Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Veronica Mars - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)


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 September 22, 2004/written by Rob Thomas; directed by Mark Piznarski - extended version): In a highly eventful premiere, many of the most significant events have already happened to and around Veronica (Kristen Bell). Veronica Mars sets the stage by establishing the title character's identity at its present stage: she is an outsider with experience as an insider - or at least a fellow traveler of insiders. Even a year earlier, when her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) was still the sheriff of Neptune, California, Veronica was afforded dual status. She dated Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), the son of enormously wealthy tech innovator Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), and ran with the "09er" crowd who live in the area's most fashionable zip code. As protector and popular elected official of the local elite, Keith Mars and his daughter held a privileged place within this community. This position, however, was tenuous and reliant upon the goodwill of those with actual power as demonstrated by a town tragedy (which we witness via flashback).

Several months before the pilot's opening scene, Veronica's best friend, her boyfriend's sister Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), was found murdered by the swimming pool in her family's luxurious home. Veronica's dad made the mistake of taking his job too seriously, following the evidence to investigate Lilly's own father for her murder. A confession from one of Jake's employees, Abel Koontz (Christian Clemenson), promptly ends Sheriff Mars' case, his political career, and his marriage to the alcoholic Lianne (Corinne Bohrer). Veronica suffers worst of all. In addition to experiencing public humiliation, social isolation (including the end of her relationship), and her mother's abandonment of the family, Veronica is raped at a party. Having been drugged, she doesn't know who raped her, and when she tries to report the crime to her father's replacement, Sheriff Don Lamb (Michael Muhney), he mocks her and refuses to investigate any further.

The old Veronica has essentially been broken, generally by an entire community, and specifically by a few unknown individuals: the murderer of her friend (assuming, as Keith does, that Abel is a patsy) and her own rapist. But a new Veronica emerges, determined to carve her own space within Neptune, conducting much of her father's new work as a private detective, befriending fellow outcast Wallace Fennett (Percy Daggs III), and even forming a tenuous alliance with Wallace's tormentor, bike gang leader Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra) against both Lamb's corrupt department (the revelation of a deputy's sex scandal, spurred by Veronica, derails the bikers' trial for theft) and the spoiled, sarcastic, vaguely sinister Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), whom Veronica framed with a bong in his locker, for both personal vengeance and to set up a larger purpose: swapping videotapes so that the scandal video would be the one shown in court.

This whole operation demonstrates that Veronica is willing to subvert the legal establishment for a just cause and exploit high-up connections for the benefit of the downtrodden (the fire chief swaps out the evidence for her). In other words, she's a consummate pragmatist dispensing with propriety to do the right thing. These skills are put to their greatest test by the end of the episode, when she discovers that her mother is back in town, having an affair with Jake Kane, and that her father has re-opened the Lilly Kane case. Veronica follows suit, quietly and independently: she will work toward the same goal as her father, but on her own path, because even he can't be trusted to tell her everything. The course of this first season has been set.

My Response:
Veronica Mars is already a deeply compelling heroine, neither sanctimonious nor dishonorable. She has values rather than principles, and her concern is with people instead of abstractions. I like her, and I like the world she inhabits - which took up much more of my opening description than I expected. I'm not sure I expected Veronica Mars to have such a keen eye for social structures in its breezy pop fashion. Sketching a simplified but resonant portrait of the dynamic between powerful and powerless in Neptune, the show takes the classic route of positioning its protagonist with a foot in both worlds. In many ways, the narrative dynamic reminds me of superhero stories balancing an everyday alter ego with a more powerful, rules-bending (but for a good cause) "true identity."

Even the time breakdown supports this reading: by day, Veronica is a downtrodden high school student, by night, a sneaky sleuth maneuvering through Neptune's high and low cultures with ease. As is often the case when I begin a new series, I had to acclimate to the show's style. This was a network property, airing on UPN in 2004 (although episode writer/series creator Thomas originally hoped to shop it around HBO and edgier cable venues), and it does feature some of that streamlined slickness one might associate with a teen show of the era. I wasn't sure about the soundtrack at first, bombarding us with propulsive tune after tune, but I warmed up to it; by the time the needle-drop hit The Streets' "Blinded by the Lights", they hooked me.

All in all, I really enjoyed the pilot and look forward to future episodes. Neptune is a world with tremendous potential for story material, and Veronica is the perfect figure to explore it. I'll avoid speculating about the murder mystery - I've stumbled across a few quasi-spoilers and am inclined to believe I know the answer - but for the most part, I'll fly blind for the next three seasons and eventual feature film. One more side note: I've been meaning to catch up with the show for a while, but key encouragement was provided by the casting of Amanda Seyfried in Twin Peaks' third season (I wrote most of this review - but none of the later ones - back in 2016, before the new season aired). As a teenager, Seyfried played the murder victim in Veronica Mars, and exactly like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the creative team was so impressed with her presence they kept bringing her back for future episodes, following what was supposed to be a one-off appearance. I'm curious to see how Seyfried's work in Veronica Mars overlaps with her role in Twin Peaks.


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