The central arcs of Veronica Mars' first season were all intensely personal: Veronica being abandoned by her mother, not to mention every
one of her former friends, roofie-fueled date rape at a party a year earlier, and the brutal murder of her closest friend, Lilly Kane. How do you follow up a season like that? Murder another best friend? Have her be raped again? Kill off her father? It'd be nearly impossible to craft another set of stories that'd resonate in quite that same way without retreading familiar ground, so season two of Veronica Mars takes a different approach, shifting the focus away from our plucky junior detective and more towards the sticky underbelly of Neptune, California as a whole.
Mayoral candidate Woody Goodman (Steve Guttenberg) has a vision for the glorified country club that is Neptune: incorporate. Like La Jolla and Palo Alto before it, incorporating Neptune would have a Tide with Bleach effect, making the whites whiter and the rich richer as property values are boosted and less...:ahem: desirable elements are rezoned onto someone else's doorstep. Woody's plan is announced as the tensions between the haves and have-nots are already boiling over in Neptune: Logan Echols, the cocky son of an aging Hollywood action hero, has walked away unscathed from accusations of stabbing a Hispanic biker to death, prompting a series of vicious attacks from both sides. The stark differences between the classes are also apparent after a school-sponsored trip; the rich kids hop in a limo and ride back in style, and the not-so-privileged cram into a rank schoolbus and careen off the side of a cliff. The town is torn apart by the tragedy, and Veronica, who'd barely missed the bus and was very nearly among the dead, is determined to find out if the crash was a terrible accident, suicide, or something much more ominous.
Although I may be a little biased, the best thing about the first season of Veronica Mars was...well,
Veronica Mars. Veronica was the focal point the previous year, directly impacted by just about everything that happened throughout the course of the season and appearing in nearly every single scene. Season two steps away from this; none of the central stories relate all that closely to Veronica or really even pack much of a wallop for established fans. As much as various critics praised this season for exploring the tensions between different classes, we're told more than we're shown, and what we do get is so cursory that, despite the increased intensity, it feels less genuine than in season one. We may have only seen Lilly Kane in flashbacks, hallucinations, and home videos, but she was still painted as a genuine character, appearing in one form or another frequently enough for it to be apparent why Veronica and Logan carried such strong feelings for her. The writers would've struggled to find a more obscure recurring character from the first season to knock off than PCH biker Felix, and nearly everyone on the crashed schoolbus was an anonymous red shirt. Later episodes offer a post-mortem introduction to the victims, but I still didn't feel like I had a strong attachment to them or much of anything that happened. The same seems to hold true for the rather detached Veronica, who isn't nearly as driven this time around. The first season of Veronica Mars made me feel like a Methodone-deprived junkie trembling in anticipation of next week's fix, but the lack of a really engaging season-long mystery makes season two feel like it's just going through the motions.
The season also doles out information differently this year. In the first season, the major mysteries were nudged forward week by week. It's as if creator Rob Thomas was reaching into a box, and as he politely handed me a couple of puzzle pieces every Wednesday, I could see a larger picture gradually start to form. In season two, I felt as if the writers were chucking fistfuls of puzzle pieces at me without context. It's a hectic season, with a bus crash, two murder trials, class-slash-racial tensions throughout Neptune, a sheriff race, the possibility of Neptune incorporating, the ambiguity about Wallace's
family life, a coma-baby, Beaver following in his shamed father's footsteps as he tries to get his own real estate endeavour off the ground, the strife former baseball star Terrence Cook and his overbearing daughter Jackie (Tessa Thompson) bring to Neptune, the newly-introduced clan of Irish drug-peddlers known as the Fitzpatricks, and the machinations of Dick and Beaver's scheming stepmother Kendall (Charisma Carpenter). There's enough to follow that I felt kind of overwhelmed when season two was airing on UPN, but the season plays a lot better on DVD; it's easier to keep the scores of characters and plot points fresh in my mind over the course of a few days as opposed to the better part of a year. Some episodes, especially the premiere and finale, seemed rushed and overly frantic in their attempts to cram in as much information as possible when I first caught them on TV, but I was able to appreciate them much more the second time through. It may be worth noting that the "previously on Veronica Mars..." recaps have been axed, so those reminders of what's happened over the past few episodes are gone now, and that also leaves some episodes opening in the middle of a music cue.
