Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Meet John Smith" (season 1, episode 3)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Veronica Mars - "Meet John Smith" (season 1, episode 3)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 12, 2004/written by Jed Seidel; directed by Harry Winer): As Weevil takes an episode off, and Wallace takes a distant backseat for the second time in a row, "Meet John Smith" focuses on five different storylines, sometimes overlapping but mostly distinct. On the investigative front, Veronica helps Justin Smith (Bobby Edner) find his missing father. Initially the whole conceit plays as the nerdy Justin's desperate attempt to spend time with a girl he has a crush on; the dad's name is, suspiciously, "John Smith," and as we quickly discover he died when Justin when seven. Then, in an unexpected twist, Veronica's scholarship scam scheme (letters sent to various John Smiths in the area) pays off when one person writes back. It turns out Justin's other parent is still alive, and eventually the hunt leads Justin and Veronica to a parole officer...and then to his wife. Realizing that Julia (Melissa Leo), a frequent, friendly customer at his video store, is in fact his post-transition parent, Justin is heartbroken and lashes out cruelly, rejecting her overtures. Later, however, he reconsiders, calling Julia to let her know a DVD has come into the store and tacitly letting her back in to his life

In the Kane melodrama, Duncan goes off his meds, becoming more euphoric, outgoing, and hallucinatory: injuring his head in a spill, drawing closer to Veronica, and then returning to the antidepressents after a vivid dream in which Lilly, bleeding profusely from the head, cuddles up to him on the couch and says the story surrounding her murder was bullshit and he knows it. Still drawn to Duncan, Veronica nonetheless chooses Troy, first for a date that goes well before ending in an aborted kiss and finally for an embrace at episode's end, signifying - it seems - a more ongoing relationship. Her father initiates a romance of his own, with Veronica's concerned guidance counselor Rebecca James (Paula Marshall), and Veronica gets close to finding her mom, only to discover she's skipped town.

My Response:
Yesterday, I noted how very 2004 the show can seem at times (if you think not much has changed in the past thirteen years, check out the flip phones for starters). Hell, this episode even prominently features a video rental store. As recent reminders of Jon Stewart's and Joy Ann Reid's early prejudices have reminded us, social attitudes as well as technology tended to be less advanced, and so I cringed a bit when I realized where "Meet John Smith" was going. Would the transgender twist be played as a smirking gag, a "made you look" Crying Game-type reversal (and despite some clever set-up, the coincidences do seem a bit forced: did Justine really end up marrying up someone with the exact name she used to have, who looks enough like her to cause mistaken identity)?

However, the episode seems to handle this conceit well, at least once it moves past the "gotcha" moment and dwells on the emotional fallout. Justin's insults are treated as a confused teen's lashing out, with no actual moral weight, and Justine receives sympathy both from the filmmakers and the other characters. She is not played by a transgender actress, but the casting of a cisgender female rather than a male-in-drag performer comes across as at least slightly more respectful towards the trans community, or at least intended as such (I'm not sure how it was received). It's also notable that, after two very class-conscious episodes, an episode largely devoid of that emphasis (despite sharply contrasting dinner scenes with the Kanes and Mars) still grapples with social issues. I will be interested to see if Justine returns for more episodes; Leo is certainly a major actress, and it looks like the character's son is being set up as a recurring cast member.

Among the rest of the ensemble, I found Troy to be a mostly tiresome, too-jocular presence last episode but as he attempts to navigate Veronica's complicated feelings, he comes down to earth a bit. Meanwhile, Duncan's glum presence is much enlivened by his roller-coaster ride in "Meet John Smith," and it's always a pleasure to see Seyfriend again. Lilly haunts her family not only through the lingering trauma of her death but the missing force of her personality (mom, dad, and brother all come off as sticks in the mud by contrast). Overall, I remain intrigued by the series' format, each episode a self-contained mystery with set-up, twist, and conclusion before the credits roll, while also advancing several larger arcs that can sustain an entire season (or longer). It's the perfect combination of the episodic and the serialized, with a good bit of steady worldbuilding to boot.

"Meet John Smith" seems in many ways like a lighter episode than the previous two, yet ultimately it packs as much or more of a poignant punch with all the family drama, as Duncan struggles to regulate his emotional well-being and Justin reunites with his long-lost parent, while Veronica's slips through her fingers.

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