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Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

It was a long goodbye: Three years of checking the ratings, sweating every renewal, wondering whether this would be the season when Veronica Mars finally bit the dust. A smart, subtle, continuity-intensive teen mystery serial on broadcast television's most barrel-scraping network should rightly have enjoyed all the odds of survival of an ice cube on the surface of the sun. But Veronica, like all great noir protagonists, was one cool customer, even when the heat was on.

UPN and now CW chief Dawn Ostroff deserves sincere thanks for having the guts to stick with this show for so long, in the face of ratings whose gains were modest and glacial. But that courage seemed to shamefully desert her in the end, and the show wasn't so much cancelled as given a cowardly back-alley execution. The CW hemmed and hawed about the show's fate right up to the upfronts, and beyond; when cornered by upset reporters, Ostroff made some obnoxiously vague noises about maybe possibly doing some sort of a kind of spinoff that may or may not involve the same creative principals. Maybe. If the network felt like it.

Word is that the network fears unleashing the wrath of the show's devoted, rabid, (and occasionally deeply obnoxious) fans if it just comes out and declares the show dead. Gee, given its thoughtful, courteous treatment of one of its most fiercely beloved and critically acclaimed shows, I really can't imagine why.

Still, oft-cancelled creator Rob Thomas -- sadly operating under the assumption that he had a decent shot at a fourth season -- gave viewers a superb finale, one of the series' best episodes in years. After a season of network-mandated experimentation with the show's format, breaking the show into a series of mini-mysteries, Thomas and Diane Ruggiero's final episode had their super-smart heroine's pursuit of justice unfold into trouble and tragedy far beyond her initial scope. Veronica Mars was never afraid to let its title character be too smart for her own good, causing serious damage to her own life and others in her desperate need to get back at anyone who tried to mess with her.

That sort of depth and complexity extended to the series' whole sprawling cast of vivid characters, and never flagged during the show's otherwise uneven (but always watchable) run. Even the best, most noble characters did illegal, immoral, or just plain terrible things, and even the very worst could be startlingly human and decent when you least expected it.

And oh, could Veronica bring the funny. Season Three alone saw the writers using an eleven-year-old girl with wildly optimistic notions of romance to sweetly, snarkily chide the show's relationship-crazed fans. And the finale, after a string of glaring, no doubt network-mandated product placements, had one character responding to news of a Matchbox 20 reunion by declaring, "Rob Thomas is a whore."

It takes a pretty damn good show to unite Stephen King, Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and yes, right-wing crazypants Bruce Tinsley in praise. Veronica lacked the budget, and the wild visual and narrative pyrotechnics, that make the likes of Lost and Battlestar Galactica so buzzworthy. Like the consistently strong performance of star Kristen Bell, the show was good in subtle, unassuming ways, letting its intelligence and sheer darkness creep up on you. But for characterization and storytelling, I'd rank it easily side by side with Deadwood, The Wire, and BSG among television's very best.

The show didn't end on any egregious cliffhanger, but there's definitely more of Veronica Mars' story to tell. The CW may have scotched Thomas's chances to tell those stories on TV -- they seem to have filched his ambitious notion of a four-year flash-forward and handed it off to the inane One Tree Hill -- but there's been rumblings of a possible movie version, a la Serenity. Having Joel Silver as the show's producer certainly can't hurt that possibility.

But even if the show's big sleep doesn't prove to be more of a short nap, I'll still be content. I never thought the show would last a season. Instead, the show's small but loyal viewership got three, packed with winning characters, brain-busting whodunits, and consistent entertainment.

Trouble was Veronica's business. And business was very, very good.


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