Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yes, Strangely, The Bonus Features Bring Down Veronica Mars - The Complete Third Season!

The Good: Interesting cases, Good character work, Generally decent acting, Some of the bonus features
The Bad: Predictable character direction, "Season 4" preview
The Basics: Continuing a wonderful detective series with a strong young woman as its protagonist, Veronica Mars The Complete Third Season is another great boxed set!

A while back, I started working on a article on the Top Ten Television Shows I've Discovered By Boxed Set DVDs and already, I know what the top of the list will be: Veronica Mars. I never saw it when it was on television and with the release and my perusal of Veronica Mars - The Complete Third Season on DVD, the final season of Veronica Mars, left me in some ways glad I had not seen it when it was on. If I had, I would have quickly been obsessed with the show and made it a priority to watch it each and every week. That would have been the good thing about it, I suppose. If it had gone only into a fourth season and followed the vision put forth on the DVD release, I would have come to despise the program for what it became.

All twenty episodes of the third season of Veronica Mars are available on the six-disc set that also includes DVD bonus features like unaired scenes with commentary, a preview of the pitch for Veronica Mars Season 4 and the same feature broken up with commentary from the show's creator Rob Thomas. Thomas, based on the strength of the series in the first two seasons and the power of the third, might have been able to pull off the fourth season as envisioned in the bonus features . . . if it were the seventh or eighth season of the series. Had it been the fourth (see below), the show would have tanked quickly and gutted something truly wonderful.

But the bulk of the programming for this boxed set is Veronica Mars, season three. Following the climactic events of the second season (reviewed here!), this season finds the residents of Neptune, CA attending Hearst College. I missed something in the prior season, because I thought Veronica was headed to Stanford. Keeping the show in Neptune, though, allows the series to retain its original flavor and the setting acts as a character in and of itself, much the way Cecily, Alaska characterized Northern Exposure or Stars Hollow, Connecticut helped define Gilmore Girls. Hearst College, a community college in Neptune, allows Veronica Mars to include the colorful locals, like Sheriff Lamb and Weevil, who do not attend the college, as well as introduce new characters. Unfortunately, the direction some of the season goes is troubling and predictable as opposed to fresh and different ones. That said, Veronica Mars manages to be surprisingly fearless in its dealing with a string of serial rapes on campus, the dangers of what fraternities have become and the corruption that comes with secret societies.

Having ended up at Hearst College with Wallace, Logan, Dick and Mac, Veronica adjusts to college and her 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.

The third season of Veronica Mars begins after a season finale that did not end with the same level of intrigue as the prior season. It feels like a new beginning and in many ways, it is. As a result, fitting some of the characters in does not work nearly as well as the integration of some of the new characters. Weevil, especially, is neglected in this boxed set and Parker never truly integrates with the characters. Dick's character arc is rather simple; he's a traumatized jerk following the events of the second season and he spends most of the season drunk and uncomplicated. On the flip side, Mac's integration into the regular cast is long overdue and her chance to grow as a character is wonderful. She becomes Veronica's sidekick the way Wallace was in the first season.

As with prior seasons of Veronica Mars, there is a larger mystery - in this case two bigger mysteries: the serial rapes on campus and the murder of Dean O'Dell - and little mysteries in each episode. Bottle mysteries include Piz having his possessions stolen by the "Welcome Wagon" when he arrived on campus, a football player whose playbook is stolen before the big game and he risks losing his scholarship, the rapid degradation of Logan's trust fund. As well, Veronica is accused of plagiarism, aiding and abetting a fugitive who flees Lamb's custody, and finding an influential board member of Hearst College who goes missing before an important vote.

The mysteries are good and the show keeps fresh by pushing the envelope with the content of the bottle mysteries. The bigger mysteries are not as big as the prior seasons' and as a result, there is actually some satisfaction for the viewer when Veronica solves the rapes by the ninth episode. Dean O'Dell's murder does not have the same resonance as the Lily Kane murder or the same potential for suspects as the bus murder from the second season. The result is that there is a more intense investigation and it works quite well for the television show.

The biggest problem - for the third season - that I had with the show is more of a structural annoyance. The moment Chris Lowell's Piz in introduced, I had a terrible feeling that he and Veronica might end up together. Having enjoyed the relationship between Veronica and Logan and bothered some by the on-again, off-again nature of it (though I can live with a good turbulent relationship on television) I was rooting for it to succeed and frankly, Piz struck me from the beginning as a blandly good-looking guy brought on to appeal to younger people who watch the show. Meh. Similarly, Julie Gonzalo is very much presented as a generic Hollywood-good looking blonde to characterize Parker. The show is not quite bold enough to keep her bald for most of the season as realism would require. Parker, raped and head-shaved in the season premiere, quickly takes on a wig and an attitude that neglects much of the impact of being raped. Given that she is Mac's roommate and Gonzalo is a series regular for the season, we expect more.

What works with the series, in general, are the characters and the way the show is clever, most notably in the writing of the dialogue. Veronica Mars would have been an awesome series to write for and in some ways, I wish I had known about it when it was on to try to write for it. The dialogue is quick and witty and Veronica's, especially, is tinged with wit and a dry humor that makes each episode go very quickly.

