Veronica Mars

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.
— Veronica Mars (Kristin Bell), “Normal is the Watchword”

Now that Lilly Kane’s murder is solved and it’s the start of a new school year at Neptune High, things might seem a little too quiet in this second seasons of Veronica Mars. Not to worry. For all the loose-ends-tying that goes on in the season premiere, “Normal is the Watchword,” it’s clear by episode’s end that “resolution” is most definitely not the watchword.

Now a senior at long last, ultimate survivor Veronica (Kristen Bell) thinks for a minute she’s on her way to a final year on cruise control. Admittedly, some things are odd, like, for instance, the fact that her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) is now something of a celebrity, hawking a book he’s contracted to write about last year’s events, “Big Murder, Small Town.” It’s okay, though. Keith has bills to pay and Veronica only seems a little put off by the fact that he’s on tv being interviewed by Julie Chen (she calls him “something of a Barney Fife character,” and is only one of the UPN-CBS tie-in casting tricks here; America’s Next Top Model winner Naima Moore shows up briefly as the “new journalism teacher” who takes the kids on a field trip to meet baseball players).

But you know Veronica. Even as she observes that “all appears hunky-dory” now, she’s not about to believe such nonsense. The first confirmation that her detecting days are not over arrives in the form of “obnoxious jack-wad” Kelvin (Charles Ducksworth), who accosts her on campus with the news that he’s been kicked off the team for failing a drug test. She puts him off, and he’s mad, laying down the dilemma she’ll be facing this episode:

Guess it’s true what they’re saying about you then. You’re 09-in’ now. You went and landed yourself some rich boyfriend and last year was just some big act for you. You gotta pick sides in this town these days. You picked yours.

Though Veronica protests, vaguely, and also refuses to help Kelvin fight the ruling he insists is trumped up, she’s also got her wheels turning already (and no one shows turning wheels sans dialogue quite so engagingly as Bell). She knows she’ll never again be a full-fledged 09er, and doesn’t much want to be, but she also gets how these divisions erode rather than boost identity or community. And rape victim/murder investigator/lonely child that she is, Veronica knows that, when it comes down to it, she’s always on her own. Dad’s dependable but busy too, best friends change course occasionally, and boyfriends can’t be counted on.

The fact that her “choice” is partly made in the form of the figure at the door last season (and whose identity is apparent within minutes in this ep) makes for some treacly flashbacks and voiceover explanations: this is how this happened, and this is how I feel about it, or felt about it then, and some more of same. But the soft-lit romantic material is never so interesting as the deceptions and brutalities in Neptune, and Veronica knows this better than you. So by the time Wallace (Percy Daggs III) comes at her with his own tale of drug testing woe (“Don’t go getting all girl on me,” she warns him as he initiates his complaint that she didn’t call him back), Veronica’s ready to take up the case, even going so far as to approach Meg (Alona Tal), who’s been kicked off cheerleading and is carrying a bit of a grudge against Veronica, for good reason, too. For all her good sense, Veronica is a high school student, after all.

While Veronica and Wallace investigate the faulty drug tests (“This is Neptune,” asserts Veronica by way of taking up the case, “nothing happens accidentally”), Duncan (Teddy Dunn) is having trouble with Logan (Jason Dohring), who is in turn finding post-dad’s-arrest life hard as heck. Mad at all the press coverage and the gossip, he’s spending serious time poolside with Dick (Ryan Hansen) and Beaver (Kyle Gallner) Casablancas. Here he meets their stepmother, former Laker Girl and currently black-bikinied Kendall (Charisma Carpenter, doing her best Heather Locklear imitation). The scene sets up later sudsy activity, but primarily, it establishes Veronica’s distance from the rich folks — again. As before, she has precious little patience for the O.C. sort of teen drama.

Instead, Veronica’s preoccupied (this time) by her task at hand and the more broad-reaching clamp-down at school (metal detectors have been installed) and the increased tensions “between the haves and the have-nots” it augurs. As self-named “lightning rod” for these tensions, Veronica hardly goes out of her way to avoid trouble. Rather, she pokes her nose right into the “haves”‘ finagling, partly because it’s related to another murder and partly because she can’t help herself (Keith: “Can’t you talk on the phone and paint your nails like other girls?”).

Near the end of the episode, she’s suddenly abandoned on that school field trip (the team owner/mayoral candidate they meet is Steve Gutenberg, of all people, here playing a character named Woody Goodman, and that’s probably enough said about that). Happily, Weevil (Francis Capra) shows up just in time to give her home a ride on his bike, though only after they spar a bit over who really has a good guess at what’s going on. Clearly, something’s afoot in Neptune, as it always is. If it’s not precisely conspiracy, it’s a nasty combination of ineptitude and self-preservation, with a dash of self-delusion.

Like most adolescents, Veronica understands and anticipates this mix, even if she doesn’t always deal with it in the most effective way. Even if you don’t want to pick sides, you’re bound to be assessed as having done so. And once you’re labeled — 09er or not — you can either spend your time fighting rumors or finding alternative measures. Veronica, so precociously and brilliantly aware of alternatives, makes this familiar process seem worth pondering one more time.