Monday, January 23, 2006

Veronica Mars

Over the past few weeks I watched the first season of Veronica Mars. This is a show that's gotten a lot of acclaim, as well as a lot of comparisons to Buffy, even from Joss Whedon himself. In terms of the basic premise it's certainly got a lot of similarities, but going through the season, it became apparent why Buffy is a truly great series, while Veronica is only a good one.

If Buffy is taking typical high school angst and putting it through the lens of a horror film, Veronica does the same but uses the crime fiction genre instead of horror. Both shows feature a blond, perky yet cynical heroine, who used to be in the popular crowd, but was pushed away by her commitment to fighting evil, yet remains conflicted about her decision to exile herself from the easy, happy life of the typical popular high schooler. And ultimately both shows are about showing an empowered girl proving that she can be more than just a pretty face.

Both shows also started out with a case of the week format, where some new problem arises, usually from a person at the school, and then is resolved by the time the hour ends. The thing is, Buffy quickly abandoned this format, recognizing its limitations and by the second season, became a serial. Veronica has some serial elements, but remains fairly strictly tied to its case of the week format, the case is always resolved within the hour and though there are some characters who return and build, the majority of them don't factor in later.

This limits the show because it means that Veronica will always succeed. She always ends up solving the case, and her father is there to stop her from getting in any real danger. Giles filled that role to some extent in Buffy, but he wasn't as strong a fighter as her, so things ultimately fell to her, whereas Veronica has a safety net. When Chris Claremont took over X-Men, he depowered Professor X, because in the original series, any really dire problem could always be solved by Xavier coming in and using his mental powers to save the day. It's not quite the same with Keith Mars, but one of the problems with the series is you never get the sense that Veronica is in any real danger. One of the reasons the season finale was so effective was because both Veronica and Keith were no longer above everyone else, they were actually in danger.

Now, having Veronica in mortal danger from every case obviously wouldn't work, but I'd like to see some more negative consequences for Veronica herself. One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Veronica semes to leave many lives destroyed in her wake, but she'll still never compormise her morality. It's a very strict moral line, most evident in the episode with the popsicle video. She feels like taking revenge on this guy is something that has to be done, she can't consider that maybe ruining this guy's life won't actually help Sabrina, it will only lead to a cycle of escalating traumas for all involved.

So, even as I admire the show for making the protagonist make the tough decision, I wonder how they feel about what she's doing. At times, Veronica seemed almost like a mary sue in the way that the creators make him this super-detective, who can simultaneously work as a near full time detective and still be one of the top five students at her school. Obviously, being a detective show, part of the fun is seeing her solve the crime and take down the criminal, but here she was so good, so far ahead of the criminals, that it seemed a bit beyond belief. I would have liked to see an episode end without her solving the case.

I feel like the show is building up to a moment where Veronica breaks down and really questions whether or not it's worth it to be so cold and calculating in her relations with people. While she does let some people in, other than a select few, she seems to view everyone else as a pawn for her to maniuplate. Eventually, she'll use someone in the wrong way, and not be able to keep her cynical cool about everything, and it'll all come crashing down.

Now, it's sort of difficult to assess the show in comparison to something like Buffy, because if you were to take the first twenty-two episodes of Buffy, it'd be a good show, but not great. It wasn't until Surprise/Innocence that Buffy really took off, and Veronica may make a similar jump in its next season, and fix some of the problems that I mention.

However, I think the show is trying to do something different than most of the shows I really like. Buffy or Six Feet Under are shows that become almost exclusively about character, the plots exist to move the characters into different situations that will expose new parts of their psyche. Veronica is a much more plot driven show, there's some character development, but it's primarily about the progression of each episode's narrative, as well as the overall mystery arc.

The overall mystery arc was entertaining, but in some respects, the show has the same problem as Lost, in that so much of the show is about revealing what happened in the past, that things don't particularly move forward in the present. This is more noticable on Lost, where the flashbacks feel completely disconnected from the main narrative progress, on Veronica it's done better, but I can't help but wonder what the show would have been like if it started with Veronica's life in the popular crew, and then proceeded to show all the stuff that happened in flashback as the first season of the show.

The problem with that would be the show wouldn't really have a status quo. People who tuned in to watch a show about a bunch of wealthy popular kids probably wouldn't be as interested in a show about a girl who investigates murders, but that's one of the problems with episodic television. There's been more a move towards thinking of the entire series as one piece, rather than just a bunch of episodes, but there's still the need for some kind of status quo. So, even though watching everything from the flashbacks unfold over the course of a season would be riveting and surprising, it wouldn't provide viewers with any sort of stable order. Yet, watching it now, you get the sense that the really interesting stuff happened in the past, and though we see pieces of it, we don't have the sense of discovery that would have been possible.

Most of the episodes were really well done, and they came up with a nice variety of cases for her to cover. However, there weren't that many really standout episodes. However, by far the best two that they did were the last two. The episode in which she tries to piece together what happens the night that she was raped was really powerful, and in those flashbacks you saw Veronica's past like she did, wondering how she could behave like that. It works both as Veronica interrogating herself in terms of being drugged up, but also in terms of Veronica interrogating the old version of herself, the popular girl living a normal life. The alien behavior that she is unable to comprehend is a consequence of both.

At the end of that episode, I was like "damn" because they had revealed that Veronica was not only dating her brother, but in fact had had sex with him. Six Feet Under flirted with it, but never went there, but Veronica had done it and I was very impressed. It was a great twist and the scene where Duncan reveals what he had done was probably the best of the series.

So, I was a bit disappointed when we find out in the next episode that they aren't actually brother and sister. It feels like Jean's ressurection, you could say that the original power of the scene is intact, because they believe it at the time, but it's in fact very dulled. I can understand not wanting to go down the road, and I figured they wouldn't, but it was precisely that subversion of expectations that made it so powerful.

However, other than that, the end of the season was great. Aaron being the murderer was a great twist, and I really liked the way they revealed it. Throughout the whole season, he's been struggling to keep his family together, even as his actions sabotage this, and murdering Lily was the ultimate extension of this. He presumably justifies the murder to himself by saying that he had to do it or else his family would be ruined by the revelation he was sleeping with Lily, and this empowers him to do something criminal and vile. So, he brings about his own destruction, and having him be the murderer works better than having anyone else be it.

So, I think it's a successful series on the whole, with the potential to be great. I'll definitely be checking out season two down the line.

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