Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #22

Series Title: Veronica Mars | Years: 2004-2007, UPN/CW | Starring: Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Percy Daggs III, Jason Dohring, Francis Capra | Theme Music: The Dandy Warhols

Veronica Mars was special.

Don’t look at me like that, it was.

OK, I concede that it had a dumb concept. So dumb it shouldn’t have worked. All about a teenage girl, the daughter of a private detective, who goes about solving whatever problems her classmates have--like a missing mascot (that investigation actually brought to her by the school’s vice-principal) or figuring out who rigged the latest school election, and why.

It reeked of gimmick, and man, I hate gimmicks in my crime fiction.

But this series was special. Veronica Mars was about a high-school junior in the fictional, upscale San Diego suburb of Neptune Beach. Veronica (Bell) was one of the popular kids--not rich, but her dad was the local sheriff and that bought her a ticket into the It Crowd. It also helped her standing that she was dating Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), the son of Jake Kane, the richest man in Neptune Beach and CEO of an electronics empire.

And then Veronica’s best friend, Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried), was murdered, and her life began spiraling downward. Her father lost his job as sheriff, after wrongly accusing Jake Kane of the crime. Duncan, in his grief, dumped her, and she was suddenly on her own--no friends, and no social position.

You see, Veronica Mars was Noir with a capital N.

There was no jazz or fancy car, though; her father, Keith Mars (Colantoni, formerly of Just Shoot Me!), a newly minted private eye, didn’t have an office bottle. In fact, Veronica and her dad were so poor, that their small apartment was the office and a good-paying job meant steak for dinner. Veronica was her father’s secretary, when she wasn’t helping out on the latest case--on an unofficial basis, of course, nothing dangerous, just computer work and the occasional snapping of pictures. But Veronica took after her dad and prowled the halls of her school, helping out both her peers and members of the faculty.

The show had a wonderful cast, in addition to its fetching blond star. Keith Mars was tough, but no Superman, and he was wryly humorous, with a fierce love for his daughter. The worst thing you could do was mess with her--if you did, you’d get a visit from him. The heart of this series lay in that bond between father and daughter. (Click here to watch an early scene indicative of their relationship.) After Veronica’s mother, Lianne, left them, they were all each other had.

Also important to the storytelling, however, was Veronica’s new best friend, Wallace Fennell (Daggs), a smart young man who found his place as a basketball player, but remained an outsider because he chose to pal around with Veronica. Given that he had a job in the high-school office, she often asked Wallace to look surreptitiously into files on her behalf. Like all great fictional detectives, Veronica had allies among the criminal element, too. Chief among those was Mexican Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Capra). Finally, the series’ breakout character was Logan Echolls (Dohring), son of abusive Aaron Echolls, a mega-movie star (played by ex-L.A. Law hunk Harry Hamlin). Logan was funny at times, but also a hell-raiser with a tangible disgust for The Establishment. He was dangerous to be around, but like everything in Veronica Mars, he had hidden depths, cracks in his armor that were put on display as the series evolved. Veronica Mars even had an antagonistic relationship with the sheriff who had replaced her father, because he ignored the fact that she had been date-raped, most likely by one of the sons of the many powerful people inhabiting Neptune Beach.

Oh, and did I mention that Veronica Mars could be downright hilarious? Like the great 2006 film Brick (which also placed a detective story within the world of teenagers), this too-short-lived series avoided emulating Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but had a quick and intelligent wit about it.

Veronica: Look at you, all helpful.

Logan: Hey, your peskiness being unleashed on Conner brings me joy. Annoy, tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind!
There’s a plethora of memorable quotes and exchanges from this show that I could have used, so excellent was its dialogue.

In the same way that other places have been essential to detective series, whether in books or on the screen, so the town of Neptune Beach was a supporting player in Veronica Mars. It breathed corruption and bred class warfare. On one side, there were the rich “09ers” (so named for their ritzy zip code); on the other were the poor folk. The latter often worked for the former. It was amazing to me, being a native San Diegan, how closely this relationship mirrored that of my city’s actual prosperous districts. Since the show was filmed here, I often recognized where the action was taking place.

At the center of the first season’s story arc were the death of Lily Kane and the sexual abuse committed against young Veronica. They combined to make a real mystery that played fair with the watcher, and I knew a few fans who put the pieces together successfully as they were doled out by the series’ creator-writer, Rob Thomas. Veronica Mars didn’t cheat.

The second season was even better, one of its biggest plot elements being the tragic accident of a bus full of teenagers going off a cliff. The solution to that mystery was truly shocking.

The third season wasn’t quite so good. When the show moved to the new CW Television Network, some of its characters and complexities were softened, and there were a series of small mysteries that played over just a few weeks. It retained a lot of the same personality and heart, but it was often obvious that the network had told Thomas to make changes. The series finished on a high note, though, with a great noir ending. The heroes didn’t ride off into the sunset, happy and perky; instead, they rode off into cancellation with a multi-layered conclusion not unlike that of the film Chinatown.

The last thing I have to talk about is the opening title sequence.

Appropriate to its neo-noir atmospherics, the first thing you heard on Veronica Mars was the punk-rock sound of The Dandy Warhols blaring “We Used to Be Friends.” It’s an appropriate song for Veronica’s outsider world, and the fact that it is the work of a punk-rock band fit the personality of this show wonderfully. At least during the first two seasons (alterations were made in the third year, with the song running slower and not as loud), we cycled through shots of the cast with torn notebook paper and other school paraphernalia decorating the edges of the TV screen. A pencil scribbled an image on the paper that might best represent each character, such as handcuffs for former lawman Keith Mars. It was a vibrant and fast opening with a great theme song, deftly characterizing the depths of this show. The song just built and built until you didn’t know where it would go and as it ended, the last shot was of our girl Veronica glaring off into the distance, about to face off with whatever, or whoever, was foolish enough to challenge her next.

It could rightly be said that Veronica Mars was the punk-rock song of detective shows. Vibrant, no rules, no clichés or conforming to what others thought it should be.

As I said, Veronica Mars was special. Seek out the DVDs.

READ MORE: Mars Investigations: The (In)Complete Guide to Veronica Mars; “Eyes of Veronica Mars,” by Robert Abele (L.A. Weekly); “What Veronica Mars Could Have Been,” by Keith McDuffee (TV Squad).


Anonymous said...

one of my faves also Cameron.

here was a review of a book all about the series:

Ray said...

A great appreciation of a great show. Robert Crais recommended it a few years ago at the LA Times Festival of Books, and with that, I was hooked.

Anonymous said...

This is important, you REMEMBER this: I USED TO BE COOL.

Paul Bishop said...


Karen (Euro Crime) said...

Just the other night I plucked up the courage to watch the final episode. I've been putting it off for months.

Series 1 was absolutely brilliant and I'd no idea what the solution was!

Fiver said...

Had Veronica Mars seen it's 4th season, I think it might have found a broader audience...

The pilot can be found of the seson 3 DVD, and here:

Corey Wilde said...

I, too, glommed on to VM after a rec from Robert Crais. It was witty and sharp enough to overcome the soap opera aspects, even to the point of making the soapiness just as riveting as the dialogue.

Anonymous said...

i'm glad the Rap Sheet is open to VMars, it was a great show! It's even better watched on DVD. Veronica & her dad were great characters and their father-daughter bond def sweet.
Veronica solved a lot of cases, she sure got a lot done in an episode. I always liked how her small time cases would intertwine with her father's bigger cases. I also liked Veronica's transformation from ordinary preppy pep-squad girl to kick-ass "don't mess with me" PI.