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"A long time ago, we used to be friends. . ."

Veronica Mars

The opening theme to Veronica Mars, UPN’s new teengirl ‘tec show, is both radio contemporary and thematically right: Dandy Warhols’ “We Use to Be Friends,” a track which suits a character who’s currently on the outs with her former friends. (Certainly more appropriate than C.S.I.: New York‘s evocation of a “teenage wasteland.”) It’s arguably the most effective use of a modern pop song this season: as tidy a sonic opener as Phantom Planet’s “California” is to The O.C.
The O.C. comparison is especially relevant since both it and Mars are set in moneyed West Coast burgs. With the latter, it’s Neptune, California, where townees and officials remain diligently obeisant to the wealthy Kane family, whose patriarch made millions during the software boom. Title figure Veronica (Kristen Bell) was once best friend of Kane daughter Lilly (What? Not Betty?) – and best girl to Kane son Duncan (Teddy Dunn) – until the former got murdered and Veronica’s sheriff dad (Enrico Colantoni, marginally more interesting than he was on Just Shoot Me) started relentlessly pursuing Daddy Kane as prime suspect. As a result of this quixotic pursuit, Sheriff Mars got canned and Veronica bounced from the In Crowd. It’s in this status as Outsider (and, yes, the first ep manages to squeeze in an S.E. Hinton joke) that we first meet our heroine.
Navigating between her high school’s two most visible cliques, the young-&-privileged 09-ers and a lumpen prole biker gang called the PCH Bike Club, Veronica divides her time between helping out fellow students like new kid Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), who incurs the wrath of the bike club when he inadvertently gets two members busted for shoplifting, or Weevil (Francis Capra), the Leader of the Pack who’s unjustly accused of credit card theft – and helping her dad as a private investigator. The former city sheriff now runs Keith Mars Investigation and relies on his daughter to do some of the grunt work, something that you’d think would put his p.i. license at risk, though both the town’s public defender and its scumbag present sheriff (Michael Muhney) don’t make much of a deal about it. Kind of like all those public officials in Sunnydale who never publicly acknowledged either the presence of a Hellmouth or a slayer in their midst. You can get away with a lot when you’re a perky teenaged girl.
Always hovering in the background, of course, is the murder of Veronica’s friend, a back story that gets crawlingly revealed even as it informs most of the characters’ behaviors. Though a disgruntled former employee of Jake Kane was ultimately tagged as the killer, Something Doesn’t Add Up. Look to see more clues on this case sparingly parceled out as the season progresses. . .
UPN, in its drive to air a new teen show that’ll pull in viewers, is clearly hoping Veronica will fill the considerable hole left by a departing Buffy Summers, but I’m not sure it helps the net to push the comparison over much. Sure, both shows are centered around spunky blond heroines (true to the hard-boiled detective tradition, Veronica Mars is narrated by its protagonist), but the stakes on each show are quite a bit different. Where the Buffster spent her nights averting Apocalypse and stunt fighting a variety of Long-Legged Beasties, Veronica’s cases are more mundane: bullying, shoplifting and a stolen credit card. It’s all believably teenaged, but part of the genius of Buffy lay in the way that show found convincing teen angst in unbelievable storylines.
Bell, in her roles as problem solver (her solutions are more strategic than the action-oriented Buffy) and narrator, makes an appealing series center: wary about high school hierarchy yet also aware of her own desires to once more fit in its upper echelons; pretty fair with a world-weary pop-centric quip (though none too nerdy about it); capable of venturing into the city’s seedier neighborhoods at night with her trusty dog Back-Up by her side. She alternates between lovingly tolerating her too-old-to-be-cool father and wondering just what it is that’s got him so focused on Jake Kane’s guilt. The rest of the cast, on the basis of two episodes, fall into fairly predictable roles: geek friend, dangerous-but-good-hearted punk, rich kid jock. Somewhere in the midst of all this is Sydney Tamiia Poitier, no longer flirting with Jason Ritter on Joan of Arcadia, now working as faculty sponsor for the high school paper. And elsewhere on the sidelines is Veronica’s briefly-seen-in-flashback mother, who ditched the family when things got tough. Mére Mars has an undefined connection to Big Boss Kane, but so far all we’ve gotten are hints & allegations.
So will Veronica Mars be the middlin’ UPN’s new big teen franchise? I’m skeptical, but perhaps that’s because I was hoping that this show would show more p.i. action – and less high school hi-jinx. I’ll be following the show a little longer (at least ’til 24 returns to Fox) so Veronica and the gang’ll still have time to wow this totally-outta-the-demographic viewer. But time’s a flyin’, girl, so you’d better get to it. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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