Thursday, September 30, 2004

VERONICA MARS

Every new TV season has several shows that crop up which are not highly anticipated by the TV Guide set, but which have either critical buzz or some level of pedigree (usually due to the creators having produced a prior failed show with critical buzz). This usually produces at least one good show that inspires passion and/or online petitions, but will be cancelled before Christmas. This years prime candidates are Veronica Mars (created by Cupid supervising producer Rob Thomas) and Life as We Know It (with Freaks and Geeks credentials). Failure of critical buzzards with more network backing like Desperate Housewives (a show with very little cachet by way of pedigree, unless you liked Threat Matrix) and Jack and Bobby (ditto, unless you like Everwood) are possible, but much less likely. Lost looks like a winner judging by the viewership of the first episode, and I don’t think we’ll see any online polls to save Dr. Vegas if it goes under.

There is a great history of good shows, cancelled right out of the gate. Cupid (cited above) is a perfect example of a very sweet show that was different, well written, touching, funny, and quickly gone. Solid shows Profitt and American Gothic were axed early in the same season (the first for both), and Action lasted, what, six episodes? I even liked that C. Thomas Howell vampire mobsters show (the Kindred?) that was gone inside of two months. This is why I hate not having Trio available on my cable system to see cancelled show theater, or whatever it’s called (way to go, Cox). Chances are that one or both of these new shows will follow their illustrious forbears. Life as We Know It hasn’t premiered yet, so lets talk about Veronica Mars.

Veronica is played by Kristen Bell, who looks very familiar, though imdb tells me I’ve only ever seen her in two episodes of Deadwood. Her performance here is not revelatory, by any means, but she is good enough and likable enough to carry the show. The other kids are played by Percy Daggs III (who I vaguely recall as a mathelete in Freaks and Geeks only after gentle reminding – thanks again imdb), Francis Capra (hereafter, thanks to my wife, referred to as “Vin Desil Guy” – a man with a healthy history of playing young toughs, seen already this season in the Without a Trace premiere), and the problematic trio of Teddy Dunn, Jason Dohring, and Aaron Ashmore. The problematic part is what call the “Brooklyn South” problem – in a cast with a moderate number of actors, you have to be able differentiate the characters easily, or you get into a confused “which one is that” loop. These three actors look somewhat similar, and only Dohring (as asshole Logan) acts in such a way as to significantly differentiate himself. It is very detrimental to a show trying to gain an audience to have this issue.

Famewhore Paris Hilton shows up in the second episode, illustrating the show’s strength with some interesting peripheral casting. Mars’ dad is played by Enrico Colantoni, who has been trying to recover from being miscast (in my opinion) as the womanizing photographer Eliot in the long running sit-com Just Shoot Me! Bumbling PI and failing-but-not-for-lack-of-trying dad is much more his speed, and he is quite good here. It’s always good to see Kyle Secor, but he has been misused across the board (remember the beginning of Crossing Jordan?) since his defining role as Bayliss on Homicide. Here he plays the local rich guy to whom everyone owes their fortune, and the murder of whose daughter is responsible for the context of the show (more on this later). His use so far is encouraging, but sparse, but this could be very good thing. Voice actor and perennial San Diego Comic Con panelist Darrin Norris (Jimmy Neutron, Fairly Odd Parents, Cowboy Beebop, and Commander Courage in Comic Book the Movie, among many others) plays the obligatory smarmy lawyer with all the glee you would expect.

On to the show itself. It’s about Veronica Mars, who used to be a popular girl in the rich costal town of Neptune, CA. She was not rich, but her father, bein’ sheriff and all, gave her enough cachet to be considered “in.” Her best friend, who seems like the thick and thin type, is the daughter of Jake Kane, the aforementioned guy who made everyone in the town rich, and who is much beloved. She is seeing Duncan Kane, Jake’s son, and life is shallow but good, except, of course, that mama Kane hates Veronica. After telling Veronica she knows a secret, daughter Kane is murdered, and daddy Mars thinks daddy Kane did it. Sheriff Mars is driven from office, and Veronica has a choice – family vs. her life as a “Heather.” She chooses dad. Duncan leaves her. Mommy Mars leaves daddy mars. Veronica is alone, an outcast in high school, and stuck trying to help dad from going under in his new PI business.

There is an odd dissonance that I noticed in the first episode, which took me awhile to put my finger on. On the surface, the show has the feel of an after school production like the Bloodhound Gang or an Olsen twin DVD, with not exactly top notch production values, an unapologetically non-realistic set-up, and somewhat stagy scene setting. This effect is blunted somewhat in the second episode, but still seems (again, on the surface) no more artistically accomplished than something like Beverly Hills 90210. Veronica is a high school student who acts as an assistant to her PI dad, and solves some of his tough cases – this is the kind of adventurous wish fulfillment set-up of a pre-adolescent show, realism be damned.

But something bothered me. The first episode contains an explosive scene of violence at its end that interrupts the surface gloss of the show. Veronica seems not just a generic outsider teen, but seems actually troubled by the events of her life. There is authentic cruelty in the show. And then there is the rape.

The scene dealing with Veronica’s rape (which, along with her friend’s murder and Veronica’s fall from grace, is the major determinant of her current mindset) has as neon tinged unreality. She goes to a party where she knows she is not welcome in a last desperate attempt to cling to her old life, and is slipped a drink containing Rohipnol. One distortion effect later she lies on the chaise lounge by the adolescent sex-filled hot tub, and passes out. She awakes, mascara running, and painfully realizes she is no longer a virgin – having no memory of the who or how. In the following scene, where she reports the incident to the new sheriff (who does a great job conveying the aw shucks malignancy of a good ol’ boy system), his apparent cartoonish glee and her baby doll tears further reinforce the fakeness of the tableau.

Here’s the thing, though…it’s so fake, it’s uncomfortably real. The flashback is doubly disturbing because she has reduced the memory to overwrought iconography to reduce the pain. My wife hit the nail on the head when she called this show brutal. The genius of this show is the presence of the coiled snake of this brutality slithering under the rug of just another high school drama. Most shows of this type are fake at the core which is coated with a pseudorealistic covering. This show inverts that, with a deep, dark ugliness that bubbles to the surface, and is thinly covered up with a candy coated surface. Episode two continues with several more violent acts, including the vicious gang beating at the end. I should mention the current sheriff again, whose mask of bumbling stupidity (watch out Hazzard county!) slips just enough to catch a glimpse of the disease underneath.

The framing mystery is interesting enough, and I think the show has a few elements to keep it moving for a while, giving the repressed vileness a chance to steap, and let the id punch through every now and then. This is an unusual show where apparently lame surface elements (including a truly amateuristic credits sequence), add to an effect that is a lot like being in high school with dreamlike inauthentic external elements covering real pain, cruelty, and human evil.

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