“Credit Where Credit's Due” (Episode 2, Season 1; originally aired 9/28/2004)
Consciously or unconsciously, TV Club Classic is an attempt to create a canon of television shows. There's a reason we're doing Veronica Mars and not, say, Birds of Prey. Or Newsradio instead of Dharma & Greg. There is an assumption that these series are still worth talking about, as well as likely to garner traffic (i.e., popular), years after their release. This means that they are, in a sense, timeless. Even though we're no longer in the milieu in which these series were created, they're still meaningful pieces of culture, more than simply historical cultural artifacts. If you want to say that's a definition of art, I won't argue against it.
Yet, Paris Hilton.
On the other hand, “timeless” may be somewhat misleading. Everything represents the context in which it was created, even when that's not immediately apparent. Star Trek: The Next Generation is built around the ideals of classical liberalism, although it was at a time when those ideals were becoming frayed at the edges, leading to some of the best episodes. A little later this led to more cynical science fiction like The X-Files, Babylon 5, and Deep Space 9. Or, on a more superficial level, Seinfeld may still be funny, but it also represents the 1990s in hairstyles, clothing, cultural norms, and lack of widespread cell phone usage. At any rate, one could go so far as to say that if a series doesn't say anything about its context, its likelihood of being classic is essentially non-existent.
Again, Paris Hilton.
I'm not sure there's any better way for Veronica Mars to say that it's set in the early 2000s than to have Paris Hilton guest starring in a (mostly) unironic role. Stunt casting is a good, if cheap, way to drive viewers to a show, and for a second episode of a UPN show, it might even have been wise. I don't know if people ever really liked Hilton enough that this was worthwhile for Veronica Mars, but theoretically, it might have – but at what cost?
It doesn't seem to have damaged the show's reputation – when I see fans mention it, it's usually laughed off as an aberration – but it certainly did damage this episode. A mystery surrounds Weevil's grandmother, a maid at Logan's house, and a bunch of credit card fraud. Hilton plays Logan's girlfriend, who, along with Weevil's cousin (or brother?) Chardo, actually does the deed. For the episode to work, Hilton has be seen as beautiful enough to fall for, charismatic enough to convince Chardo that he should be an utter moron for her, and conniving enough to get away with cheating for so long. While first is debatable (and I personally am on the negative side of that), the rest are certainly not true, and Veronica Mars seems to know that, relegating Hilton's character Caitlin to silence most of the time when she's on-screen, while keeping her off-screen as much as possible. The case-of-the-week gets disrupted simply because her presence is so awkward.
Still, even without Hilton, this episode would be awkward. Some of it is intentional, as new characters are introduced and try to deal with Veronica Mars. Some of it is inevitable, as the second episode of a series typically has formal, re-introduction issues. And some of it just isn't done very well. Throwing Veronica and Duncan together thanks to a random newspaper assignment is about as contrived as television gets, though it does serve some dramatic purpose.
There's still a lot to like here, especially as the episode progresses and the characters fall into more comfortable beats. Veronica and her father especially have a nice chemistry. Some of the interesting directorial choices from the pilot remain, as a few Dutch angles are sprinkled throughout the episode (although the commercial breaks seem oddly placed). On the other hand, I'm still having trouble distinguishing between the various white boys in the series, and, although I like that Dandy Warhols song, the main credits left me cold. Still, it's early yet.
“Meet John Smith” (Episode 3, Season 1; originally aired 10/12/2004)
Perhaps the Veronica Mars writers realized they had a California White Boy Lookalike problem, because this episode effectively serves as a way to distinguish the three. Logan has the least to do, but he's been set up the best, playing the role of the clownish asshole. Troy, a friend of Veronica's ex Duncan has just moved into a town, and immediately finds himself attracted to Veronica. His flirtation tends to put him on the screen regularly, and if nothing else, I find myself able to discern Troy from the others because he has the roundest face.
This is a roundabout way of saying that “Meet John Smith” fulfills the important role of introducing Duncan Kane as a character instead of just simply a symbol of what Veronica lost after Lily Kane's murder. He's depressed, and trying to get off of anti-depressants pushed on him by his mother. His parents are also portrayed as horrible people, in the simplest of shorthand – they took away his dog for peeing in the wrong place. They talk about him as if he isn't there at the dinner table. It's no wonder that he launches himself off of the bleachers in an unplanned stunt. Yes, it's a bit over the top, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. And, given that he lost a sister less than a year before, it's probably not really over the top at all.
Duncan's introduction is only peripherally connected to the other main threads of the episode, although they all work together thematically in a meditation on children and parents. The case-of-the-week involves a fellow student of Veronica's who decides to hit on her by inventing a missing father case, when his father is actually dead. Except that Veronica actually succeeds at seeming to find a father via mail – and the kid, Justin, is only just now examining his memories of his father's “death” and his mother's stories.
It turns out the father got a sex change instead, which seems awfully contrived. It gives the chance for Melissa Leo to show some range as the male-to-female transsexual, which is always nice, but there's no discussion about how Justin managed to forget things like the fact that there wasn't a funeral, or that he somehow forgot that his parents were having likely massive fights. But this is fiction, and mysteries in particular rely on contrivance. I suspect that nagging voice in my head that complains about contrivance is going to have to be silenced as I move forward on Veronica Mars.
I do have to say that I admire the maturity with which the show handled the potentially hot-button issue of transgendered people and transphobia. Justin's initial reaction to his father's transition is to call her a “circus freak” and run away. Veronica doesn't handle this by hitting him head on with a massive lecture about how the transgendered are important and deserve rights, as a lesser show might. Instead, she gently tells Justin to take note of how far his father drove just to see him at his video store every so often. It's a nice touch, and it also encourages Veronica to go investigate her mother, only to discover a dead end. I guess that resolution will have to come later.
- Jake Kane has his first speaking lines in these two episodes, though he's still very much a cipher. The way fate conspires to put him in the same place as Veronica is clever. More interesting – Lily Kane's traffic tickets serve as a kind of ghost influencing events from beyond the grave, and give Veronica a break in the main case. However, the big reveal from the pilot – that her mother is back in town – isn't mentioned in the second episode, yet it's a crucial part of the third. The show uses an interesting distribution of information which I quite like.
- Weevil's a crucial character in both of the first two episodes – probably the most important non-Veronica character – but doesn't show up in the third. The distribution of characters is almost as interesting as that of the information, and probably just as wise.
- The class issues of Veronica Mars are immediately built up again when Weevil confronts Logan, who taunts him by saying that his grandma does a great job of cleaning house.
- “Man, you really hold a grudge.”
- “Should I follow you?”
- “That was beautiful, man.”
- I like to believe that, six years later, Veronica's still driving into San Diego to hang out with Hank and Britt in Ocean Beach.
- “Have you been playing nice with the other children?”
- “White male. Pint-sized. Desperate.”
- “Mark me down as skeptical.”
- The third episode had a running-commentary voiceover that I wasn't a huge fan of. Hope they tone that down (having seen the 4th episode now, they tone it down).