This time last year, while everyone else in the free world was fawning over Lost and Desperate Housewives, I was loyally tuning into UPN for my favorite show of last year, Veronica Mars. Okay, boiled down to a five word premise -- spunky teenage girl solves mysteries -- I can see why some people might have dismissed Veronica Mars as Nancy Drew-meets-One Tree Hill. That's their loss, but with Warner Bros. issuing the show's first season on DVD, now they have another chance to see why Veronica Mars has deservedly attracted such a fiercely loyal fanbase.
Veronica Mars is set in Neptune, California, a town without a middle-class. Everyone's either a millionaire or works for one, and the man largely responsible for Neptune's unparalleled success is Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), the resident billionaire software mogul. Kane and his family are still reeling from the murder of his daughter Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) some months earlier, and as if that loss wasn't enough, the beloved Kane family was doggedly pursued by a county sheriff convinced that they were hiding something. Public sentiment turned against Sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), who was ousted from office and abandoned by his wife.
Cue the title character. His daughter Veronica (Kristen Bell) had already lost her best friend with Lilly's death, but standing by her father also cost Veronica her friends, her social status, her house...even her mother. Veronica had already been unceremoniously dumped by Lilly's brother Duncan (Teddy Dunn) shortly before her friend's murder, and a defiant visit to face her former friends at a party weeks later led to Veronica being drugged and raped. Despite having lost so much, Veronica is resilient enough to move on with her life, and as her father struggles to stay afloat as a private eye, Veronica puts her smarts and determination to work to help ease the caseload at Mars Investigations. She also puts her talents to use to help her classmates with their troubles -- for a price, of course. To cap it all off, Veronica's faced with a couple of her own mysteries to solve. What convinced Lianne Mars to abandon her family, and where is she now? Who was it who drugged and raped Veronica last December? Also, is her father right -- did someone other than disgruntled Kane Software employee Abel Koontz murder Lilly? If there is, who orchestrated the conspiracy that led to Koontz' confession and why?
Every review, write-up, and summary -- even the marketing-speak on the back of this DVD set -- compares Veronica Mars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I guess I might as well march in lockstep too. Swords, sorcery, and the supernatural really don't apply, but the comparison's otherwise pretty apt, extending beyond the obvious surface similarities of two series revolving around petite, teenaged, steel-willed-but-still-vulnerable blondes.
The dialogue in Veronica Mars has the same sparkle as Joss Whedon's work...arguably better, even, since Buffy sometimes sounded like a deliberate attempt to be hip, whereas Veronica Mars manages to be witty and clever without feeling quite so forced. The writing doesn't skew as young as one might expect from a TV show set in a high school. If anything, the target audience seems to be twentysomething -- I don't know how many fifteen year olds would be able to appreciate references to Archie comics or 21 Jump Street, f'r instance. Characterization is another strength of the series, and part of the reason Veronica Mars works as well as it does is that the audience truly does care about the characters. Despite having a seemingly endless array of talents, Veronica isn't some sort of idyllic Mary Sue. She's not always right. Her investigations frequently take morally questionable turns. Things don't always go the way she wants. Not every episode has a happy ending.
Another easy Buffy comparison is both series' love of the season arc. Along with the cases that are solved in the space of forty minutes and change every week, a couple of mysteries are introduced in the pilot that are gradually explored throughout the entire length of the season. That's right -- unlike the hydra that is Lost, where answering one question spawns ten more, all of Veronica Mars' mysteries are resolved by the time the season finale rolls around. (The finale tosses out a couple questions of its own, but if a second season hadn't gotten the green light, it still would've been a fitting end to the series.)
Veronica Mars has a capable cast to match the quality of the writing. Veronica is strong and cynical...bright and sarcastic...and even though all of the trauma she's suffered over the past year has aged her somewhat, she's still an emotionally vulnerable teenage girl. That's a lot to juggle, but Kristen Bell is talented enough to make such a colossal task seem effortless and captivating enough to carry a show on her shoulders. Of course, Bell is joined by a strong enough supporting cast that she doesn't have to shoulder it all herself.
After cutting down Wallace (Percy Daggs III), the new kid at school, who'd been stripped naked and duct taped to a flagpole, he and Veronica become best friends. In teen-TV land, it's an immutable rule that people of different genders can't just be pals...there's this endless temptation to couple everyone. Veronica Mars manages to resist, resulting in one of the few platonic friendships like this left on television. Wallace
Enrico Colantoni, who plays Veronica's father, is another fan favorite, able to shift from warm, loving, and borderline-goofy to secretive and deadly serious when the situation calls for it. There's also Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra), the leader of a local biker gang from the wrong side of the tracks who engages in some mutual backscratching with Veronica.
