TV Discussion

TV Rewind… Veronica Mars 1×03 – ‘Meet John Smith’ – Review

As part of the course of a teen drama, even ones that can subvert expectations or do something different with the genre by mixing it in with another genre, you still need to have a love interest or a dollop of romance.

By “Meet John Smith”, the series has firmly established that Veronica and 09-er Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn) have had a relationship that has fallen apart as a result of Lilly’s murder and Veronica’s ostracization from the cool kids, while our heroine is finding potential solace and a way to move on with new kid on the block Todd (Aaron Ashmore).

On top of a case which is a clear indication that Veronica Mars will know how to do a brilliantly engrossing mystery, sometimes more watchable than even the best crime procedurals, “Meet John Smith” offers the series a chance to explore the character of Duncan and the Kane family who, at this point, we’re somewhat untrustworthy off due to Keith’s pursuit of patriarch Jake Kane in the murder of his daughter when Keith was Sheriff, a persuit that led to Keith losing his prominent position in the town’s police force.

At this stage in the show, it’s clear that Duncan is something of a character that is there in a love interest capacity for Veronica, because it is a teen show and complicated romances are part of the course; Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike, Dawson and Joey, Pacey and Joey, the entire cast of characters in Riverdale. Being a love interest is not merely enough sometimes, and with Veronica Mars being a darker and more complex beast than many other teen shows, it stands to reason that a character like Duncan is not merely a one-dimensional character.

In fact, as the coming weeks will indicate, there is no such thing as a one-dimensional character on this show, with many layers, some of which are as dark and complex as anything a teen network show can throw at the audience, coming to the fore. Comes with the territory when murder, rape and class division themes are frequently showing up in the narrative.

Writer Jed Seidel’s teleplay explores the character of Duncan, as well as his parents, in a way that brings us a touch closer to a family who are something of a protagonist figure in Neptune and for Veronica and her father to go up against, while once again reiterating the themes of class within the framework of the series.

We have only glimpsed Duncan and his character from the point of view of our heroine, either from afar or within those brilliantly stylish flashbacks, but here the episode actually spends times with him as we realise that he takes, or is supposed to be taking, antidepressants. His decision not to makes him something of an unpredictable character prone to some pretty outrageous behaviour, including jumping off the school bleachers, as well as hallucinating conversations with his dead sister, Lilly, the series taking every opportunity it can to bring back Amanda Seyfried.

It’s a wonderful wrinkle to the series and gives Teddy Dunn’s performance as Duncan a chance to add layers to a character that could easily become a kind of blah love interest. Given future events, some fans may say he does so, or at least a character that we’re least invested in, but that’s a story for future episodes.

As for the case of the week, we’re given a story that dovetails into an interesting and well handled twist that does come with its own issue that might prove somewhat problematic in 2018. Talked into helping the missing, presumed dead father of student Justin (Bobby Edner), the case initially starts of with Justin basically using his father, who he actually believes to be dead, as a means to make romantic intentions to the teen sleuth, but who turns out to be alive, but being revealed to have had a sex change, which prompted Justin’s mother to tell him his father had died.

The twist, that the female customer who has been showing up at the video store that Justin has been recommending movies to (recommendations that include such “family friendly” fare as Body Heat and Consenting Adults) is actually his father is delicately handled and sensitively done. Justin’s anger and eventual reaching out for a reunion is bitter-sweet. The problem? His father, John Smith but now going by Julia, is played by a pre-Oscar winning famous Melissa Leo. Leo, a fantastic actress, sells the requisite emotion brilliantly, but it does fall into a problem that many rightfully have nowadays of a female, non-transgender actress playing a transgender role.

It’s a minor blip here because during a period of time (2004) when television and  movies could get transgender issues thoroughly wrong, and coming across as crass and insensitive about characters who had undergone gender reassignment, “Meet John Smith” gets the portrayal right. It’s not done for comedy or cheap laughs, it’s actually sensitively done, achingly honest and has to work its way to anything resembling an ending that could be seen as something potentially happy.

In terms of drama, it probably sums up the entire Veronica Mars experience pretty well.

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