Veronica Mars Season 1: Greatest Pilot Ever, Great Serial Mystery

For this post, I wanted to try something new for the site: Discussing some TV. I know our tagline is (edit: was) movies and music, but TV is really an offshoot of film, and, in many ways, I think the serialized, episodic medium begets more interesting discussion.

Here, I discuss the first season of Veronica Mars, which I just recently finished viewing on DVD. The first half of this post is spoiler-free. In the second half, I openly evaluate details of the conclusion of the season with spoilers. Since this is a mystery show, I suggest you avoid the second half if you’re considering ever watching this show.

Pilot rating: 4 stars (out of four)

Season rating: 3.5 stars (out of four)

What makes a pilot episode of a TV series a good one?

To me, there’s just one obvious criterion: It has to make me want to keep watching the show. In that regards, Veronica Mars is easily the best pilot I’ve ever seen. It’s so full of intrigue, sparkles with such wit, and sets up such dramatic plot arcs that I didn’t hesitate for a second to press play on episode two.

What’s impressive about the pilot is that it piles on one layer of dread after another, and yet is ultimately memorable for the dignity it gives its characters. Even as the flashbacks about breakup, abandonment, rape, and murder pile on, the show refocuses on the powerful bond between Veronica and her father. The gripping final narration of the pilot puts emphasis on the characters not just as plot devices but as compelling people.

The pilot displays, in full force, the strengths of the show: great acting, a diverse cast, techno-noir visuals, Bogart-meets-Buffy heroine, and a razor-sharp wit. Even amidst the darkness of the plot, the pilot radiates with energy and polish. To see ideas so fully formed in the opening episode of a complex TV show is surely a mark that the series is headed in a good direction.

But therein lies the problem — also, the fun — of mystery stories: Almost always, the intrigue and the set-up is more interesting than the actual solution. And it’s true in the first season of Veronica Mars. There really was no way the show could match the fever pitch of intrigue in the pilot for an entire 22-episode season.

Miraculously, there are no bad episodes in the entire season, though some are admittedly better than others. The show’s decision to split each episode about 75%-25% between the mystery of the week and the serial mystery pays off well. We get a constant progression in the recurring plots that drew us to the show, but it’s not played out to a level that gets tiring.

The solutions of the big mysteries set up in the pilot generally do not disappoint, either. You can rest assured that there is a satisfying — though not perception-shattering — conclusion on its way.

It’s hard to go into too much description of plots or characters without giving any spoilers, but I will say that Logan develops from pretty generic into one of the most complicated characters on the show. His development is impressive, but he’s not the best character on the show.

Excepting the Kristen Bell-portrayed title character, the award for best character and acting goes to Keith Mars, Veronica’s dad, played by Enrico Colantoni, who steals every scene he’s in with a believable balance of protective father and detached professionalism. Also, virtually every scene with Francis Capra’s Weevil is a great one. Though IMDB says he’s seen in every episode (I can’t remember him in a few), I think he’s underutilized.

Duncan Kane, played by Teddy Dunn, is inconsistent and imperceptible, but I think that’s part of the point of the character. Still, I found it difficult to really empathize and connect with him except for in a few scenes and episodes.

Really, though, the show belongs Ms. Bell and her heroine. The mysteries that Veronica solves are, for the most part, interesting not only because they’re well-constructed whodunits but because they’re as much about Veronica figuring herself out than they are figuring the culprit out.

We’re shown from the start that she’s a hard-nosed snark with a very quick tongue, but the character wouldn’t work if we didn’t see the undercurrent of a normal teenage girl in her. She flirts and wants to be adored. She takes on bigger problems than she can handle. She trusts her gut when she shouldn’t and needs others to bail her out. She’s manipulative and vengeful and overly dramatic — but sympathetic. Veronica Mars is an adolescent even if her problems are a bit bigger than a normal teen’s.

Bell captures all of this effortlessly. She’s cheerleader-beautiful, but plays Veronica as bitter and strange enough that you can see why she’d be an outcast. When the moments call for it, she can drop her cold exterior and demonstrate her inner marshmallow quite convincingly.

Yet, the character can be a bit much. I really think she’s a bit too manipulative. She could’ve been ruthless and tortured, but less over-the-edge flawed. The amount of ‘favors’ she extracts from friends and lies she tells her dad made it hard for me to always root for her.

Also, I know she’s a sleuth prodigy and all, but sometimes she pieces together and pulls off just a bit too much. If we could see her occasionally fail to figure it all out, it would pay great dividends on making her believable and pitiable, I think.

The show’s flaws fall outside of the Veronica character, as well. As much as I love the writing and the plots, sometimes I feel like they’re just a bit too twisty and and edgy for their own good. Sometimes, more than shock me, the big revelation just induced eye-rolls. Student-teacher affair? Scientology-like cult? Some of it feels a bit tired and too ripped-from-the-headlines.

Something that might date the series a little bit and turn off old-fashioned mystery fans is the show’s heavy use of technology: texting, cell phones, the Internet, online databases, webcams, and more are all staples as clues. While this personally didn’t bother me, the portrayal of technology is distractingly inaccurate at times.

But, these flaws are absolutely overpowered by such a vibrant cast and plot and writing that I have to whole-heartedly endorse the first season of Veronica Mars. It brilliantly weaves plots together and manages to pull out surprising conclusions nearly every time, all the while sparkling with wit and energy. Give the incredible pilot a go and you won’t look back.

From here on out, I discuss the first season of Veronica Mars with full spoilers for everything that happens in the first season’s episodes, up to and including the end of the season. Remember that this is a mystery show, so I suggest not continuing unless you’ve seen the first season.

