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You don’t want to make Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) angry. Her revenge is swift, public, and humiliating. She wasn’t always this way. She used to be a popular high school student, but a series of betrayals and tragedies turned Veronica into a complex, savvy outcast, and one of the most intriguing new characters of the fall tv season.
UPN’s Veronica Mars follows Veronica’s adventures, as she tries to make it through high school by day and work as a private investigator for her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni) at night. The series involves more than the sleuthing adventures of a young detective, à la Nancy Drew; it also examines the socio-economic factors of power, as well as cataclysmic events that alter our perceptions of the world. Unlike other girl sleuths Nancy Drew and Chloe Sullivan (Smallville), Veronica’s interest in solving mysteries is a function of circumstances. Dad’s business and her own social survival depend on her ability to outsmart those who treat her and her father with scorn and ridicule.
The series shows both Veronicas, past and present. Her former self, introduced through multiple flashback sequences, had the life most teens dream about. A member of the pep squad and girlfriend of Big Man on Campus Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), she was part of the in-crowd at Neptune High School. As Veronica explains in voiceover, her classmates are of two types: the children of the rich and powerful and the children of people who work for the rich and powerful. Since her father was sheriff, a low paying position with prestige, Veronica slipped in to the rich kids’ good graces.
That all changed after her boyfriend’s sister was murdered. Sheriff Mars accused Duncan’s powerful father Jake (Kyle Secor), only to be run out of office when another man confessed. With Keith out of work and her mother split in the middle of the night, Veronica faced yet another trauma when Duncan dumped her. When she attends a party thrown by the “cool crowd,” someone slips her a roofie, whereupon she woke to find herself raped and alone. Her attempt to report the crime was met with derision and laughter from the new sheriff, Don Lamb (Michael Muhney).
A year later, Veronica’s long blonde hair is cut short and her white summer dresses traded for t-shirts and jeans. She has no friends outside of her father, but does have plenty of contacts willing her help her. No longer a victim, Veronica now takes care of herself. Her new tazer and attack dog help. Conceivably, all this information could be provided in a brief voiceover at the start of the first episode. But the visual representation of the old Veronica, laughing and care-free, contrasts with the serious young woman we see in the present. She doesn’t emerge from the rubble full of bravado, ready to kick ass. She understands that she can’t overthrow Neptune’s social strata instantly.
In the series premiere, Veronica befriends Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), a new kid at school who has tangled with a local motorcycle gang. Her plan to rescue him from Weevil (Francis Capra), head of the gang, leads to a chain of events that resemble an old Rube Goldberg cartoon. Ultimately, she saves Wallace, embarrasses some powerful citizens, and acquires Weevil as an ally. At the same time, Veronica assists Keith in spying on Jake, and learns that Jake’s mistress is her mother and her father is still investigating his connection to his own daughter’s murder.
Clearly, Veronica Mars moves fast. With so much plot and background information crammed into one episode, it risks becoming a muddle, leaving viewers confused. However, Bell’s winning performance and creator/writer Rob Thomas’ concise structure hold it together. Indeed, the setup recalls that of Buffy: both heroines’ idyllic worlds are destroyed by outside forces. But Veronica Mars has a more somber tone, without Buffy‘s famously witty dialogue, and with occasional humor derived from her get-even pranks, as when she plants an exploding bong in the locker assigned to Duncan’s snobby best friend Logan (Jason Dohring).
Neptune is nearly as specific a location as Sunnydale. A microcosm of “The Two Americas” named in recent political rhetoric, the town is divided between the prestigious 90909 zip code and the humble shot-gun neighborhoods on the other side of town. Citizens with money set the social agenda, punishing those who fail to conform. They are also quick to exclude their own. Yet, their sense of control is misleading; Celeste Kane (Lisa Thornhill) is unable to hold her marriage together, her son can’t bring himself to treat Veronica with the disdain his social circle feels she deserves, and though Logan controls his friends, he has little control over his own behavior.
For Veronica, power stems not from social position but from intellect; for Weevil, it comes from brute force. Allied, they can shake up Neptune’s class system. The Two Americas, the series implies, can only become one when those who are marginalized outthink and outlast those at the center. The motivation behind this restructuring won’t be noble, a mighty quest for justice. It will result from a desire to achieve some dignity in a social structure rigged against you. Equal parts intrigue, drama, and humor, Veronica Mars is also a lesson book for the disenfranchised. Few tv series aim so high; even fewer succeed so well.