During the 2004-05 TV season, a couple of new shows bucked the convention that the best TV shows take their time to find a voice, racking up formidable first seasons. While Lost still has a couple of episodes left in its sophomore year, but Veronica Mars capped its ambitious second season on 9 May, setting the stage for what fans hope will be a place on The CW, next fall’s UPN/WB fusion. In its first season, teenaged detective Veronica and her professional detective father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), sleuthed away to uncover the killer of her murdered best friend, rich girl Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried). But with that mystery solved in the season finale, the show created an immediate challenge for itself: now what?
The second season’s solution was a combination of new and old intrigues: for the first, a premiere episode bus crash killed eight Neptune High students, and for the second, the season featured a biker-gang murder, the trial of Lily-killer Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin), and his son Logan’s (Jason Dohring) involvement in both.
All of this sounds like over-lathered teen soap opera. But Veronica Mars blends high school stories with sophisticated style and themes. Shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life were praised for their emotional realism and humor, but were quickly cancelled. Longer running adolescent-oriented shows, from Dawson’s Creek to The O.C. to The Gilmore Girls, create insular worlds where teenagers are as hyper-talkative, busy, and world-weary as their adult counterparts. The result is more often melodramatic or unnerving than affecting.
Like Joey and Dawson, Veronica is extraordinarily articulate and bright, dispensing clever comebacks during literally life-and-death situations, often involving teenagers who are petty, conniving, and malicious—yes, much like the adults around them. But the series’ California noir aesthetic helps keep the usual genre’s spin-the-bottle relationship fluctuations at a minimum.
Season Two was knottier than One, expanding and complicating the show’s universe. Occasionally this meant too many subplots that undermined the fine balance struck around the middle of the first season, between arcing stories and single episode mysteries. At their best, the stand-alones provide lively characters: Mac (Tina Majorino) was introduced in a side mystery (in Season One), then insinuated herself into longer storylines, and played a pivotal role in the Season Two finale. The individual mysteries can also traffic in a playfulness that would be inappropriate for the big-picture drama. It may not be important to the central mystery to see how Veronica tracks down a missing bride on her wedding day, but the extra-curricular activity dilutes the procedural content, so the show doesn’t become CSI with more crying.
But sometimes the show seemed intent on drama. In “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough” (2.13), a fast-paced, multi-suspect investigation of stolen school funds could’ve used the full 40-some minutes of the episode, but was crammed into less while the writers had Keith dealing with the elaborate red herring of obvious bus-crash non-suspect Terrence Cook (Jeffrey Sams). Other episodes were similarly marred by errant, even leftover subplots: Throughout the season, the Echolls murder trial loomed, creating only the uneasy feeling that the writers could trot out a reversal of last season’s solution as a stunt.
The season’s best episodes—and there were many—showed more independence from continuity. In the long con of “Donut Run” (2.11), Veronica scammed the authorities (and, for much of the episode, the viewers) to help soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn) blow town with his newborn baby. This mystery was as confusing as anything in the show’s history, but it had the attention to detail lacking in episodes like “Magic Mountain.”
“The Rapes of Graff” (2.16) was even more entertaining and had even less to do with the season’s major arcs. Veronica went on a college visit, where she came on a puzzle—proving her ex-boyfriend (Aaron Ashmore) innocent of date rape—that was notably smart and, despite the subject matter, very funny in parts (in between an unsolved serial rapist mystery, Veronica wrecked havoc on frat boys, including some hilarious taser slapstick).
Fortunately, the season finale showcased the series at its surprising and funny best, not its rushed and convoluted worst. “Not Pictured” (2.22) unveiled this season’s culprit, put-upon rich kid Beaver Casbalancas (Kyle Gallner). Beaver not only blew up the bus, but it was revealed that he had raped Veronica shortly after Lily’s murder back before Season One. Revisiting last season’s dismissal of Veronica’s sexual assault (she was unconscious, and seemed to learn at the end of last season that she was not “actually” raped) seems like the kind of gimmicky reversal I feared from the re-appearance of Aaron Echolls, but thematically it worked: while the first season implicated an adult in its biggest crime, Season Two showed a teenager making the transition into privileged, screwed-up adulthood.
In fact, Beaver’s crimes were more premeditated and greater in number than those of Aaron Echolls. This kind of over-the-top, mini-adult behavior is usually the downfall of teen shows, more a distraction than a point. But Beaver’s budding criminal career underlined one of this series’ favorite themes: the abuse of power by the rich. Though Veronica Mars didn’t make a thudding big deal of it, Beaver had been victimized by Neptune mayor Woody Goodman (an impressively creepy Steve Guttenberg), abandoned by his on-the-lam dad, and ridiculed by his rich friends.
But the theme is always complicated. Though her most effective enemies are inevitably rich and/or powerful, Veronica isn’t an unstoppable working-class avenger. Despite her nigh-superhuman cleverness and resources, the rape revelation reaffirmed that she can be hurt, badly, even when she thinks she’s solved her case (as she mistakenly closed the book on her rape in Season One). The season’s low-key but effective cliffhanger—a vacation-bound Veronica waiting at the airport for Keith, who may have been sidetracked by a mysterious offer—suggested again that her life, however charmed and TV-ish it can seem, remains in youthful flux.