**SPOILERS: VERONICA MARS SEASON 1**

Why did Duncan break up with Veronica? Who killed Lilly Kane? What was Lilly’s big secret? Why was someone else arrested for the crime? Why did Veronica’s mother abandon the family? Was Veronica raped, and, if so, who did it? What is the connection between the Mars and the Kane families?

All of these questions are answered by the closing minutes of “Leave it to Beaver,” the final episode of this season. Most compellingingly, the solutions to these mysteries interlink with one another. The big disappointment for me is that the identity of the killer and the truth of Lilly’s secret, the two biggest mysteries, aren’t linked to the rest of the running mysteries.

It’s obvious that the makers of the show didn’t know who the killer was going to be at the outset of the series, because there are a few holes in the pilot. First, Keith Mars’s dogged pursuit of Jake Kane — and no one else — as the murderer doesn’t really make sense knowing that his evidence is Duncan Kane’s blood-soaked soccer uniform found in the drier. That would imply Duncan, not Jake. Why did Keith go after Jake?

Next, Aaron Echolls isn’t shown in the pilot, nor is his name mentioned. He’s not shown until the sixth episode, Return of the Kane, and his significance in any large plot is nonexistent until the tenth episode, An Echolls Family Christmas. I do like him as a culprit because he provides a good “aHA!” as a character you wouldn’t think to suspect, and whose violence and infidelity fit the bill nicely.

One thing I don’t like, though, is that it seemed he was really heading in a positive direction before the finale. Then he becomes the big villain again. He was starting to grow on me as a complex, interesting character before being dismissed again as the villain. It also bugs me how the murder culprit was less involved in a grand conspiracy than is suggested throughout the rest of the season: he was simply a lover of Lilly’s.

Speaking of Lilly, I don’t understand why we’re supposed to connect to her, and why her friends unquestionably adore her. Almost everything shown of her makes her seem like an unfaithful, scornful bitch. For someone who seems to command so much sentimentality and loyalty, the flashbacks of her don’t make her seem likeable. She was cheating on her boyfriend with his dad, after all.

One part of Lilly’s personality that was opened but never meaningfully solved — perhaps it will be addressed in later seasons — is what exactly her relationship to Weevil was. Was there a mystery note in the pen found in Lilly’s room? What did it say? Was Lilly truly in love with Logan or Weevil or both?

Speaking of unanswered questions, there was something raised in the pilot that was never addressed later. The leaked video of Lilly’s murder scene that made Kane Software millions of dollars seemed to be an important piece of the puzzle, but it was never addressed. My guess is that the show was going to investigate it in the later part of the first season, but once the makers decided who the killer would be, they decided to not dig any deeper into that since it wouldn’t relate to the ultimate solution.

Another objection I had was how the investigation of Veronica’s alleged rape played out. After the pilot, it was almost entirely forgotten until the second-last episode of the season, A Trip to the Dentist, when the entire mystery was unraveled at once. Perhaps the final result would have been more vindicative and moving if it had unfolded gradually over the season, or at least been discussed more often.

Those complaints of the big mysteries aside, the season had ups and downs, episode-by-episode. The peak episode for me was You Think You Know Someone, the fifth episode. It was hilarious and had the knockout ending of seeing that Chad was playing Veronica all along, but Veronica got him anyways.

In general, the first half of the season was a bit lighter and more clever. “Drinking The Kool-Aid,” the ninth episode, was another favorite of mine. For once, it didn’t have a bad guy; it’s as if Veronica herself had fallen under the assumption, as I had, that there was a dark secret looming. It was refreshing when the secret was that there was no dark secret for the cult Veronica’s friend was joining. They were simply good-natured hippies.

From “An Echolls Family Christmas” on, the season takes a darker tone. That episode itself is decent, as it avoided the common TV practice of making Christmas episodes forgettable one-offs, although the twist of the episode was highly predictable. It holds a special place in the VM oeuvre as it brings Aaron Echolls forward as a more primary character.

The darkest and tensest moment of the season, the finale excepted, is certainly the seventeenth episode, “Kanes and Abels,” which ditches most of the kitsch and playfulness for suspense as Veronica deceives Abel Koontz’ daughter. I wasn’t a fan of this different tone. It lost a lot of the balance of fun characters in dark situations by drifting too far into the darkness.

No recap of the season would be complete without discussion of the finale, “Leave it to Beaver,” of course. It’s certainly satisfying to have the mysteries solved and the timeline of the murder and its cover-up fully understood. As an exciting event, it’s very well-done. It paces its revelations at a breakneck pace.

However, as a regular Veronica Mars episode, it felt a bit lacking. It ditched the wit and brains of the series in favor of action scenes, something usually avoided in the show. Even with the episode’s strengths — that spine-rattling shot of Aaron Echolls’ eyes in the rearview mirror, the harrowing performance of Kristen Bell as she was almost burned alive — it felt a bit out of place and uncharacteristic for the season.

In all, Season 1 presented a great set of long-term and short-term mysteries that were paced reasonably well and provided satisfying conclusions. Even if episodes two through twenty two didn’t quite live up to the masterpiece pilot, how could they have? The solution is never as fun as the mystery itself. Veronica Mars is about as good and enjoyable a mystery show as you’ll find.

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

2 thoughts on “Veronica Mars Season 1: Greatest Pilot Ever, Great Serial Mystery

  1. Pingback: Veronica Mars is smarter than me. « charmedlass: trifling thoughts under the radar

  2. Pingback: Veronica Mars: A New Viewers’ Thoughts | Take Two

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