just knew evil wouldn’t stay dead. When Sunnydale, home and battleground of Buffy, imploded, it took the Hellmouth — and my favorite show — with it. But the town of Neptune has risen to take its place, and with it my new favorite girl with a mission: Veronica Mars (UPN, Tuesdays, 9 PM).
Veronica (Kristen Bell) has it all: hot local-dynasty boyfriend Duncan Kane, a powerful dad (the sheriff), a place in the popular crowd at Neptune (CA) High, in a town with two classes: the rich people and the help.
Oh, wait. That was before: before Veronica’s best friend — Duncan’s sister — was killed, before Sheriff Mars accused Duncan’s father, the town potentate, of the murder. The sheriff lost his job and Veronica her place with the populars; Mrs. Mars left.
And that’s all before the pilot. When we first meet Veronica and her dad (Enrico Colantoni), they’ve been shunned, enduring daily the sneers of cops and cliques alike. Dad’s been reduced to running a low-rent detective agency, trying to make sure they can "eat like the lower middle class to which we are aspiring." Veronica helps him after school. When she goes off alone to trail philandering husbands or hooker-friendly cops, she always — as her father lovingly reminds her to — "takes Backup." Backup is her dog. Love it.
But there are no cute jokes about juggling surveillance with algebra, no tidy anytown murder-at-the-bagel-shop mysteries of the week. High school angst? We’re not talking zits and prom. We’re talking cruelty, felonies, racism, rape. In short, Neptune makes Heathers look like Sweet Valley High. Dark, yes, sometimes shockingly so, but not unrelenting, bleak, or grim.
That, in large part, is because of the show’s humor — when the bikers confront the rich "’09ers" (it’s a zip-code thing) it knows an Outsiders quip is required — and because of Veronica’s character. She’s smart, shrewd, principled, funny, and tough, deflecting her enemies’ barrage of vile sexual come-ons as if she were wearing Wonder Woman bracelets. But she’s not a robo-heroine, some 2-D poster grrl for kiddie feminism. She, like Buffy, is not just an ass-kicker. She, like Buffy, is complicated. When the tempting, familiar aroma of popularity wafts by, Veronica must sternly remind herself that staying loyal to her dad was the right thing to do. She’s got bottled-up secret pain (see “rape,” above) that’s not about to get “worked out” with acts of revenge or a brave face. And every so often, her one friend, Wallace — a sweetly dweeby black guy who transcends TV’s occasional “Lookit, we made the black guy a dweeb!” Urkelage — glimpses a softer side. As he says, teasing, “Inside that angry young woman is a slightly less angry young woman who wants to bake me something.” I want her to be my bodyguard, but I also want to give her a hug.
So far in the season, we’ve learned that there is more to the Kane case than meets the eye. And Veronica — like Buffy — finds herself wishing she didn’t have to chase these demons, but knowing she must. If the show stays this strong, she’ll have plenty of backup. n°