Following up on something so successful -- creatively successful, at least -- is incredibly daunting, and the two subsequent seasons of Veronica Mars each took decidedly different approaches. The series' second season shifted the focus away from the intensely personal stories that were swirling around Veronica the year before, instead aiming its lens squarely at the seedy underbelly of Neptune, California. Rob Thomas and his band of writers tried to up the ante with another season-long murder investigation, but the search for who caused a busful of Veronica's classmates to plunge off of the Pacific Coast Highway wound up feeling needlessly convoluted, and Veronica never seemed as invested as she did in solving the murder of Lily Kane.
In its third -- and ultimately final -- season, Veronica Mars steps away from any season-length stories. Slightly truncated to twenty episodes, season three is neatly grouped into three distinct chunks of episodes. The season opens with Veronica settling into her freshman year at Hearst College, but the campus continues to be plagued by a spree of sexual assaults. Mac's bubbly roommate Parker (Julie Gonzalo) is the latest victim to be roofied and raped, with the attacker leaving his calling card by shaving her head. Having suffered through the past couple of years as a rape victim herself and unwittingly in a position to have caught Parker's rapist during the attack, Veronica's grim determination to put an end to this reign of terror makes up the first and the lengthiest of the season's arcs.
The season's second arc picks up a couple of months after the grisly final shot of "Spit and Eggs" as the police have shrugged off the death of someone close to Veronica as a suicide. A devastating emotional blow delivered just hours earlier, a gunshot to the temple, a vague suicide note typed on a PC...it's tragic, yes, but the pieces fit neatly together just the same. Still, it's a scenario lifted directly from a paper Veronica penned for her criminology class on how to commit the perfect murder. Throughout the course of their investigation, Veronica and her father become entangled in a pair of other murders, among them the death of one of Veronica Mars' most enduring characters.
Facing cancellation and attempting to make the largely serialized series more accessible to new viewers, Veronica Mars draws to a close with a set of five standalone episodes. There aren't any overarching investigations, although some threads leak from one episode to the next, including a sheriff's race between Keith Mars and an unlikely contender. Rob Thomas and company also play up the whole teen soap opera routine, focusing intensely on all of the romantic entanglements in the middle of the done-in-one weekly mysteries.
I have to admit to not being all that keen on Veronica Mars' third season when it first aired. The change in structure -- veering away from the season-long arcs -- didn't bother me, but the mishandling of its characters that started in season two is bungled even more clumsily here. Part of the problem is budgetary; Veronica Mars didn't have that much money to throw around, and many of the actors were only signed for a certain number of episodes. This means characters appear and disappear from week to week, sometimes with a really clunky explanation (the exposition goes that Wallace has holed up into a motel room to study, for one). This is frequently disappointing, considering that the strength of the ensemble is part of what makes Veronica Mars stand out from the rest.
Too many characters are reduced to only being worth what they can bring to whatever it is Veronica's investigating that week. Wallace gets it the worst, often showing up to deliver one or two lines before disappearing for entire episodes. The relationship between Veronica and her father is reduced to a two-man Vaudeville act in their tiny apartment -- all of the banter, none of the warmth or sincerity. Logan is neutered into a self-absorbed surfer, alternating between moping over Veronica and savagely beating anyone who crosses her in between their semi-weekly breakups-slash-reunions. Weevil's given so little to do that I don't know why he's still in the opening credits. Ryan Hansen still gets most of the season's laughs as smirking horndog Dick Casablancas, and although there's an emotional angle in the aftermath of his brother's suicide that gives the character more depth, it feels kind of rushed.
