TV's Best of the Decade: No. 31 -- 'Veronica Mars'
Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell's teenage gumshoe series kicks off our Best of the Aughts list
I intentionally and calculatedly decided to start my countdown of the Top 31 TV Shows of the Aughts with an entry that shows the vagaries of preparing a list of this sort.
Had UPN cancelled "Veronica Mars" after its first season, as bloodless ratings-driven network logic would have deemed reasonable, Rob Thomas' teenage gumshoe drama would have had a far higher place in the decade's pantheon, certainly in the Top 20 and maybe in the Top 15. I would have lamented the show's all-too-swift passing, but I would have celebrated the one exquisitely crafted season that viewers were lucky enough to get.
But "Veronica Mars" wasn't cancelled after one season.
UPN (and then The CW) tried everything to thank the show's fans and to get the series a bigger audience, experimenting with different time slots and different programming strategies, attempting to finesse Thomas and company into different storytelling structures and themes.
Somehow, "Veronica Mars" survived for two additional seasons and, in the process of those additional 42 episodes, much of what was so great about the first season got lost and diluted, many of the characters viewers fell in love with were compromised or marginalized. And my enjoyment declined. And declined.
But it's a tribute to the greatness of "Veronica Mars" Season One that the show comes in at No. 31 on my Best of the Decade list.
[More after the break...]
The best thing about "Veronica Mars," in the early going, was how unlikely it all was. A perky female high school gumshoe? Sam Spade as a teenage girl? V.I. Warshawski with an over-protective father and a curfew? With "Nancy Drew" or "Harriet the Spy" as a template, there was every indication that "Veronica Mars" could be successful, but not that it could be good, that it could be smarter and funnier and spunkier than any female-driven drama the Big Four were programming at the time.
Most of the show's success can probably be credited to Thomas, who approached his distaff heroine with an amazing amount of respect and treated his core audience with even more. Perhaps because of Thomas' background in writing books for young adults, he didn't condescend to younger viewers, didn't given them a version of teen life told through the filter of what their parents would want them to see.
"Veronica Mars" was dark. "Veronica Mars" was pitch black. It dealt with murder and rape and drugs. It also dealt with the fickleness of teenage popularity, the general instability of having to be a kid one moment and a grownup the next and it featured one of the most believable father-daughter relationships ever depicted on the small or big screen.
Of course, nothing Thomas was doing would have worked if he hadn't landed the perfect leading lady in Kristen Bell, a pint-sized relative unknown capable of being brassy and hard-nosed one moment and vulnerable the next. No matter how totally "Veronica Mars" unravelled in the second and third seasons, the show never found Bell's limitations. Hollywood is currently in the process of attempting to turn Bell into a generic movie star, which is both a bad idea and an idea doomed to failure. Between her work on "Veronica Mars," her guest spot on "Party Down" and even in moments during her wretchedly written "Heroes" arc, it's been clear that Bell is a Grade A television star just waiting for her next script from a Thomas or an Amy Sherman-Palladino. Why feel the responsibility to waste Bell on romantic comedies with Josh Duhamel? Sigh.
Working with Bell made everybody around her better. She created chemistry with every member of the cast, pushing Enrico Colantoni to the best work of his career and creating a tiny, but devoted fanbase around Jason Dohring.
Over three seasons, other actors doing excellent recurring and guest work on "Veronica Mars" included Harry Hamlin, Kyle Secor, Ken Marino, Max Greenfield, Michael Muhney, Ryan Hansen, Kyle Gallner, Charisma Carpenter, Francis Capra, Tina Majorino and Amanda Seyfried. The show became a full universe.
There was a downside to Bell's centrality in that certain actors -- Percy Daggs III and Teddy Dunn, for example -- who worked well *with* Bell, just weren't able to sustain any scenes without her, causing problems in later seasons when the writers needed to introduce new characters and Duncan and Wallace became sadly superfluous.
But in that first season, again using his literary background as a foundation, Thomas unspooled a complicated and involving 22-episode mystery around Lilly Kane's murder, while also working in regular Encyclopedia Blonde-style weekly puzzles. The conclusion of the Lilly Kane arc may not have been flawless, but it was as good as it gets when it comes to that sort of thing.
Then, in the next season, Thomas decided (was told) to tone down the serialization, to make the series more accessible to new viewers. The dumbing down of the show did nothing to improve ratings and many things to mute what was so unique about the show. The mysteries became duller, the relationships became more strainer and forced. The second season had the genius of Steve Guttenberg, which salvaged it at least somewhat, but the third season had almost nothing to recommend it, unless you happened to be a big fan of Chris Lowell's Piz.
Perhaps Rob Thomas loved the show and its cast and its crew too much? Perhaps he was too willing to do anything at all to keep the gang together? Perhaps he was too grateful for the opportunities the network was giving him to pick fights?
With the show on the bubble, once again, Thomas wrote a somewhat bitter and nihilistic Season Three finale that resolved little and left our main character in as emotionally precarious a position as she'd ever faced. Because I'm not a big devotee of closure (more on that when we reach my ranking for "The Sopranos" later in the month), I loved the "Veronica Mars" finale, but I know I'm in the minority. I know I'm also in the minority in being somewhat relieved that The CW didn't bite on Thomas' "Veronica Mars, FBI" gambit, which would inevitably only have diluted the formula even more.
I only own one season of "Veronica Mars" on DVD. As you might guess, it's the first. Maybe whenever this list is finished, it would be a good time to go rewatch.
So that's No. 31 down. Only 30 more to go!
Up tomorrow? An '80s nerd becomes a heartthrob, mentoring a former alien and a former musketeer, among others. Seriously.