The Veronica Mars of season two doesn't seem like the embittered loner I'd come to know and love. Veronica is comparatively well-balanced, she spends a good bit of the season in a giddily happy and really kinda dull relationship, she has a fairly stable home life and a traditional after-school job, and she's popular with the in-crowd. This Veronica seems more like an otherwise ordinary high school senior who just happens to solve mysteries on the side. Her brilliance, acerbic wit, and willingness to go to whatever lengths necessary to do what she thinks is right are all present and accounted for, but the emphasis seems to be less on Veronica and more on the mysteries, and that's not why I tune in. Veronica trying to lead a more normal life is perfectly understandable for the character, but it doesn't make for the most compelling television. Like last season, Veronica is an imperfect character, prone to leaping to conclusions and occasionally making some extremely bad calls. Her increasingly risky behavior this season puts her at odds with her father, adding a new layer to that dynamic. Too many other characters seem to be stuck in neutral, though. F'r instance, as much as I hetero-loved baller/shot-caller Wallace last year, he's not given much to do this season except shadow a different Neptune High student.
The weekly mini-mysteries are more uneven in the second season, and the only advantage "One Angry Veronica" has over actually being on jury duty is that it's just forty-someodd minutes long. There are a few exceptional episodes, though: "Rat Saw God" has Veronica forming an unlikely alliance while investigating the disappearance of the nouveau riche daughter of a dying Abel Koontz, and "Ain't No Magic Mountain High Enough" comes closest to recapturing the feel of the first season as Veronica is accused of the theft of a cash box at a fundraising fair. My favorite episode would probably be "The Rapes of Graff", with Veronica and Wallace touring Neptune's local university as a head-shaving rapist strikes and a long-since-forgotten character resurfaces, thanks in large part to small roles by Arrested Development's Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat. Likewise throughout the season for brief but memorable turns by Kevin Smith and Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon, but not so much for the reality show stuntcasting of three America's Next Top Best Friends and Laguna Beach's Kristin Cavalleri.
Veronica Mars' first year marked one of my favorite seasons of any television show, and it would've been near-impossible for any sophomore season to stack up in quite that same way. It remains a sharp, clever series with a stellar cast and the snappiest dialogue on television, but an unsuccessful shift in emphasis and its less enthralling story arcs leave it seeming so much more ordinary rather than incandescently brilliant. Watching these twenty-two episodes in quick succession on home video is a much more satisfying experience than when they originally aired on UPN, and underwhelmed fans should still consider giving Veronica Mars' second season another shot on DVD.
Video: The local UPN affiliate still hadn't made the leap to high-definition as season two of Veronica Mars was first airing, so I'm used to the series looking flat, washed-out, and boxy. It's a completely different experience on DVD; these episodes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, boasting a depth and an exaggerated, vibrant palette that were nowhere to be found on the analog broadcasts I'd watched. It goes beyond just looking an order of magnitude more attractive; there's a reveal at the end of "Rat Saw God" that was indiscernable when I caught it on TV, but this dimly-lit shot was much clearer and more distinct on DVD. Veronica Mars may be the most skillfully shot 16mm series on the air right now, and although the graininess often associated with 16mm photography does creep in to varying degrees, it's rarely a distraction and isn't any
more prominent than in the original broadcasts.
Warner taunted me a bit by tucking a booklet into the set that lists some future HD DVD releases of their television properties. Smallville and The West Wing are listed as coming soon to HD DVD, but no such luck with Veronica Mars. Oh well; maybe it'll sneak onto their release slate at some point in the not-too-distant future. Until that happens, though, I'm more than content with these very nice-looking DVDs.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo surround audio (192Kbps) is fairly ordinary for a TV-on-DVD set, featuring some light activity in the matrixed surrounds and a throaty low-end for some songs and certain sound effects. Its emphasis is placed primarily on the dialogue, which has a somewhat edgy, clipped quality at times but generally comes through alright. As was the case last season, all of the licensed music is intact, at least as far as I can tell. Average and completely unremarkable, but I don't mean that in a bad way.