To be honest, though, as much as all of that bugged me when Veronica Mars was on the air, every one of those problems were smoothened away when tearing through the season on DVD. Even if a character bows out for a couple of episodes, that means he or she is only out of sight for an hour and a half, not weeks at a time. Veronica Mars tries to level out the lack of established cast members with a few new faces. The season premiere introduces two other Hearst students who'd go on to stick around for the rest of the year: Wallace's roommate Stosh "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and Mac's roomie Parker. Piz caught a lot of flak on the message boards I read, but I liked the guy. Sure, part of that might just be because I'm not all that far removed from my days as a dweeby college radio DJ myself, but...y'know, he's quippy, bright, and convincingly awkward in a way that hardly anyone in Neptune seems to be. The writers are heavy-handed with where they want to take his crush on Veronica -- he might as well have a nametag on his shirt reading "I'm a prospective love interest. Ask me how!" -- but he's the strongest addition to the cast this season. In a series where virtually everyone is dour and dryly sarcastic, it's a great chance of pace to have someone like Parker on-board. Parker's more intense scenes throughout the season's first arc are genuinely wrenching, and as she comes to terms with what she's endured, her vivaciousness and zest for life infuses Veronica Mars with a sparkle...a sort of energy that hasn't really been seen on the show since the days of the Lily Kane flashbacks. Unfortunately, the writers don't seem entirely sure what to do with her as the season draws to a close, but giving these episodes another pass on DVD, Parker doesn't seem like she turns into quite the shrill harpy I remembered her devolving into near the end. One of my other favorite additions is Dean O'Dell (Ed Begley, Jr.), who's gruff on the surface, sure, but there's a warmth and wit lurking underneath that bubbles to the surface as the Marses get to know him.
Veronica Mars' second season saw Veronica taking more and more risks, something that accelerates in its third and final season. Her impulsive actions have consequences -- making fake IDs for her friends to bust into a frat party, breaking and entering, larceny, and even blackmailing a judge. She helps defraud an insurance company to the tune of five million dollars, and the drastic action she takes in the series finale -- over something that's fairly meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- could irreparably damage the future of someone she holds more dear than anyone else in the world. The writers handle this beige moral compass fairly deftly; even when Veronica's right, she often goes about it the wrong way and doesn't escape unscathed, and particularly by the time the finale rolls around, Veronica seems to have a sense of just how many bridges she's torched along the way.
The hunt for Hearst's rapist, which runs for the nine of the season's twenty episodes, is the highest point of the set. It's the most engaging of the season's various arcs, which is impressive considering that these episodes have to juggle the weekly mysteries, the overarching search for the rapist, and introduce the new characters and Hearst College as a whole. There seems to be some connection between the rapes and the Greek system at Hearst, pitting Veronica against a group of feminists determined to bring the frats down, forcing her to defend the same lecherous halfwits she thought were tied to the rapes last season, and clawing her way into the Zeta Theta Beta house by...gasp!...rushing as a sorostitute. This first half of the season also gives the supporting cast a reasonable amount of screentime, including Wallace and Logan on opposite ends of an Abu Ghraib-inspired prison experiment, Logan stumbling onto a life-changing discovery when trying to find out why his trust fund is dwindling so quickly, and Keith making the same sorts of excuses with a married client as the skeevy men whose infidelities pay his rent. The arc comes to a close with "Spit and Eggs", which, in true Veronica Mars form, plays like more of a thriller than a mystery, and it's by far the most intense episode of the season.
While I wasn't as drawn in by the murder investigation that followed, it's still anchored by a fairly strong batch of standalone investigations. "Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves" has Max (Adam Rose) shelling out Veronica's usual $500 fee for her to track down his soulmate, a Battlestar Galactica-crazed fangirl he bumped into at Comic Con, and it turns out that Ronnie's not the only one who'd been collecting a paycheck when it comes to Max's love life. I was particularly impressed by "There's Got to Be a Morning After Pill", as Bonnie Capistrano -- who's fooling around with human petri dish Dick Casablancas and Veronica's Criminology TA -- is slipped an RU486 pill, terminating a pregnancy that was admittedly unexpected but one she intended to follow through. Its handling of the pro-life movement and religious ministries cleverly subverted many of my expectations. While Veronica's knee-deep in another murder investigation, Logan gets caught up in a really charming Valentine's Day scavenger hunt that gives the supporting cast something more to do than...y'know, aid and abet. This stretch of the season is kind of uneven -- the animal rights bent to "The Case of the Missing Monkey"...I mean, "Show Me the Monkey", one of the series' most baffling, indefensible red herrings in the Coach Barry case, and...oh, anything with Richard Grieco -- but the highs more than make up for the lows.
