Veronica Mars

Season one on DVD. (Season two in progress on UPN, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.)

For a teen drama — hell, for any kind of network TV show — the premise of Veronica Mars is brutal. As Veronica, the protagonist, explains in the pilot, the past year of her life has been an unhappy one. Her boyfriend, Duncan Kane, dumped her without warning or explanation — painful, certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary. But then Lilly Kane, her best friend and Duncan’s sister, was murdered; her father, Sheriff Keith Mars, made the politically reckless move of accusing the Kanes’ powerful, wealthy father of the crime; Veronica’s former friends and fellow students cut her dead for supporting her father; the outraged town voted Sheriff Mars out of office in a special election; with Keith unemployed and scrounging for work as a detective, the Marses lost their house and moved to a dingy apartment; unable to cope with the changes, Lianne, Veronica’s alcoholic mother, abandoned the struggling family without leaving a forwarding address; and just to make the year complete, Veronica woke from a party she had crashed to find that she had been drugged and raped. So as the show opens, Veronica is the high school pariah, helping her father make ends meet by assisting him in detective work and secretly investigating Lilly’s murder in her spare time. She’s a lonely, angry girl, but she has goals.

Going through that list, I’m once again shocked by how dark the show’s backstory is. When Veronica Mars first premiered in 2004, I chose not to watch it because I thought the drama would either be unrelentingly bleak or, more likely, would betray the weight of its subject matter. But Veronica Mars received great reviews, and its small but devoted group of fans included a few of my friends, so when the first season came out on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

As it turns out, Rob Thomas, the series creator, found a way to tell his story without being unbearably grim or emotionally dishonest, and casting Kristen Bell has much to do with that achievement. Bell plays Veronica as a tightly wound girl who uses her sharp tongue and biting sense of humor to keep people at arm’s length. Flashbacks to happier times make it clear that her wry detachment is a recently acquired skill, a defense mechanism she shares with the audience. The traumas she has endured don’t destroy us because she hasn’t allowed them to destroy her.

In each episode, Veronica puts her investigative skills to work, sometimes tackling one of her father’s jobs, sometimes a problem at school, and sometimes a mystery connected with Lilly’s murder. She is bright and resourceful, but to their credit, the show’s writers deliberately hold her back from sainthood or martyrdom. Veronica isn’t always a nice person. She doesn’t think twice about using people, even her friends, to solve a case, and the show acknowledges the pitfalls of that ends-justify-the-means philosophy. In one remarkable scene late in the first season, her friend Wallace confronts her about the ways she has abused his trust and loyalty. In another episode, Veronica offers to set in motion a revenge plan she has orchestrated for one of her clients, and the girl declines, sadly pointing out that hurting her ex-boyfriend won’t make her feel better. That attitude bewilders Veronica, and the moral ambiguity of her attitude helps make her a beautifully complex character.

Some have compared Veronica Mars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another one of those rare shows with a strong female protagonist, but the shows take different approaches to their often challenging themes. Buffy was ultimately allegorical; Veronica has a kind of heightened realism. Its plots might sometimes be a bit extreme, but its world — unjust and sometimes violent — is all too recognizable.

Veronica Mars deals with the ways in which people attempt to right wrongs in an imperfect world, but it never allows the weight of that overarching theme to make the stories ponderous or didactic. In fact, Veronica Mars is surprisingly funny, thanks in large part to Veronica herself, who enlivens each episode with her wit and charm. The supporting cast includes numerous entertaining, compelling characters, notably Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the smarmy son of a movie star, and Weevil Navarro (Francis Capra, director Frank’s great-grandson), the enigmatic leader of a local motorcycle gang. The feud between those two, enriched by grudging mutual respect, is one of the more interesting relationships on the show.

Another of my favorite relationships is the bond between Veronica and her father, Keith, charmingly played by Enrico Colantoni. The absence of Veronica’s mother (who doesn’t seem to have been particularly reliable in the first place) seems to have made the two even closer, and as in many single-parent families, Veronica has taken on responsibilities that she should not, perhaps, have to shoulder. The tension between the two as Keith tries to keep Veronica safe and in the dark about the details of Lilly’s murder is a touching way to portray the tension between any parent and child as the child grows up faster than the parent would like.

Hanging over the whole season is the memory of Lilly, portrayed in flashbacks by Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried’s fabulously spacey performance as Karen in the movie Mean Girls makes her self-possessed, vivacious turn in Veronica Mars even more impressive. Without a charismatic Lilly, the main plot of Veronica Mars would have lost its urgency, but Seyfried makes it abundantly clear why Lilly still has such a hold over Veronica and the other characters on the show.

Lilly is key to the mythology of the show, the intricate backstory, and she reflects the care without which that backstory has been crafted. Many television programs can’t live up such complex storytelling and collapse under continuity errors, neglected plot threads and underwhelming resolutions. But in the first season, at least, Veronica Mars manages to avoid those flaws. The storytelling is exemplary — the writers must maintain timelines and charts to keep track so skillfully of all the twists and turns in the plot — and by the finale, the key mysteries have been resolved, just as new ones are being set in motion for season two.

But in a way, the mythology isn’t as important as the self-contained stories of individual episodes, and those shine, too. The success of Veronica Mars isn’t due to the gimmick of its shocking premise but rather to the charming, well-written characters, who are interesting even when they aren’t uncovering a new clue in the master plot. With the lovable yet infuriating Veronica at its center, the show raises the standards for what a “teen drama” can be, and in that sense, even without the demons and vampires, it is indeed a worthy successor to Buffy.

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