"Pilot" (Episode 1, Season 1; originally aired 9/22/2004)
It's only slightly hyperbolic to say that I'm writing for The A.V. Club because of Veronica Mars. It was my initial pitch, over a year ago: “Hey, we should do Veronica Mars for TV Club Classic! I can do it if you want.” Having interned before, I had my foot in the door, but that and a good idea? Not quite enough to write for The A.V. Club. And so, after putting together a portfolio and a year of training on creampuffs like No Ordinary Family and The Cleveland Show, I'm finally getting my chance to watch and write on Veronica Mars. Living the dream, as it were.
The thing is, as I came ever-closer to getting the chance to watch Veronica Mars, I wasn't sure I'd actually end up liking it. I wanted to watch it because the premise, a high school noir, sounded good. It worked well for Brick. I'd heard it was roughly comparable to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only using mystery as the genre lens instead of horror. And, of course, smart people with similar tastes to mine love it, though that can happen all the time, and I still don't get it. (Robert Altman and Dirty Projectors? I'm looking at you.) Still, since I was not only excited to watch Veronica Mars but had made it an important part of my writing career, there was always that nagging feeling that cosmic irony would inevitably lead to me disliking the show. Happily, one episode in, while I may grant that the pilot has its problems, my fear of intense dislike for Veronica Mars has abated significantly.
Most of that positive feeling comes from Kristen Bell's performance as the title character. There were other interesting aspects of the pilot and other interesting characters (particularly her father). But it's clearly Bell's show. The pilot exists to let us know what the central mystery of Veronica Mars will be, which leads to an abundance of narrated exposition but also to the introduction of her character, who is immediately appealing. She's smart, funny, and effective at getting her way. She's got a chip on her shoulder, thanks to the way her family and friends have been treated and others have treated her. It's understandable, funny, and properly grating. But it's not enough—two-thirds of the way through the episode, she doubles down, with a single, perfectly-timed line: “Wanna know how I lost my virginity? So do I.”
Rape is often difficult in storytelling. One of the reasons is because it can be used too easily to create a simple emotional response, and that's partially the case here. It certainly gives Veronica our sympathy. But there's more going on, keeping it interesting. Its relationship to the overall plot ties in with the class and gender issues that the show raises. Veronica Mars seems like it's about power dynamics, and the Mars family is upsetting those, and they are, apparently, punished. Veronica's dad loses his job, and Veronica herself loses her physical virginity, innocence, and social life. That may or may not be what happened at the party in a literal sense—I guess we'll find out—but it's how Veronica seems to see it, and she's our lens. It's a tricky subject but one that is showing signs of being handled well. And Bell uses it to make Veronica seem more emotionally resonant without also indicating that she's broken from the trauma. She is still a character with agency.
It also helps separate her from that other chirpy blonde heroine made famous on the WB/UPN netlets. I've seen several comparisons between Veronica and Buffy in the past couple of years, and I can only imagine that they were impossible to avoid in 2004, so I may as well try and get my initial thoughts out of the way early. Yes, Bell's Veronica Mars is superficially similar to Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy Summers— clever but not preppy, strong but not masculine, hiding pain behind quips. Even still, I found more to identify with in Veronica Mars early on. Buffy was always a character that I admired, but I rarely related to myself. Buffy was never passive (until much later in the show's run). She saw a problem, and she fought it. And won. Veronica Mars has been passive and underprivileged, and she has been hurt and seen her family torn apart, and she knows that she can't always win. Buffy quips because she doesn't believe what's happening to her. Veronica quips because she does believe it.
Apart from Veronica, the show's characters aren't terribly well-fleshed out yet. Her father gets the most screen-time, with his intentionally awkward catch-phrase “Who's your daddy?” He does have perhaps the funniest line of the episode: “Tonight, we eat like the lower-middle-class we aspire to be!” Perhaps most interesting in terms of character, the implied villain of the piece, the Kane family patriarch, doesn't have a single line.
As strong as the pilot is at establishing the main character of the series, it still suffers from pilotitis to some degree. Okay, it's a large degree, but fortunately for Veronica Mars, the biggest issues—information dumps and voiceover narration—are inherent to the form of the noir. I can't say I'm a big fan of the those tropes, so I chafed a little, but I do grant that it's expected.
The directing and editing in the episode help to make the flashbacks and narration more palatable. The flashbacks are filmed in an odd, washed-out fashion that make them seem almost dream-like, and Veronica's narration complements the visuals. The clothing and wigs attached to Bell for the flashbacks are so artificial that, intentionally or not, they add to the surreality of the scenes. In the present-day scenes, the color scheme is attractive and bright, while the camera angles are fascinatingly just-slightly-off. The minor distortion almost announces, “Yes, this is TV series, but it's not quite a normal TV series.” I'll be interested to see if this visual direction maintains over the course of the season, or disappears after the pilot. That happens a bit too often for my tastes—for example, I loved the Firefly pilot “Serenity” for that visual creativity, but the series itself was more conventional. It's not a supremely important component of a show (sometimes I think I'm the only one who cares about such things), but I like seeing directorial creativity nonetheless.
One of the advantages of coming to television after-the-fact is the knowledge that things can and should get better. As pilots go, the first episode of Veronica Mars is better than serviceable—it introduces characters and storyline. It's not a great episode of television on its own, but it sets the table for those to come later. I'm excited about what will come next.
- If this first episode is any indication, there's more than enough depth in the average episode of Veronica Mars to get a review without resorting to overly simplistic measurements of quality. So I'm not planning on giving grades.
- The planned schedule is for a single episode review now and at the end of the season, with a regular schedule of two per week during the season.
- You can follow along at Netflix Instant, if you're so inclined.
- Finally, as should be obvious from the review, I am watching for the first time. So I, and anyone else watching for the first time, would very much appreciate clear labeling of any spoilers going forward. It's reasonably effective in the Buffy boards to put SPOILERS in all caps at the start of any any message with spoilers. Thanks!