The seaside town of Neptune has an interesting mix of people. The rich... and those who work for the city or for the rich. The split is painfully obvious at the local school (Neptune High), where cliques are strong and made never to be broken. But the Sheriff's daughter, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), managed to enter into this popular clique by dint of her relationship with Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), son of local billionaire Jake Kane (Kyle Secor). Kane Software is one of the reasons so many of the residents of Neptune are so wealthy. Having developed streaming video, his company went public and the majority of the staff became millionaires overnight. But this all happened before the start of the television show.
In the year leading up to the pilot episode, Jake Kane's daughter Lilly (Amanda Seyfried) was brutally murdered at their luxury home. Veronica's father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), accused and relentlessly investigated Jake Kane for the murder and was subsequently booted out of the Sheriff's Department by an emergency recall election. The family were ostracised and Veronica's mother eventually chose to leave town... but Keith dug in his heels and opened a private detective agency – Mars Investigations. Veronica meanwhile had to deal with her best friend's death (Lilly was, of course, her best friend) and having been abruptly dumped by Duncan not long before her murder. She's also had to survive being systematically spurned by former friends at her school and suddenly becoming a figure of ridicule because of her father's investigation. There was also an incident at a local party which left her subjected to a date-rape drug and woozy on the details of what happened (and with whom).
And this is where we find her at the start of the show bearing her name. Bitter from her treatment at the hands of former friends, fiercely loyal to her father, and confused over her mother's leaving and the fact that her father so resolutely believed Jake Kane was behind the death of her friend. And that kind of emotional baggage clearly changes someone; Veronica has always been intelligent, but now has an underlying edge of cynicism which is largely what makes the show work so well. Yes, Veronica is a ballsy, clever young female lead (and we know what comparison is coming next)…
Yes, Veronica Mars has indeed been widely compared with Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, but despite sharing similarities – the strength of the lead, the witty dialogue, the episodic nature fitted into a larger story arc - Veronica Mars is definitely strong enough to stand out on its own. For a start, there's no reliance on the supernatural, and there's enough differentiation for the series not to be simply dismissed as a 'clone' of any other. Joss Whedon himself has roundly come out stating Veronica Mars is one of his favourite TV shows, and it's probably true that Veronica Mars may not have been written in the same way (or, if so, greenlit) if it hadn't been for the Buffy's success. But either way, there's enough room in the market for two sassy blonde female protagonists – don't let the comparisons drag you down; each show is special in its own way and Veronica Mars pulls you in right from the beginning with its dark tone and secrets.
The key mysteries underlying this first season are threefold: who murdered Lilly Kane; who drugged/raped Veronica; and where has Veronica's mother gone? All are solved satisfactorily by the end of the series, so luckily there's no frustration there. However, as I previously noted, it's not all about the primary story arc – luckily there's characterisation and character development in abundance – and there are also the 'case of the week' storylines. These include investigations into credit fraud, parental disappearance (twice), tracking down fiancés, looking for lost dogs and (most importantly) investigating the instigator of reputation-damaging rumours at school and looking into the theft of the school mascot.
The detective issues are handled well. Yes, Veronica seems to have learnt a lot in helping her father out at Mars Investigations (in fact she spots a couple of things he seems to have missed in the Lilly Kane case), but she also doesn't always get things right and sometimes Keith has to step in to show his daughter how she hasn't really thought everything through... or, at least, doesn't quite have the life experience yet to fully discern when people might be lying. This adds a slightly more realistic feel to the series – though to be honest, you do have to chuck a certain amount of belief out the window to really go along with some of Veronica's fantastic detective abilities. It's not so much of a problem when the show is so damn well-written that you want to believe it all though!
As mentioned above, characterisation plays as big a role in this 'teen' drama as the investigations themselves do. There's a big focus on Veronica's life at school and her interaction with other students, especially the crowd she used to move in. Luckily, the cast are very talented so can lap up this attention to detail and make it as believable as it's going to get. Kristen Bell completely shines as Veronica. She has to portray someone who's confused and hurt and yet strong and determined, and she does so with aplomb. She also has to put herself through all the disguises her detective side demands, and the accents and mannerisms that go along with them. And she manages this all with an air of naturalness that never falters and makes her extremely watchable. Enrico Colantoni (whom I'd only previously seen do brilliant comedy in Just Shoot Me and Galaxy Quest) is a perfect mix of jovial-yet-caring father and tough-edged detective/ex-Sheriff. He bears his pain well, and the relationship between the two is the real emotional heart of this series.
