Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars is probably the best show to debut on UPN. Long trailing even the WB in terms of innovation, UPN finally has a smart, original series to call its own. Happily, this genre-busting series has been renewed for next season.

The genres under stress are detective procedurals and teen drama. High school junior Veronica (newcomer Kristin Bell) works for her dad (Enrico Colantoni), a sheriff-turned-private investigator, in small town Neptune, California. Veronica helps Keith with his cases, and makes money on the side crime-solving for Neptune High School’s drama-intensive student body. But both are haunted by the death last year of Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfied), Veronica’s best friend. Keith was driven out of office for insisting that the man convicted of her murder was not the true killer. Veronica’s mother left soon thereafter, and Veronica found herself on the outs with Neptune’s in crowd. Father and daughter’s search for the culprit lurked in the background throughout this first season, and in “Leave it to Beaver,” the breathlessly paced season finale, his identity was finally revealed. Before this payoff, the show cleverly doled out pieces of the mystery while telling stand-alone stories each week.

Some of these are repetitive. A friend of mine called the show a “female adolescent revenge fantasy,” and that’s not far off. In “M.A.D.,” a nasty boyfriend threatens his girl with an embarrassing sex video, and Veronica goes to great lengths to construct an equally embarrassing video for “mutually assured destruction.” But Veronica’s desire for payback isn’t played for laughs or wish fulfillment. Veronica’s drive to get even is a form of toughness, and not just a vehicle for happy endings. Indeed, she rarely seems significantly happier at the end of an episode, only more resolved.

In “Like a Virgin,” Veronica helps Meg (Alona Tal), whose faked “purity test” scores have been emailed to the entire school. A friend from Veronica’s popular days, Meg is grateful, but wary. “You have friends, you know,” she tells Veronica at the end of the episode, calling into question Veronica’s self-styled outsider status. And Meg is right; by the end of the season, her unofficial Mission: Impossible team includes not only her dad, but also her best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III), computer hacker Mac (Tina Majorino), and thug with a heart of gold Weevil (Francis Capra).

Thus the loner angle favored by the detective genre is modified to encompass adolescent rage. While there is some truth to Veronica’s “outsider” status, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Similarly, while there’s some entertaining satisfaction in the smiting of Veronica’s enemies, it’s not pure fantasy (we’re allowed to question whether Veronica is doing the right thing). In fact, with the end of the Lily Kane murder case, the show is flirting with that television taboo: changing the status quo.

The guilty party in that case was right in front of us most of the season. We learned early on that movie star Aaron Echols (Harry Hamlin), whose son Logan (Jason Dohring) dated Lily, was an abusive father. Yet the show was savvy in its placement of red herrings, among them Veronica’s estranged mom; Lily’s brother (and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend) Duncan (Teddy Dunn); and Logan himself (who, in the season’s final episodes, joined his friend Duncan in the Veronica Mars’ Ex-Boyfriends Club). Even with the season’s biggest case closed, the show found room for a cliffhanger. The morning after Aaron’s arrest, a physically and emotionally exhausted Veronica answered a knock on her door. She smiled, and looked uncharacteristically peaceful. “I was hoping it was you,” she said; then the season ended.

This was an unusual note, for several reasons. For one, it’s not much of a cliffhanger; the most logical visitor would be Wallace, her best friend, largely absent from the finale. But I guess we’re meant to wonder if she was happy to see ex number one (Duncan) or number two (Logan). But the last time we saw Duncan, he was fine; the last time we saw Logan, he seemed to be on the brink of suicide. So the question the audience should be asking is “What happened to Logan?” Mars creator Rob Thomas (no relation to the “Smooth” singer) has been adept so far at finding the backdoor route to surprises, but it’s hard to imagine how he’ll get there from here.

Moreover, an increasing emphasis on ex-boyfriends would be disappointing for the crafty Mars. So far, the series has eschewed the relationship angst so common in other teen-centric shows; Neptune hearts get broken, yes, but the show never stoops to that will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic. Veronica is that rare television character who’s too interesting for love triangles.