These episodes are closed captioned and also offer subtitles in French and Spanish.
Supplements: The previous DVD set piled all of the first season's deleted scenes into a single 22 minute lump. There's more footage this time around -- more than 27 minutes' worth, culled from 13 episodes in total -- and they're spread across the first five discs. A lot of these aren't "deleted scenes" in the sense of being...y'know...scenes as nearly all of these clips clock in well under a minute, such as eleven
seconds of Papa Mars picking up the morning paper or fourteen seconds of Veronica watching a guy uneventfully stroll out of his apartment. These scenes were presumably all lopped off to ensure that the episodes didn't run too far past the magic 42 minute mark, and with most of them just reiterating what we already know, they're not exactly missed. Highlights...? A heavily extended version of the nightmarish babysitting sequence from "Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner", the train wreck of an alternate ending for "My Mother, The Fiend" that could've taken the season in a drastically different direction (you might've watched this on AOL's website if you caught season two as it aired), and more about Terrence Cook's troubled past. One quick thing worth noting: two of the deleted scenes on disc four are mislabeled, with a "Versatile Toppings" clip actually containing a bit of footage trimmed out of "The Quick and the Wed", and vice versa. The deleted footage looks fairly polished, and although it's not presented in anamorphic widescreen like the episodes proper, it's all letterboxed. The scenes on each disc can also be viewed individually or played consecutively.
The sixth and final disc in the set doesn't offer any deleted scenes, but all of the other extras are crammed onto it. The five minute featurette "Veronica Mars: Not Your Average Teen Detective" is a standard issue electronic press kit, alternating between lengthy clips from a few episodes and lightweight interviews with Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell (and, briefly, a couple of other cast members). Really meant more for people who haven't already tuned in.
The eight minute featurette "A Day on the Set with Veronica Mars" is...yeah, aptly titled, also including a guided tour of the show's set by the unrelentingly personable Kristen Bell. For some reason, I assumed that the lunchtime stuff at Neptune High was shot at an actual school, and it's kinda funny to see that a few feet on either side, there's the set for some Middle Eastern war flick and cast-'n-crew trailers. And now I think I know where to get a frozen goat, so...it's educational too. If you want a preview, this featurette is the second of the three video clips on Warner's Veronica Mars DVD site.
also the best gag reel ever, so mighty that I had to make it bold and italicized. Kristen Bell snags most of the laughs -- sneezing, swearing at an unbucklable seatbelt, dragging her TV-dog around, and hellbent on saying "cheerleader" instead of "cheeseburger" -- but the centerpiece is Joss Whedon hysterically adlibbing about car rental being a fundamental human right. The reel runs a hair over eight minutes in length and includes footage from both seasons. The audio drops out for a short while, and I'm not sure if that's intentional or not.
Finally, there's a minute-long promo for the third season that's about to air on The CW, although it doesn't contain any new footage. The lack of commentaries is still a drag (maybe Rob Thomas will post an mp3 commentary on his website like he did for the previous set), but there's always season three...
The packaging is much the same as it was the last go-around -- cardboard slipcase, fold-out sleeve, overlapping discs...you know the drill. The photos used for the cover are kind of boring, especially against a mostly-plain white background, and the animated widescreen menus are about as uninspired, but I'm probably just reaching for things to bitch about by this point. The set also includes a booklet listing the title, writer, director, original airdate, and synopsis for each episode, but it's oozing with spoilers, so don't crack it open if you haven't already seen all 22 episodes. The chapter selection screen for each episode also has potential spoilers, so even though you have the option of watching the episodes individually or all in a row, first-time viewers would be better off whacking the 'Play All' menu option.
Conclusion: The first season of Veronica Mars set the bar impossibly high, and its convoluted sophomore season's emphasis on plot over characterization left it seeming considerably less impressive overall. The kneejerk analogy would be season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: sure, it's still pretty good, and I frequently see glimmers of what drew me towards the show in the first place, but I can't help but compare it to the 22 episodes that bowled me over a year earlier. I found that Veronica Mars' second season plays a lot better on DVD than it did on television, and fans of its inaugural season who were underwhelmed by the second should consider giving it another look. Recommended.