The Best (and Worst) of “Veronica Mars”

A long time ago, we used to be friends, but I haven’t thought of you lately at all.

No, the opposite. I think about you constantly, too much even, every time my inbox is accosted by “Veronica Mars Movie Project Update #5,671: Kristen loved the script!” (What else would you say? “Hey guys, Kristen hated the script. Also, the stickers have arrived!”)

I brought this on myself. I’m the one who actually donated to a Kickstarter project for a movie that will almost certainly be disappointing out of nostalgia for a short-lived UPN/CW show about a plucky detective. And why would a person do such a thing?

As a thank you note. A thank you for something special, something dark and sweet and smart and cheeky and perfect. Well, almost perfect. Let’s explore.

Top 5

5. “Like a Virgin,” “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” and “An Echolls Family Christmas” – Season 1

Three episodes in one slot? Isn’t that cheating? Yes it is. Go away.

Veronica Mars succeeds in never boxing itself into a single tone or style. It is never solely a high school confection or solely a grim murder mystery, and it peaks when these tones are allowed to exist alongside each other in the same world, as exemplified in this run of three episodes.

These episodes feature some of the most enjoyably lighthearted mysteries (infiltrating the hippie collective, Logan’s poker game gone awry) that show Veronica at her witty, instinctive, headstrong, sharp-tongued best. At the same time, Veronica’s greatness (and therefore the show’s greatness) is as much about disaffection and grisly melancholy as it is about triumphant sarcasm. Jumping straight from the playful high school drama of an online purity test to an unhinged Abel Koontz sneering, “Do you want to know exactly how I bashed your friend’s brains in?” revels in joy and darkness both at the same time. The VMars special.


4. “I Am God” – Season 2

I admit, it took me a little while to get into the bus crash story. It’s always hard to become reinvested the second time around, and even though a bus crashed, the season still doesn’t carry the same consistent murkiness as the Lilly murder. Too many distractions (named Jackie­­–or as I call her “Ugh Jackie”).

The mystery does, however, manage to pick up toward the end, beginning with the return of that season 1 brand of exciting gloom in “I Am God.” Veronica spends much of the episode in a dream-induced underwater school bus being haunted by the memories of the crash victims, like gay Peter with his eyes . . . so dazzling . . . what were we talking about?

The scenes on the bus are visually engaging, appropriately distorted claustrophobic depictions of dreams, and through these scenes, the crash victims become characters for the first time instead of a nameless gaggle, much as Lilly became a character through flashbacks in season 1. Once we meet the victims and see their frustration and Veronica’s guilt over their deaths, the mystery at last begins to deepen. The episode also includes my all-time favorite Keith/Veronica moment, when Keith discovers Veronica in Clemmons’ closet while looking for his coat and sighs, “Yep, that’s mine all right.” Wonderful.

3. “Leave It to Beaver” – Season 1

“I know what happened.” For a mystery obsessive, these words never cease to provoke spasms of joy, but those spasms are especially pronounced after a whole season of being wrenched around by all manner of hints and theories about the murder of Lilly Kane. The first-season finale accomplishes the daunting task of providing a completely satisfying conclusion that continues to complicate itself right until the end. (Is it Duncan? Is it Logan? What does Beaver know? WHAT IS HAPPENING? Do I need to calm down? Maybe.)

The ultimate sight of Harry Hamlin’s fake tan writhing around in that video before his horrifying sex face emerges provides a rush of twenty-two episodes worth of catharsis without seeming either obvious or obtuse. The best mystery stories do not exist to be solved but to be experienced and re-experienced. The first season succeeds in that regard because it is never really about figuring out that Aaron did it, but at the same time there is more than enough justification for it to seem right and clear upon revisiting the episodes.

The finale also thankfully refrains from too much explaining. It’s almost all action. There’s a flaming refrigerator and everything! By the time Aaron has been arrested and Veronica tells that horrible mom to shove off, all the emotions in the world have been spent, and it’s time to nap for a decade.