The character who stands out the most -- aside from Veronica, of course -- is Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Like Kristen Bell, Dohring is endlessly engaging. He's introduced as an "obligatory psychotic jackass", but as the season progresses, Logan's humanized without being watered-down; even when he's doing something as thoroughly loathesome as bribing a homeless vet to join in on his homebrew Bumfights video, there's an undercurrent of understanding why Logan is the way he is. The character changes throughout the season, but the shift feels deserved and natural, not just because that's what's scrawled on the whiteboard in the writing room.
Other guest stars throughout the season include Napoleon Dynamite's Tina Majorino as computer whiz Mac, Aaron Ashmore as a love interest with a shady past, Logan's movie star family (played by Harry Hamlin, Lisa Rinna, and Alyson Hannigan), Anthony Anderson, Zachary Ty Brian, Joey Lauren Adams, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and, in a shameless bit of stuntcasting, Paris Hilton. The fact that the second episode of Veronica Mars manages to be really good despite a Paris Hilton guest spot really is a testament to how good a series this is. Oh, and, in true Laura Palmer fashion, just because Lilly Kane is dead doesn't mean that Amanda Seyfried can't rear her head in nearly every other episode.
It's a remarkably consistent show, too. Continuing with the inevitable Buffy comparisons, even the best seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode or two as borderline-unwatchable as "Bad Eggs". There aren't any out-and-out clunkers in this season of Veronica Mars, and even less impressive episodes like "Lord of the Bling" -- where Veronica and Papa Mars team up to track down a gangsta rap impresario's kidnapped daughter -- or "Kanes and Abel's", where the mystery-of-the-week is so forgettable that I had to check an episode guide to remind myself what it even was, still have a bunch of great moments scattered throughout 'em. Going the grade school route, the lowest score I'd slap on any of these twenty-two episodes would be a "B".
The weaker episodes aren't much worse than the rest of the season, but the flipside of that coin is that the best episodes aren't that much better than the rest either. That's meant as a compliment, though; the writing team is able to keep the quality surprisingly and consistently high. I'd have a hard time picking out a favorite episode, and even if I were to point to something like "Ruskie Business" or "Clash of the Tritons" as a stand-out, Veronica Mars really isn't the type of show that's easy to hop into with the fourteenth episode and fully appreciate, so there's no point in highlighting anything in particular. It's all great.
One hallmark of a good mystery is that it holds up to a second look. We've all suffered through our share of awful suspense-thrillers...the painfully obvious red herrings, telegraphed plot twists, and a murderer whose identity isn't the least bit logical, chosen just because it's the person the audience would be least likely to suspect. They're not that great to sit through once, and with all of the tepid surprises out of the way, there's no reason to suffer through 'em again. The point of all that is, of course, to say that Veronica Mars is nothing like that.
The conclusion to most of the mysteries caught me by surprise. Throughout the entire season, the only time I correctly guessed the culprit was in "Lord of the Bling", and even then, the motivation and execution were well out of my reach. The many twists the stories take are clever, and watching these episodes a second time, I could spot all sorts of clues and hints that didn't seem that important the first time through. Knowing all the twists and turns in a TV show I'd already watched a few months earlier did dull my enthusiasm a bit -- when I watched these episodes for the first time, I was a foaming-at-the-mouth zealot who'd made it his holy mission to spread the gospel of Veronica Mars. Now it just seems really, really good.
That's one of the disadvantages of tearing through a twenty-two episode season in two days, I guess. I'd spent nearly eight months following Veronica Mars' investigation into her best friend's murder, and there's not quite that same sense of anticipation or emotional investment when that's condensed into two days. Veronica Mars is a series that's easy to dive into as a marathon, but for viewers catching these episodes for the first time, I'd recommend drawing it out a bit.
Then again, one upside of a two-day marathon is that some of the problems I had with the series were smoothened out. Chief among them is Duncan
Even with as tightly-plotted as the mysteries spread throughout the season are, the resolutions in the last couple of episodes feel awfully rushed. After a Rashomon-ish investigation into her roofie-fueled rape in the penultimate episode of the season, Veronica seems to forgive and forget far too quickly. The reveal of Lilly's killer in the finale is a shock, but as significant of an event as that is, the identity isn't as deftly handled as the mysteries-of-the-week. Like I mentioned a paragraph or two up, watching the weekly cases a second time highlights clues that viewers might have missed or just didn't register as being important the first time around. The reveal in the season finale isn't like that. I'll try to step carefully around any spoilers, but the killer just as easily could've been a half-dozen other people, with nothing concretely pointing in that direction beforehand. It's in-character and doesn't feel like a jarring swerve to the left just to catch the audience off-guard, but the actual revelation seems rushed and not as meticulously thought-out as so many of the other mysteries Veronica solves. The evidence she uncovers isn't even that incriminating, requiring a pretty massive leap in logic that wouldn't have held up in court. A lot of series strain to fill a 22 episode season, but Veronica Mars is one of those rare shows that would've benefitted from having an extra episode or two to wrap everything up.
