TV reviews

TV Rewind… Veronica Mars 1×01 – ‘Pilot’ – Review

“A long time ago, we used to be friends” sings The Dandy Warhols over the opening credit sequence to Veronica Mars. It’s the perfect anthem for the series, a catchy earworm that goes with the combination of the light and dark within Rob Thomas’ cult detective/teen drama.

Depending on where you watch it, the title sequence to Veronica Mars is the first thing you experience of the series, unless you watch the Region 1 DVD release which contains an alternate edit with a teaser sequence that hints at future trouble for the teen detective, an instantly iconic and star making performance from Kristen Bell.

Television pilots are interesting affairs. Some shows can take time to find their feet and iron out any kinks, others can do great pilots but then lose momentum along the way. With Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas hits a home run right away, and amazingly the subsequent first season never loses sight of what makes its very first hour so special.

Make no mistakes, this “Pilot” goes places that other shows would dare not go to until much further into its run. Like the JJ Abrams-scripted “Pilot” for Alias , Rob Thomas is not afraid to almost overfill his opening episode with an abundance of plot that would carry most shows through an entire thirteen episode run, but Thomas bombards the audience with wit, drama and some very dark twists and turns before his executive producer credit closes the episode out.

The concept or format of the show could either be seen as silly, or as an excuse to go into a more sillier turn of storytelling than where Thomas subsequently goes with it; a teenage girl helps out her private detective father and uses her newfound skills as a means to help solve tricky cases in her high school. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, Veronica Mars takes a potentially silly hook and instead uses it to be one of the most emotionally toughest high school dramas to come from US network television.

Like the Slayer of Sunnydale, Veronica Mars is compulsive, dramatic, funny, has charm, but can also leave the characters and the viewers feeling emotionally bruised in a way the makes the series one that truly punch above its weight.

Airing on the now gone UPN network, the network that would then merge with The WB to form The CW (itself now the home of Thomas’ latest series, iZombie) there is an outsider feeling to the show that goes perfectly well with the character.

This would be a series that would never rank highly in the ratings and struggle for renewal. That it eventually found resolution via a fan-financed feature film says everything about what makes the show such a wonderful commodity. In the UK the series aired on the television channel Living (now Sky Living) as well as the dearly departed teen channel Trouble (home to many US imports featuring teen protagonists) as well as receiving a rerun of E4, although it took years for Warner Home Video to give it a UK DVD release, not doing so until the release of the feature film in 2014.

This sense of struggling against the odds is the perfect metaphor for the character and the show, who had to fight against so much to get back on her feet. Given that the most prominent storylines in the pilot surround murder and rape, there is a massively dark centre running through the series. That it would return to both of these things throughout its entire run should be enough of a signal that this isn’t some light-hearted romp, even though it should be noted that it could deliver some brilliant humour.

Like Twin Peaks, the grandparent of small town murder mysteries on American television, the town of Neptune has lost one of its daughters, a crime that brought to the fore much drama, betrayal and heartbreak before we even get a glimpse of life in the town. The “Pilot” brilliantly deploys flashbacks and a wonderful Kristen Bell voiceover that makes it feel as like the John Hughes/Raymond Chandler collaboration you never knew you wanted.

Flashbacks, not to mention a pre-fame appearance from Amanda Seyfried as Lilly Kane, fill in the blanks as to how our heroine and her father have gotten to where they are. It has the brilliant effect of making the show feel lived in even before we, the audience, get there, as if there is a whole other season of television leading us up to the moment when we get our first glimpse of our heroine on a stakeout outside a seedy motel.

In an interesting twist, Rob Thomas, a YA author prior to becoming one of the best kept secrets within American television, had planned to write the concept of a high school detective as the basis for a novel, one with a male protagonist before changing genders. One of the most brilliant things about YA novels is how they can, when done well, put across the hardship and pain of growing up, how the smallest of hardships can feel harsh, while the bigger slices of pain life can throw at you can feel off the charts.

There is an element to Veronica Mars that is dreadfully difficult to watch and that is the flashbacks as we see Veronica’s previously perfect life fall apart under terrible circumstances. What’s even more amazing is how it takes flashbacks which are filmed to look somewhat overly stylised and colorfully heightened and have them convey awful events and their impact on our heroine.

While a voice over and flashbacks are frequently used as exposition devices, here they are used to lay on a brilliant abundance of plot and character, while paying tribute to the hard-boiled nature of the film noir genre whose tropes the “Pilot” and subsequent seasons are revelling in. Kristen Bell’s delivery of the lines manage to be charming, with a touch of cynical, with a humourous edge, but just when we’re getting comfortable, or used to the paradigm of the series, it goes and delivers ones of the most devastating lines in the episode, and from a television series of the 2000’s:

“You wanna know how I lost my virginity?  So do I.”