It's actually hard to pick out bad performances in this show, though Teddy Dunn (as Duncan Kane) appears a little stiff, but then again his character is the most wooden one depicted as the issues he has (which are uncovered in this series) prey on his mind and keep him from being the young and free spirit we glimpse in flashbacks. But the other stand-out performance for me was Jason Dohring as Logan Echolls. Logan has issues. His father Aaron (played very strongly by Harry Hamlin) is a big film star, commanding $20 million per picture. Logan, who was Lilly's boyfriend around the time of her murder, is messed up by grief and by his father's seeming disinterest in the family – so he starts Veronica Mars as a psycho rich kid who's out for fun and destruction. The emotional journey he takes in the series is probably larger than that of anyone else, and the actor makes it believable – which is no mean feat.
To go on and on about the talented cast might take up a few more pages of review, so I'll leave it at that, while feeling a little guilty I didn't give them each their own paragraph. It's a great piece of ensemble work and the show is definitely made stronger by its cast. However, without the sharp scripting team headed up by show creator Rob Thomas (who was a writer on Dawson's Creek) the series would definitely not work so well. It's hard to praise it enough in some respects; everything seems so strong. And yes, it's not perfect, but it would be a little scary if it was. However, of all the new shows I've watched over the past six months, I'd say it was the only one I found to be unmissable TV. (And considering in the UK it was shown by LivingTV at 6:05pm every weeknight for a month solid, not missing it was quite tricky. Thankfully, the R1 DVD came out during the run to save us the worst of such TV scheduling madness.)
It's difficult not to simply keep writing in praise of Veronica Mars. While the overview of 'teen female detective in Buffy-esque show' sounds trite and uninspiring, there's so much more to the production. The sense of isolation and social exclusion that Veronica feels as a driving force assists character development, and her platonic friendship with Wallace (Percy Diggs III) is a delight as there's no underlying drive for a romance from the writers; these friends are allowed to remain just friends and to develop their own romantic interests. The investigations are actually interesting and offer twists and turns that are unexpectedly engaging... and the overarcing storylines work well and are resolved in a very natural fashion. Also, clues are dropped through the series to help you work out who's behind Lilly's murder; it's not so opaque that someone couldn't work it out, and yet the writing is subtle enough that no one should feel any stupidity at not guessing what actually happened in advance. In fact, there are times when clues and storylines feel really obvious, and this is nicely matched by the writers then employing them in a completely different direction. I can't go into the plots too much though, because to do so would ruin some of the enjoyment of watching such a fresh series.
Episode Guide (Avoiding Spoilers As Much As Possible)
Establishes the main characters and setting by referencing the Lilly Kane murder, Veronica's rape drug experience, her meeting with Wallace and her family's ostracisation by the Neptune community, including Veronica's mother leaving the family. Veronica checks out a motel where Jake Kane has been having trysts, and helps Wallace sort out his problems with the local bike gang, headed by Weevil.
2: 'Credit Where Credit's Due'
Weevil's grandmother is accused of participating in a credit card scam and Veronica steps in to help, cementing their tentative friendship further. She also meets Troy, a cute guy in the in-crowd who seems interested in striking up a relationship.
3: 'Meet John Smith'
A classmate recruits Veronica to help track down his missing father, challengingly-named John Smith. The search has the side effect of focusing Veronica's mind on tracking down her mother.
4: 'The Wrath of Con'
Wallace is interested in a girl, but she's been conned in a fraud surrounding a computer game. Veronica's memories of last year's Homecoming dance are raised when Troy asks her to accompany him to this year's festivities.
5: 'You Think You Know Somebody'
Troy heads to Tijuana where his car is stolen by thieves. Luckily, his girlfriend is a detective and soon takes on the case, though in the process she learns some unwelcome truths.
6: 'Return of the Kane'
Logan gets into trouble by launching a series of fight clubs with homeless guys, paying them to take part for his own entertainment. Getting caught on film doesn't exactly please his dad. Veronica is meanwhile checking out dirty campaigning in the school election.