The standalone episodes that close out the series are hit or miss too. My favorite of the bunch is "Debasement Tapes", which guest stars Paul Rudd as the surviving half of a '90s power-pop act, cashing in on his cult fame by getting plastered and touring behind a set of old backing tapes that are misplaced along the way to Neptune. Paul Rudd is always a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but this episode gives Piz a chance to take center stage, and that infectiously poppy Jellyfish-styled video snippet from My Pretty Pony's heyday makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. There's a completely out of left field subplot about Vinnie Van Lowe that continually left me cackling, and Weevil, Mac, and an entirely unexpected guest star get a good bit of screentime in the series' last two episodes. Veronica Mars seems preachier than usual in this stretch of the season, most glaringly in the heavy-handed "Un-American Graffiti", which points the finger at the pervasive racist sentiment towards Arab-Americans and wags it again and again at underage drinking. Rob Thomas confesses in the set's extras that "I Know What You'll Do Next Summer" -- which is focused around the past of a Hearst student who has written a book about his days as a child soldier in Uganda -- is the first time Veronica Mars' writers have penned an episode with a specific cause in mind, and it does kind of feel like a 42 minute pamphlet. In lieu of any arcs that span the entire length of these five final episodes, Veronica Mars instead focuses unusually heavily on all of the romantic entanglements, which makes it start to feel more like another episode of One Tree Hill or something.
Veronica Mars may not have ever managed to reach the same level of brilliance it attained in its stellar first year, but its third season really only suffers by comparison. Admittedly, it loses a feel for many of the characters I'd grown to love over the past couple of years, and the overemphasis on love triangles and starcrossed romance often falls flat, but Veronica Mars' third and final season has enough strong episodes to be more than deserving of another look. Tearing through these twenty episodes in quick succession on DVD is a far more fulfilling experience than the scattershot scheduling on the CW, and fans who were disappointed with the turns Veronica Mars took in its final season may want to consider giving it another try on DVD. Recommended.
Video: It's kind of a drag that Warner didn't hammer out any high-def releases for Veronica Mars the way they have for Smallville, but these 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen DVDs still look great. As was the case for the two sets that came before it, this third season of Veronica Mars is reasonably sharp, boasting a depth, dimensionality, and vivid palette that far outstrips the analog broadcasts I was still sporadically suffering through with my dodgy local CW affiliate. The only downside is that the grainy 16mm photography isn't always compressed all that well, with the image sometimes swarming with mosquito noise and light compression artifacts. This isn't a persistent problem, and the worst of it seems to be limited to the first couple of episodes on disc one. Overall, though, Veronica Mars continues to look fantastic on DVD.
Audio: The past couple of boxed sets have sported plain-jane 2.0 surround tracks, but Veronica Mars gets bumped up to six discrete channels for its third season. The audio may have been upgraded to Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps), but the sound design is still pretty much the same as before, anchored almost entirely around the front speakers. The surround channels are reserved for fairly light ambiance, and the mix doesn't really ever coax much of a low-frequency belch from the subwoofer. It's a fairly ordinary mix for a network TV series, but the audio knows what it needs to do and doesn't stumble anywhere along the way. The season's dialogue comes through perfectly in the mix; none of the slight edginess from the previous season set creeps in this time around. The licensed music -- including contributions from Neko Case to, um, Nick Lachey and everything in between -- maintains a strong presence without ever overwhelming the dialogue. The presentation of the audio isn't particularly earth-shattering or all that memorable, but I don't have any real gripes.
There aren't any dubs in any other languages or alternate soundtracks, but subtitles have been provided in French, Spanish, and both traditional English and SDH streams.
Extras: The past couple of seasons of Veronica Mars have been fairly light on extras, but its third and final season has so many bells and whistles that they get a disc of their own. The set's deleted scenes run just shy of 24 minutes in total, and each snippet of footage is briefly introduced by creator Rob Thomas. There aren't all that many self-contained scenes, with several not amounting to much more than a line or two of dialogue, but there are several highlights just the same, including a subplot about Mac's shaky mental health in the wake of her boyfriend's suicide and some additional screentime from one long-unseen character in the series finale.
