Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"It takes someone awfully small to break in through a doggie door.": Veronica Mars

(A note: Due to TiVo being a snivelling little jerk, I didn't get to see the first hour of the two hour finale. No matter, though, it was easy to catch up with the second hour.)

Until tonight's series finale aired, I wasn't really going to miss Veronica Mars. I still liked the show, and I still would have watched it in a fourth season, but I was, frankly, ready to have the Tuesday break (mostly just because I'm covering something on every night, people!). But the final episode of the season made me nostalgic for the show that was, the show that was gradually turned into something completely different (still compulsively watchable, but completely different) by network notes and frantic writerly tap-dancing to fill in holes and make characters invented for very specific purposes in a very specific mystery make sense. The first season wasn't as ambitious as the second season, but it was probably more perfect, conceived as a sassy little mystery that everyone in the cast had an emotional investment in.

So the show was fighting a losing battle from the first. The fans who loved it in its first season would excoriate anything that came after, and those who tried to discover it late were baffled by the show's continuity and weird, snarky tone (UPN and The CW often sold the show as a teen soap, which it assuredly was not). For a time in the second season, the show grew from week to week as more and more Lost fans gave it a shot and more and more Top Model fans stuck around to see what the fuss was about. But once the show started airing without the Top Model lead-in, it was dead. Really, its best shot at becoming something like a hit was probably in that moment, and bad scheduling ultimately killed it (though, really, the show should have been on The WB in the year 2000 -- that was the perfect network for it).

I'm not mad at The CW for canceling the show -- it certainly was given enough chances, and it certainly pulled in viewers on a few occasions, only to bleed those viewers in the weeks after. Creator Rob Thomas did everything he could to please the network and casual viewers, but, ultimately, his heart was always with the show's serialized aspects, and the final episode Tuesday night reminded us of that, as much of the plot and many of the characters referred to would have been unknown and inscrutable to a casual audience. The finale flashed back to the Lilly Kane murder (by having Veronica once again infiltrate Kane Manor), and it called back a host of incidents from season one in resetting Veronica back to who she was then -- a prickly, unconventional teen girl who solved mysteries.

I still remember the first time I saw Veronica Mars, working my way through a stack of DVDs in the late summer of 2004. I had already seen Lost and Desperate Housewives and House and many of the other pilots that would knock people's socks off that season. And, to be honest, I thought perhaps UPN's other drama pilot that year, Kevin Hill, would turn into the big hit. But Veronica grabbed me immediately. Some things about the pilot were a little clunky (the show had yet to figure out how to do the whiplash changes in tone that so marked its run), but the character was there, and the idea was there, and Kristen Bell was on from day one. I had been waiting for Rob Thomas to make something good since the days of Cupid (a show I dearly loved), and I was glad to have him back again.

As the show grew into a genuine critical darling and media buzz sensation as it wound its way toward the end of its first season, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement. Here, we all felt, was the logical heir to Buffy. But the show was probably never as mainstream in its appeal as Buffy, which, after all, was about a teen girl learning how to be a great leader of men. Veronica Mars was always about a teenage girl learning just how little the world wanted to do with her and biting back. The two shows had a high school milieu and a strong female protagonist in common, but not a whole lot else (though Joss Whedon did star in that second season Mars episode). And as the show entered its second season, creating a deeply tangled and complex mystery and then unraveling it rather coincidentally, it was easy to see people turning on it for not matching that first year.

Me, I actually liked the second season a little better. But that's no matter now. The show got its third and fourth and fifth chances this year and squandered them all. Perhaps it was just one of those shows the audience avoids, perhaps because it doesn't know what's good for it.

So what will you take from Veronica Mars, the series (or the series finale)? Me, I'm going to take the great work of Kristen Bell, Tina Majorino as the feisty sidekick and Rob Thomas' talent with cutting dialogue and red herring clues. And I prefer to think that that rainstorm Veronica walked off into at the end of the episode passed over quickly and left her with a very boring life filled with few mysteries and a nice life with Logan.

Or maybe the rain was better.


Carrie said...

I didn't expect to be so sad, but I am going to miss that Veronica Mars terribly. Sniff.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

They really brought it in the last two episodes (having now seen the preceding hour). Had they done this sort of continuity-happy stuff in season four, that's a show I would have been happy to watch.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

That thing I'm taking from it is that Amanda Seyfried is an amazing actress---I'll admit that part of my disappointment with Season Two (among many, many others) was my conviction that they'd lost the single best actor in the cast.

Then there was the Twelve Angry Men episode. Ouch.