And when not being conversationally smart, the show manages to be more than just a simple detective series by being clever with the characters around Veronica. Indeed, perhaps the most incredible and fun moment of the season comes when Logan learns that someone he trusted has been locked up on suspicion of a horrible crime, one that made him very afraid for Veronica. Having learned the information, the scene suddenly alters to a donut shop where two police officers are sitting enjoying a morning coffee. Logan appears and begins vandalizing their squad car and is, of course, apprehended. And it all makes sense with such simple directoral moves as showing him led to the mutual holding cell, the door closing and his fist balling up. It's a beautiful thing and it's clever and works to make a very rich series.

Indeed, understanding that Logan would go to such lengths for Veronica is a function of his character and it is worthwhile to explore the characters to understand who they are in the third season. Veronica Mars is populated regularly this season by:

Veronica - Having sworn off detective work, the young lady begins college, still dating Logan. Almost immediately, though, she finds herself involved in solving crimes committed on campus. This attracts the attention of Professor Landry, who uses his connections to arrange an internship for Veronica at Quantico. Veronica dates Logan until his overprotective nature loses its charm,

Wallace - On an athletic scholarship to Hearst, soon finds his dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer compromised by the difficulty of his classload and being caught plagiarizing. He soon prioritizes studying over everything, including helping Veronica, though he tries to help his roommate, Piz, overcome his inhibitions in approaching her,

Logan - Having decided to make something of himself, Logan attends Hearst, where he soon finds himself slacking off and getting involved in underground gambling instead of actually attending classes. As Veronica gets closer to identifying the serial rapist and is put in danger, Logan becomes troubled by the risks she takes,

Weevil - Out of jail on work release, he tries his hand working for Mars Investigations, then on campus as a janitor for O'Dell. He is wrongfully accused by Veronica for a robbery, which she exonerates him for,

Dick - Living down to his potential, Dick arrives on campus drunk and quickly joins a fraternity. After getting into multiple fights, he ends up bunking with Logan and running off with any woman who will have him,

Sheriff Lamb - The bungling moron of a sheriff continues his reign of terror by offending campus security and harassing Weevil and Veronica. He and Keith have multiple run ins,

Mac - The computer genius, traumatized by the events of the 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,

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,

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

and Keith - Veronica's father adapts to her having more of a life with Veronica not around. His disapproval of Logan endures, but he faces Veronica's disapproval when he gets involved with a married woman. He becomes involved in a special election for Sheriff, put up against and unlikely and unlikable foe!

The series employs wonderful actors to characterize the characters and the peripherals are often as interesting as the principles. Memorable guest stars in this season include Ed Begley Jr. as Dean Cyrus O'Dell who plays the dean as very different from how he played his recurring character on Six Feet Under or his corrupt businessman from Star Trek: Voyager. As well, Laura San Giacomo appears as Harmony. Giacomo plays alongside her former co-star from Just Shoot Me, Enrico Colantoni. Colantoni remains the solid cornerstone to the Veronica Mars cast and the strength of his performance and Laura San Giacomo's is that neither plays their character like how they were on the sitcom. Other notable performances come from Patrick Fabian (Professor Landry) and James Jordan (his T.A., Tim Foyle), neither of whom had I realized I seen in anything before this.

The series regulars are generally good, though Chris Lowell and Julie Gonzalo are not given much material to run with. Similarly, Percy Daggs III and Francis Capra are neglected largely by the writers this season. Tina Majorino gets her day and does a wonderful job as Mac. She proves she has some depth, not the least of which is in a series of deleted scenes which gave her character an entire plotline wherein Mackenzie becomes paranoid about the young men around her based on the abuse she suffered.

It is Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, and Kristen Bell who rule Veronica Mars, though. Indeed, it is because of that that the season four preview utterly fails to interest fans of the series: only Bell remains in the fifteen minute preview pitch episode. Dohring adds an unpredictable quality to the show in his performance of Logan. He is wry and more than just a good-looking guy. His acting allows him to provide maximum emotional range through minimalism in his performance and a very conservative sense of body language.

Kristen Bell continues to play Veronica in a consistent and ever-maturing way. She is smart and funny in the role and there is not a scene in the third season where she is not completely natural as the show's protagonist. Unfortunately, in the season four preview, she is Kristen Bell performing Jennifer Garner as Veronica Mars. This makes one glad that the series did not get picked up in its reimagined version.

But for what it is, Veronica Mars is pretty incredible. It is smart television, well above average and it is not at all what it initially appears to be. This is not a teen appeal drama, it's a surprisingly smart and clever character-focused dramedy. It works best when it remembers that is what it is and plays to that, as opposed to being predictable and catering to the demographic most like the actors in it.

Well worth the time to watch and the money for the boxed set, even if the "FBI Veronica" season four pitch paints a troublingly different show!

For other decent dramedies, please check out my reviews of:
Freaks And Geeks
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
Weeds - Season Five


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

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

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