There was something miraculous about the renewal of Veronica Mars for a second season given that it was the lowest-rated series in television history at the time to have ever gotten a renewal. It’s not often miracles like that happen in television; think of the great low-rated series’ that we’ve all loved that have gotten cancelled and the melancholy that goes with it.
UPN, the network that in a year after the debut of this episode would cease to exist, but we’ll deal with that when the time comes, partnered the series up with one of its biggest hits, America’s Next Top Model, which was a good sign. After all, Veronica Mars had gotten incredibly positive reviews and even if the ratings were low, it was a distinctive series on its schedules and probably even one that gave the network, what with the great reviews, a little bit of prestige. Unfortunately, the time slot Veronica Mars had been scheduled put it right up against the recently launched Lost on ABC, which was set to become one of the biggest television series in a generation.
Despite that, “Normal is the Watchword” arrives with bravado and confidence. The series may have been one of the lowest rated on television, but it had an adoring fanbase and critical acclaim on its side, and it enters its second season every bit as compulsively as it did last season.
Usually with American high school series, the season premiere, even if the previous season ended in a cliffhanger, takes place around three months later, making it appear for the majority of American teenagers, particularly those in fictional universes, that life comes to an abrupt halt during the summer, and nothing particularly interesting happens until around late August, or early September.
“Normal is the Watchword” begins this way life has moved on considerably for many of our favourite characters given where we saw them last; Veronica is working in a restaurant, Keith is on television promoting his new book about the Lilly Kane murder, and to top it all off, her relationship with Logan has ended and she is now back together with Duncan.
Instead of just using clumsily written exposition to explain away resolutions to several of last season’s cliffhangers, the episode wonderfully flashes back to fill in gaps revealing Logan as being the one who called at Veronica’s house in the dying moments of the previous season, but also that he has been accused of murdering one of the PCHers during his drunken behaviour on the bridge where we saw him last, eventually being acquitted of it, while Veronica and Duncan’s reunion has come at the cost of her friendship with Meg (Alona Tal), whose treats Veronica is an incredibly passive-aggressive manner throughout the episode.
For a single forty-five minute episode of television, this packs a lot into a short space of time; it’s never boring, it’s incredibly entertaining and gets the season off to a riveting start. Given the job this has to do, Thomas’ teleplay does its job incredibly well, even throwing in a wonderful mystery of the week involving drug testing gone wrong, once again playing on to teen drama tropes and elevating it in scope and scale to feel like an even bigger plot line than most other teen-oriented dramas could ever dream of.
Of course, it’s still small potatoes to where the season is going to take us. It appears as if the series is going to rest on its laurels and give us another single murder mystery to drive the season, mainly who killed the PCHer that Logan has been framed for killing. It all feels somewhat slight, but Thomas has the ace in his sleeve.
In the episode’s final moments, a literal cliffhanger it must be said, the season reveals its dramatic arc for the season; a school bus goes over a cliff on the way back from a field trip, and with it the lives of many students.
It’s dark, it’s very dramatic and it pretty much facilitates as a mission statement that this is going to be a more dramatic arc in terms of scale compared to last season. Even more tragically, Meg was on the bus, and it looks as if Veronica and her former friend will never get a chance to make up.
To top it all off, we get the first appearances on the show of Krysten Ritter and Charisma Carpenter. There’s a lovely irony in seeing both these actresses on the series; Ritter herself will take on the reins of another iconic female detective in a series that will play out as an R-rated equivalent to this one, while in her portrayal of Kendal Casablancas, just imagine if Cordelia Chase never left Sunnydale due to her parents’ losing their fortune and you’ve got a sense of the level of bitchiness that Carpenter can bring to a role like Kendall.
It’s the icing on the cake for a wonderful season premiere that is blissfully confident and knows what it wants to do, setting up the season wonderfully.