Harry hamlin Veronica Mars

2. “The Wrath of Con” – Season 1

It’s a testament to the sheer glory of specific portions of “The Wrath of Con” that it can be my most re-watched episode while featuring a fairly lame primary mystery. Our dear sweet Wallace begins his years-long saga of having horrible taste in women by dating some stupid girl who gives all her money to a stranger (good, you deserve to lose that money), and whatever, it’s boring.

This episode is really all about Lilly and the dedication of the Lilly Kane Memorial Trickle. (When you first heard “Lilly Kane Memorial Fountain,” didn’t you expect it to be, you know, a fountain and not two pathetic droplets of water seeping out of a brick wall?) Through a series of videos and memories, this episode explains why: why these people were friends and why Lilly meant so much to everyone. The memories of her are vivacious and celebratory, and mutually acknowledging this quality in Lilly brings the first spark of understanding between Veronica and Logan.

It’s impossible not to fall into a goofy, sentimental stupor during the brilliant “I’ve never” scene and the Lilly tribute video, and then to see Weevil wipe away a tear at the end brings the intrigue right back into play. But how is he involved? Ack. Greatness.

Weevil Veronica Mars

1.  “Pilot” – Season 1

Here’s the thing: pilots are awful. The Veronica Mars pilot, however, introduces a show already completely comfortable in its own style and entirely unafraid of complex storytelling. Unlike for most shows, re-watching the Veronica Mars pilot doesn’t feel like stepping into a blurry instagram. It’s the exact show we recognize, and in one of its top moments.

As Veronica’s history slowly unfolds through disordered wisps of her intensely complicated past year, the show plunges into a character, and then a murder mystery, that is immediately all-consuming. It’s among the most binge-inducing TV episodes ever that, in a matter of minutes, goes from “Hey, this teenage detective seems endearingly snippy and aggressive” to “Damn you guys, Amanda Seyfried’s dead, and I need to watch 150 more episodes of this instantly.”

But to know truly why the pilot cannot be matched, look no further than Kristen Bell. She is fundamentally adorable as a human, a quality she infuses into Veronica Mars from the first episode, making it immediately clear that Veronica is unique among sarcastic teen characters. It would have been easy to go full hyper-literate badass on this part, but combining the wit with a bright hopefulness and naiveté makes Veronica infinitely deeper. She may always be ten steps ahead of everyone else in the room, but she also never stops being that pep squad member who makes puffy-paint posters while listening to Avril Lavigne and who really, really, really wants a pony.

You know what they say: Veronica Mars, she’s a marshmallow.

Kristen Bell

Bottom 1

The end of season 3

Normally, I will defend season 3 for being not quite as bad as its shark-jumping reputation would suggest. There’s a fun Paul Rudd episode in there, we get a lot of delightful Dick Casablancas action, and the early-season mystery is in keeping with the rest of the show, even if it is all a little rape-rape-rape-rape-rape and also RAPE.

But once that case is resolved, things get predominantly rough. The murder of Ed Begley Jr.’s Dean O’Dell can’t carry the story because it is fairly straightforward and barely involves the rest of the cast. It features minimal red herrings or convoluted twists and therefore ends up just sitting around until it’s solved.

After that, the season gets even rougher. The show loses its reason to exist and appears to be simply filling time until it can end through Very Special Episodes like the Arab-American hate crime or that bizarre hour-long infomercial for Invisible Children, both of which are frankly unpleasant to watch. It becomes little more than a message-heavy procedural (except with better characters). A shame of a way to end an otherwise excellent series.

Now you go. Which Veronica triumph floats your Neptune Pirate ship? Which episodes are you sure to skip over on your inevitable binge revisits?

Committed TV addict, indoor enthusiast, and side-eye aficionado who loves long-lost evil twins and spies who are terrible at spying.