, helps her fellow students and father solve mysteries!

I'll admit it; every now and then I pick up something I think I won't like in order to review it. Yes, I rail against those who rate virtually everything with ten to eight out of ten and I argue for the importance of balance and having standards, but I put my money where my mouth is and I actively seek things out that I might be biased against. Truth be told, when I sat down to watch The Benchwarmers I was pretty sure that it would not be getting a favorable review from me. Why? It had elements to it - clearly visible in the film's advertisements - that were unfavorable to me, detractions from seeing it as a remotely decent film. And as it played out, that movie lived down to my expectations; it was bad.

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).

I'm a big enough person to admit when I'm wrong. Sure, most of the main cast and supporting ensemble of Veronica Mars is too good-looking for reality and most of the characters have ungodly amounts of money, but the series is not vacuous and the multiethnic cast is well-used (and addressed in the storylines). And it is engaging. Catching Veronica Mars - Season 1 on DVD, I found myself shocked at just how good it was.

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.

Veronica Mars manages to be so engaging that some of the usual conceits that I despise actually work out fine in this season. So, for example I have a thing right now about voice-overs. I loathe them. This season - the 2007 - 2008 television season - seems to find an inordinate number of television shows using voice-overs. If something on television isn't shown, it generally means the show is put together poorly. Seriously, voice-overs provide exposition, move the plot along or flat-out explain what's going on, but it's a poor use of the television visual medium if a show needs to rely on one; if it can't be made clear through showing (either in physical actions or actor's reactions/acting) then it is not making good use of the medium. Veronica Mars uses voice-overs in the first season judiciously to simply make explicit what is going on behind Veronica's eyes. Often the voice-over will come up simply to remind viewers of a fact presented in an earlier episode that may now be applied to the new information. This works out well in this mystery series because by the last few episodes, there are so many details surrounding the Lilly Kane murder investigation that if the show did a "Previously On Veronica Mars...." that actually included everything that was relevant, you'd begin each episode with a clipshow!

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 first season 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,

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 season.

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 and Galaxy Quest, 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've not been enjoying Bell in her role on Heroes 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.

On DVD, the first season of Veronica Mars is remarkably light on extras. There is a library of deleted scenes on the sixth disc, but there are no commentaries, featurettes or other goodies. The programming is strong, but it would have been nice to see the DVD medium used better, especially for a series I suddenly found myself enjoying more than I ever thought I would.

The first season of Veronica Mars is very accessible to anyone who likes television dramas and mystery stories. There are a number of remarkably predictable plot twists throughout the course of the season, but the show is enjoyable with its clever dialogue, straightforward acting and likable characters. And the nice thing is the series continues high enough that it is worth picking up the entire series, reviewed here!

For other works with Amanda Seyfried, please check out my reviews of:
Letters To Juliet
Dear John


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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