Show: Veronica Mars
Seasons: Three, aired 2004-2007
Network: UPN, the CW
Log line: Nancy Drew meets Buffy, or high-school drama if written by Raymond Chandler
Veronica Mars had no business being this good. Surely, high school dramas, filled with boy trouble, peevish principles, and parents who just don’t understand, can’t be serious shows. But like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, Veronica Mars coupled a strong female lead with even stronger writing to give unexpected depth to a silly premise.
Not just a high school drama, Veronica Mars was a mystery show. Its protagonist and titular character (played by the captivating Kristen Bell) a budding detective who part-times for her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni, Just Shoot Me), the disgraced former sheriff of Neptune, California. Mysteries-of-the-week were interesting enough – a missing parent here, a stolen poker pot there – but the show’s real strength was in crafting season-long arcs (the third season altered this a bit, with a couple of multi-episode plots). Keith Mars lost his job after falsely accusing local hero Jake Kane (Kyle Secor, Homicide) of the murder of his daughter – and Veronica’s best friend – Lilly (Amanda Seyfried, before she Mamma Mia’d her way to stardom). Over the first season, Veronica re-opens the case on her own, determined to prove her father right and bring Lilly’s true killer to justice.
If Veronica is Jake Gittes, then Neptune is her Chinatown. The seemingly-idyllic Southern California burb is wrecked with class warfare between the scions of wealth and fame (or Oh-Niners, for residents of the posh 90909 ZIP code) and a middling underclass. Along with costing her father his job, Keith’s fall from grace mirrored Veronica’s banishment from the former group to the latter. Along with her best friend and her seat at the cool table, Veronica also lost her boyfriend, Duncan Kane (Lilly’s brother, played by Teddy Dunn).
Moving from the cheerleading squad to the loser table, Veronica replaces teenaged pep with icy cynicism. Her main tormentor, and Neptune High’s “obligatory psychotic jackass,” is Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Duncan’s best friend and Lilly’s boyfriend at the time of her death (small world), Logan is the bad boy with the devil may care attitude. Damaged by Lilly’s death and an abusive household, Logan’s character arc is the show’s most rewarding. He also gets some of the show’s best one-liners.
Veronica is not totally alone. In the pilot episode, she befriends Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), whose sense of loyalty compares favorably to that of a Wookie with a life debt. Later on, Veronica finds her very own Q in the form of Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie (Tina Majorino), who becomes her on-call hacker. She also has an uneasy alliance with Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), the leader of the PCH Biker Gang. That’s right – a teenage biker gang! One of the more fantastic elements of Veronica Mars, the PCH’ers seem more realistic with each passing flash mob news report.
Veronica eventually gets to the bottom of the Lilly Kane murder, as she does with the mysterious bus crash that dominated the second season. The third season takes Veronica and company to nearby Hearst College, where the main plots involve a campus rapist and a murdered dean. Unfortunately, it also started to bend from the weight of network notes, as the show continuously struggled with low ratings. While Veronica’s romantic life was always an undercurrent, it’s not until the third season’s love triangles and “will they/won’t they” cliffhangers that the show became awash with teeny bopper angst. Still, Veronica Mars (both show and character) kept their dignity and ended things with an appropriately dour conclusion.
A proposed fourth season would have featured Veronica at the FBI, but a backdoor pilot did not sway CW executives. As hard as it is for fans to admit, it’s better this way. Veronica Mars wouldn’t have worked as a rote crime procedural – it was more than that. High school drama, compelling mysteries, sharp tongued dialogue and a surprising amount of social commentary, Veronica Mars had it all.