Five webisodes have been tossed on here as well. Ryan Hansen smirks at Cribs as he gives viewers a quick tour of his trailer, and he chimes in with a quick, quippy interview in which he talks about Dick's progression this season and his support of Invisible Children. There are two tours of the set, one of which blazes through Hearst College in thirty short seconds, and the other has production designer Alfred Sole showing off the Hearst food court, Dean O'Dell's office, and the remarkably accurate college radio station. Oh, but the best of these is a hysterical five minute bit with Chris Lowell and Kristen Bell interviewing each other, laughing their way through a parade of deadpan, borderline-nonsensical questions.
The meatiest of the extras on this set is "Going Undercover", a feature-length barrage of interviews with Rob Thomas and producer Dan Etheridge. The two of them hit just about every conceivable topic for the series' third season: a response to fans' accusations that Veronica had become nastier and meaner, the noir-inspired opening titles that debuted this season, one scene Thomas didn't think worked particularly well and wouldn't mind having done over, the political bent to several of this season's episodes and its first story arc, and a mini-commentary for the Thomas-directed "Spit and Eggs". A few of the other featurettes are 'best of' lists -- their favorite guest star appearances, some of the stand-out scenes pairing Veronica with Logan and with her father, and quite a few of the season's highlights as a whole. There's more substance to them than that description might make these highlight reels sound, though. The guest star featurette spends more time with recurring characters than the one-off mystery-of-the-week crowd, pointing out how Mac's two love interests this season are roommates in real life, how Ryan Hansen wound up playing a character instead of just a background surfer-type with one word of dialogue, an impromptu bluescreen that looked good enough that they didn't go to the enormous expense of removing it, Deadwood inspiring Thomas to cast James Jordan a second time in an entirely different role, and Paul Rudd originally being tapped to play sleazy private dick Vinnie Van Lowe. The Veronica and Logan featurette briefly touches on Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring's polar opposite approaches to acting, and the season highlight reel mentions an excised romance between Mac and one of her professors and speaks some on the final shot of the series.
A better-than-average gag reel clocks in around 7 minutes in length, with everything from a parade of musical numbers about a police report, a sound guy in the background shooing off a murder of crows, and the usual gaggle of impromptu booty-shaking, mugging to the camera, and flubbed lines.
I'm saving the most eagerly anticipated of the set's extras for last. With Veronica Mars once again on the brink of cancellation and the CW seeking out some sort of procedural to call their own, Rob Thomas accelerated his plans for the series for this fourth season pitch. Flashing forward several years, this 12 minute presentation picks up with Veronica's first day on the job as an FBI agent based out of Los Angeles, complete with a close-'n-personal undercover investigation into a skeevy principal and your garden variety murderous nutjob. Although I've seen quite a bit of praise for this teaser on some of the message boards I trawl, I have to admit to not being all that impressed myself. It really is an entirely different show, one that doesn't look or feel anything like the Veronica Mars I know and love, ditching the modern-day noir of its first three seasons in favor of something bright and blue. There's just something about Veronica toting a gun...someone who's constantly skirting around the law all of a sudden in the employ of a sprawling, regimented organization like the FBI...that just doesn't ring true. Oh well. Regardless of whether or not you think this would've been the right direction for the series to take, its inclusion is absolutely appreciated, and it's intriguing to see what could have been.
Of considerably less interest is an 18 minute featurette about the pitch, padded out by excessively long clips from the teaser I'd just finished watching. A commentary track over the presentation itself would've worked quite a bit better. This featurette touches on the new look and different direction Veronica Mars would've taken if the network had opted to greenlight its fourth season, noting that their timeline for Veronica had her signing up with the FBI somewhere around season seven or eight anyway. It's also noted how quickly this presentation was assembled, from the writing of the script to the fully-completed teaser in hand all in the space of twelve short days.
Conclusion: Veronica Mars' third season may not approach the dizzying heights of the series' spectacular first year, but despite its unevenness, the neo-noir does end on a reasonably strong note with these final twenty episodes. Rabid Veronica Mars fans who didn't think much of this season may want to consider giving it another look on DVD anyway -- it plays much better viewed in quick succession. Recommended.