7: 'The Girl Next Door'
Weevil and Logan strike up a very unlikely friendship when they get stuck in detention together. Veronica steps in to look for her pregnant neighbour after she hears some loud arguments coming from the apartment.
8: 'Like a Virgin'
Someone's set up an online purity test and the link to it is spreading throughout Neptune High. As an added twist, for this test, you can see other people's results and one of Veronica's friends is subjected to a bit of character assassination because of it. Keith Mars and Wallace's mum finally get to meet and Veronica goes to meet the man who confessed to killing Lilly.
9: 'Drinking the Kool-Aid'
Veronica is asked to investigate a cult that one of her rich classmates has started hanging out in. Despite the 'cult' title, everyone seems really nice!
10: 'An Echolls Family Christmas'
Weevil invites himself to Logan's poker game, taking place during the Echolls' Christmas party. When the $5,000 pot disappears, all the players are under suspicion and Veronica tries to get to the truth. Keith is meanwhile investigating who is stalking Aaron Echolls.
11: 'Silence of the Lamb'
Keith is called back to the Sheriff's Department to help his replacement (the annoying Sheriff Lamb) track a serial killer that he's had some experience of investigating previously. Needing some extra cash, Veronica sets up a nice little earner doing basic background checks on classmates' parents which leads to unforeseen revelations for her friend Mac.
12: 'Clash of the Tritons'
When a Neptune student ends up comatose from a binge drinking session, his parents want to sue everyone in sight, including the bars and Veronica... who's implicated as the person who provided the fake ID. During her suspension from school Veronica must work out who's really behind the fake IDs, and in doing so, she has a run-in with the on-campus secret society, the Tritons.
13: 'Lord of the Bling'
When the daughter of a local gangsta-rap impresario gets kidnapped, Mars Investigations get hired to try and find her before anything goes amiss. While Keith pursues one set of leads, Veronica follows up at school, getting to know the son of the family a little better in the process. Logan recruits Veronica to help investigate on his pet project.
14: 'Mars vs Mars'
Veronica and her father are employed by opposing sides in a case to prove sexual misconduct against one of Veronica's favourite teachers.
15: 'Ruskie Business'
A Russian mail-order bride plays on Veronica's heartstrings to help her locate her former fiancé. In another love tale, Veronica is also asked to help a schoolmate identify a secret admirer with interesting results for both.
16: 'Betty and Veronica'
Wallace gets a taste of the popular vibe as his skill in basketball helps him become a star player on the Neptune team... but just before a big game, the school mascot is stolen and Veronica has to go undercover at the rival high school to see what she can discover. Veronica's search for her mother makes a massive leap forward and she also learns some more about Lilly's murder.
17: 'Kanes and Abel's'
Veronica looks into why Abel Koontz would confess to a murder he didn't commit and in doing so she uncovers a potentially mind-blowing piece of evidence in the murder investigation. The Kanes, meanwhile, have put up a big chunk of money for a memorial scholarship in Lilly's name, to be given to the class valedictorian… but foul play seems afoot and Mars Investigations gets involved.
18: 'Weapons of Class Destruction'
A new student at Neptune High falls under suspicion when a series of bomb threats are rung through to the school. When Veronica gets involved in trying to flush out the anarchist she gets some unexpected help from Logan. Veronica and Wallace receive some very surprising news from their parents also.
19: 'Hot Dogs'
When a schoolmate loses a pet dog, Veronica starts an investigation that leads to some interesting findings about the local dog pound and numerous recent dog-napping incidents. Trina Echolls invites her boyfriend round to talk her dad into starring in his indie feature but the evening doesn't go as planned.
When a friend's ex-boyfriend threatens blackmail, Veronica enlists the help of Mac to create her own blackmail material. Duncan runs away from home and the Kanes offer a $50,000 reward to anyone who can find him, which immediately gets Keith Mars on the case.
21: 'A Trip to the Dentist'
Veronica clears up one mystery... what happened the night of the party she references in the pilot episode, where date rape drugs appear to have been used. With a Rashomon-inspired telling of the evening through numerous eyes, she eventually uncovers the truth.
22: 'Leave It to Beaver'
Veronica solves the Lilly Kane murder case, but in doing so she betrays friends, puts her family's lives at risk and engages in a mad car chase. A few other loose ends are tied up and the hook to season 2 leaves the audience with an interesting cliff-hanger.