I could rattle off a few other gripes, but the goal's not to list every conceivable complaint...it's to try to convince you to give Veronica Mars a shot. Suspend enough disbelief to buy that Veronica can accomplish pretty much anything and has a small army of people ready and willing to tackle everything else, and you'll be covered. Thanks to stellar writing and a gifted cast, the clever, infectiously addictive Veronica Mars is without a doubt one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and if you missed it the first time around on UPN, it's a series that's worth discovering on DVD.
Video: My UPN affiliate hasn't bothered to make the move to high-definition yet, so aside from the few episodes that popped up in HD on CBS this summer, I'm used to Veronica Mars looking soft, boxy, and washed-out. It hopefully goes without saying that these anamorphic widescreen DVDs are exponentially better. A lot of care seems to have gone into making its sunny Californian setting look as bright and colorful as possible, and black levels are appropriately deep and inky during the night exteriors. There is some measure of film grain, not that that's a bad thing, and although crispness and clarity are both generally alright, sharpness can vary from shot to shot. A lot of that really doesn't have anything to do specifically with these DVDs, though; that's just the way the show looks. No major complaints.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo surround audio (192Kbps) is pretty straightforward. Dialogue comes through fine, and the matrixed surrounds kick in every once in a while, but the soundtrack is the real highlight. Aside from The Dandy Warhols' "We Used to Be Friends" as its theme song, the season features scores of great, lesser known bands like Tsar and Damone, better known-lesser known bands like Interpol, legends like The Rolling Stones, and pretty much everything in between. As far as I can tell, all of the original music is in place on DVD. On the strictly technical end of things, this is a fairly average track, but average is fine.
Veronica Mars offers subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, and these episodes are also closed captioned.
Supplements: You've probably heard the story by now. Warner Bros. could've either rushed a barebones release to hit stores before the start of season two, bringing new viewers up to speed and maybe enjoying a ratings boost the same way 24 did in the process, or they could've opted for a holiday release to give the producers enough time to go the special edition route. They wound up with the worst of both worlds. Season two will be a day shy of three episodes in by the time this set is released, and its extras are sparse. Although there are "Special Features" submenus on all of the discs, only the sixth and final disc has anything in it.
There may only be one extra, but it's a good one: 22 minutes of deleted scenes...28 pieces of footage from 14 episodes. That averages out to 47 seconds a pop, and as you could probably guess from that, a lot of them consist of just a few lines of dialogue. Some of them are meaningful character moments that would've fit extremely well into these episodes, particularly better establishing Lianne's alcoholism in the pilot along with Keith's flashback confrontation with his wife in "Meet John Smith". A couple also fill in some gaps in the Mars family's investigations -- sometimes for the better, like Veronica poring over blueprints in "Hot Dogs", and sometimes superfluously, such as when Keith silently searches for a set of keys in "Like a Virgin". There are several epilogues, picking up post-climax in "The Wrath of Con", "Silence of the Lamb", and "Ruskie Business". A handful of clips just add a couple of lines to existing scenes. For the most part, this footage consists of brief character moments, and since strong characterization is such a significant part of the show's appeal, more of that certainly qualifies as being a good thing even if they are inessential to the story. This footage isn't in anamorphic widescreen as the episodes are, but all of the clips are letterboxed.
It's also worth mentioning that the pilot is extended, serving up a better introduction to Veronica's cynicism and the seedy underbelly of Neptune.
Each of the six discs in this set include animated widescreen menus. The episodes can be played individually or consecutively, and each episode has been divided into six chapter stops. The set includes a cardboard slipcase with a fold-out sleeve holding these six discs. Unlike a lot of season sets where each disc gets its own "page" in the fold-out sleeve, Veronica Mars overlays two discs per page. Has this whole Venn diagram thing going. It's mildly inconvenient to have to yank out disc three in order to reach disc four, but at least it looks neat. There's also a booklet with a synopsis, a list of chapter stops, and credits for each episode.
Conclusion: Veronica Mars is a fantastic series, benefiting from strong plotting, sparkling dialogue, and a phenomenal cast. Equal parts smart, funny, clever, exciting, and touching, Veronica Mars lives up to all of the critical praise that's been heaped upon it, and if you've read the reviews, that's saying something. New viewers might want to opt for a rental because of the sticker price and sparse extras, but however you choose to see it, the first season of Veronica Mars comes very highly recommended.
Oh, and if you haven't caught the series before and have the season two premiere collecting digital dust on your DVR, hold off on watching it; the "last season on Veronica Mars" recap will spoil pretty much everything for you.