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Fall '04: "Veronica Mars"... Trouble Is Her Business

It was a little before 8:00 when I turned on the television. I had a half-bottle of bourbon, a fresh tape in the VCR, and an hour of my life I didn’t mind losing. I was living dangerously. I was watching UPN.

UPN. Where the minimum requirement for viewers is a pulse, and even that’s negotiable. Sure, you could get a show on UPN, if you didn’t care too much about little things like acting, or writing, or dignity. As a network, it was a lot like a meat grinder: you could put in steak, or you could put in horseflesh, but it all came out hamburger in the end. The Summers girl and her friends, a few seasons back, had been proof enough of that.

As for me, I wasn’t watching for my health. I was watching for the girl.

The actress’s name was Kristen Bell, but to me, she was Veronica Mars. She was a tough little cookie, and I liked her for it. She had a face like an angel, a stare made of granite, and the sort of wit that burns holes through solid objects. Life apparently had a habit of kicking her and her loved ones in the teeth, but she didn’t complain. She kept her chin up and took her lumps. She had a lot of lumps to take.

Once upon a time, like some fairy-tale princess, she’d had the perfect little life. Flashy school, rich friends, nothing to worry about. Then her best friend, her boyfriend’s sister, turned up dead by the family pool with a good portion of her head rearranged. Veronica’s father, the sheriff, was too honest to know better, and accused the girl’s dad — her incredibly-wealthy, well-connected dad. You can guess the rest. Dad lost his job. Veronica lost her boyfriend and her cozy social circle. Mom walked out the door and into thin air. And then one night, at a party, someone slipped poor Veronica a mickey, and she woke up to find she’d lost that particular something she can never get back, and had no clue who took it.

The flashback scenes were as garishly colored as a Palm Beach dentist’s office, but they worked; you could see how much she’d toughened up from then to now. It wasn’t just the clothes, or the hairstyle. It was the look in her eyes, the way she carried herself. It was good acting.

Veronica didn’t occupy some rich, comfortable world like those kids over in Orange County, where even the slums are given a coat of paint and made up to look cheery. She and her dad called a shabby old motor court home. Since he’d turned P.I., they ran cases out of an office that could have been sublet from my old pal Sam Spade. They ate cheap food, drove cheap cars and kept late hours, both of them. Her father was a decent enough guy, but tough as a stick of butter. He hadn’t laid down and given up yet. He was just leaning that way.

So Veronica did algebra by day and snapped husbands cheating on their wives at night. She did so alone — unless you counted Backup, sixty pounds of drool and teeth in the general shape of a dog— and without many friends. She was hanging by her fingernails from the last rung of the social ladder, and you could feel the desperation, the danger of it. Too many powerful people around who could flick her away like a gnat, and never waste another thought on her. But she didn’t give up and she didn’t back down. I liked that about her.

So maybe Veronica’s production values were a little on the shabby side. So maybe the story left a few too many loose ends for my taste. When the program was finished, I still wanted to see where she was going. I figured she’d earned that much from me.

The next morning I checked the paper for the overnight ratings. They weren’t pretty. I guess it fit: little girl alone against the odds, in a very rough neighborhood. And the second episode already had a mark against it. Somebody found a retarded greyhound, put some makeup on her, named her “Paris Hilton,” and convinced her she could act. As guest stars go, the Hilton girl was better than a case of typhus, but not by much. Tough luck, Veronica.

Maybe Veronica Mars wouldn’t last. Maybe sometime soon she’d be making that long goodbye, into the big sleep known as cancellation. Maybe not. She was tough, and smart, and deserved a shot. Even on UPN. I’d stay tuned Tuesday nights at 9 Eastern to see if she got it, but I couldn’t speak for the rest of America.

That’s the television business for you. I just watch it. I don’t have to like it.


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