To throw in a plot stand like this does not come easy to a television network, and so it was with UPN. Initially Thomas had wanted to take the series to a cable channel such as Showtime or FX, but UPN decided to take a chance on the series and where okay with most things, but had to be talked into allowing the rape revelation, although eventually they balked at a plot strand that involved Lilly’s body not being discovered near her swimming pool as it is in the finished episode, but instead washing up on the ocean (itself a similarity to the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body in Twin Peaks).

Depicting rape on-screen is very problematic. Sexual violence is a part of life, sadly, but there is a feeling that certain shows depict it all too freely and without effect (a frequent criticism levelled at cable shows which have little or no restrictions placed on them). Thankfully, since it was on UPN, the series does not depict any visuals when it comes to sexual violence and as a result the revelation that Veronica has had her virginity stolen from her is perhaps one of the most devastating moments ever depicted in a teen drama on television. It was the moment that Rob Thomas has said when he knew they made the right choice in casting Bell.

Confession time: I was late in coming to Veronica Mars. I had heard of the series, had seen bits and pieces here and there and always wanted to watch it from beginning to end. Sadly, I had no access to British cable where it was shown and since there was no DVD release in the UK, I didn’t get to see the series proper and fall in love with it until my girlfriend and future wife (a California native) loaned me the series and subsequently turned me into a Marshmallow.

For years, and prior to watching the series for the first time, whenever I heard the song Girls by Death in Vegas, I had images of Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray running through the streets of Tokyo. Now, it’s hard not to see Veronica Mars, tears streaming down her face, that dreadful realisation dawning on her, followed by the image of her hand reaching for her discarded underwear. There is nothing graphic shown, and yet it cannot help itself but be the most soul-destroying image ever shown on American network television and is much more powerful than anything exploitative or graphic that can be easily gotten away with on HBO, or Showtime or Netflix.

If that moment is powerful in itself, it’s what happens next that is more relevant than ever, as Sheriff Lamb (Michael Muhney, a wonderfully vindictive performance that will make your blood boil for the next three seasons) basically disregards her accusations of being drugged and assaulted. In a time when #MeToo is making desperately needed changes in our culture, it’s a moment that cannot help but sting and feel as important as ever. Like most things with Sheriff Lamb, it will also make you scream in frustration, while his disregard of her and deplorable attitude is played from the devastated face of Bell, and is a salt in the wound moment, the first of many that the show would deliver over its short run time.

It pretty much sums up the series you’re going to get in a nutshell; it will never be afraid to go places where you think it won’t go. It won’t be afraid to disturb, or make you feel the pain of those that the show will make you care for. Kristen Bell’s performance carries you through superbly and it is without doubt one of television’s best ever performances in a teen drama.

That the episode also introduces so many fan favourites lightens the darkened load; Percy Daggs, III as Wallace, the best friend; Jason Dohring as the complex beast that is Logan Echolls (you’ll hate him here, but wait until you’re two-thirds of the way into the season and see how you feel then); Francis Capra as Weevil, the biker who’s a bit of a douche here but we’ll come to love and see a heart of gold within; Teddy Dunn as Duncan, a more complex character than he’s probably given credit for, and then there’s Enrico Colantoni.

Has there ever been a dad in a television series that you love as much as Keith Mars? Television has given us some wonderful dads, most of them in teen shows (Sandy in The OC always comes to mind as another), but Enrico Colantoni, right from his “who’s the daddy?” introduction is the best dad in a teen show. Lovable, charming, and probably prone to letting his daughter get away with too much for a responsible parent, both himself and Bell make for a glorious double act and one of the best, and smallest, family units in a television show.

With the world, or at least Neptune, against them, right away you can’t help but find yourself rooting for these two, even when the odds are stacked against them. The “Pilot” shows us how they lost everything during Keith’s investigation into Lilly’s murder; the former Sheriff, his handling of the case is why he lost his job, especially given that he went after Lilly’s father, a decision that had the knock on effect of causing everyone at school to turn against Veronica.

The world of Neptune is not afraid to lay on the cruelty and darkness, and yet you will come back for more. The private detective tropes grab you, it has one of television’s best ever lead characters and for all the pain on offer, the heartache of both the emotional and physical kind, Veronica Mars is, fourteen years after debuting, still a brilliant series for the binge watching generation; a serial made up of darker elements, quirky humour and a great cast of characters.

As opening episodes goes, it’s also one of the best and it pretty much guarantees that you’ll come back for more.

Bring it on, bring it on yeah.

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