The show is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with a fairly solid transfer. There is some grain and a little softness, but I'm not sure whether this is stylistic or an indication that the transfer was a little more rushed than it could have been. Colours and skin tones are generally fresh and rich and work well both during indoor and outdoor scenes. It's a solid, but not perfect transfer, which is a tad of a shame in something quite so recent.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear throughout, both for dialogue and background music. The speaker separation is quite good and works well for the show, with good balance and use of directionality. There are no additional language tracks; however, subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the episodes, but not for the minimal extras.
Packaging & Menus
The 22 episodes are presented across 6 discs, with 4 episodes each on the first 5 and then the final two episodes sharing space with the extras on the final disc. The DVDs are held within a cardboard pack which unfolds to present the discs, with 2 discs in each compartment, one overlapping the other. This means that to get out the odd-numbered discs you must first remove the even-numbered ones that are resting above them... a little fiddly and annoying, but nothing too appalling here. As for the actual disc artwork, Veronica is featured on disc 1, Keith on disc 2, Logan on disc 3, Duncan on disc 4, Wallace on disc 5 and Weevil on the final disc. In a pocket inside the packaging there's a useful little leaflet made out to look like a school composition book, containing episode summaries and an abbreviated cast list. It's a nice little addition to the package and actually titles each chapter as well as each episode. With the cardboard packaging folded up again, the whole thing fits into a cardboard slipcase with a group picture on the front.
Menus are very nicely done with animation that scrolls through different cast members, and which move from clear focus to soft focus and give a really nice fresh feeling before the menu page actually comes up. There's the option to 'play all' episodes on a disc, as well as to select individual episodes. Because of the extras situation on this boxset we're left with an interesting glitch in the menus. Each disc has a 'special features' option, but these links to nothing except on the final DVD.
Which brings us neatly to the extras situation. Ah, good old Warner Brothers. They had the option of releasing a feature-packed boxset that would take a while to put together or a barebones release that would be on sale before the start of season two and which could help drum up some new viewers through word-of-mouth (and let any such viewers catch up on the action before the new series started). This kind of tactic worked particularly well in the States for shows such as 24, but has backfired for Veronica Mars. (By the time this boxset was released in the States, the first couple episodes of season 2 had already been broadcast.)
Of course, for viewers in the UK, this boxset was released in the middle of LivingTV's airing of the series, as that took place at 6:05pm every weeknight for four and a half weeks. So this boxset definitely has the benefit of permitting Brits the chance to take in the whole series without having to remember to set the video or rush home from work every evening (which is how I saw it initially!). Like Lost before it, the timing of the R1 DVD release gave little real incentive for the UK audience to catch the show on TV, except perhaps to watch the first few episodes to decide whether it was worthy of purchase.
Anyway, back to the actual special features! There's an extended pilot episode which is fairly short in its extension, but interesting. There's no option to see the as-aired pilot, so if you're coming to this for the first time through the medium of DVD, the opening sequence is what was cut from the TV airing. The other extra is over 20 minutes of deleted scenes which are shown in one long spool, with episode titles flashing up to show you which episodes the following clips were taken from. The scenes are fairly short (with an impressive 28 included here) but they do offer some nice background touches that were missing from the original show... including some history of Lianne Mars' alcoholism and filling in some gaps from investigations that seemed rather glossed over in the final showings. All the clips are shown in letterbox format also.
For viewers seeking further extras and insights, the show's creator (Rob Thomas) has posted a commentary for the pilot episode on his website. It can be found under 'Veronica Mars' on the left-hand menu and then under downloads as DVD_Commentary.mp3. It's a nice way to make up for the lack of extras included in the boxset though a little fiddly to have to get your commentaries this way.
Somewhere in this season, one of her classmates offers up the line, 'Veronica Mars, you rock!' ...and they're not wrong where this television show is concerned. Developed by UPN and now in its second series in the States, I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who's enjoyed Dawson's Creek, Roswell, Smallville or Buffy: the Vampire Slayer (i.e., to anyone who isn't put off by the high school setting). The DVD boxset may not have many special features, but having all the episodes packaged together is definitely worth the purchase, especially as there don't appear to be any plans to show this on terrestrial TV in the UK as yet.