6.6.09

Veronica Mars

When watching television in the privacy of my own headphones, I am prone to making embarrassing exclamations that would mortify onlookers. 'Sheeit!' is one. 'That's awesome!' is another. I share this with you now because no other show has elicited so many such responses as Veronica Mars. I just rounded off the last episode of season 1. And it was awesome!

I picked up the series after hearing it recommended by Joss Whedon, who I worship in scary and possibly illegal ways. He was saying something about it being the first genuine successor to Buffy. This needed investigating. When I started watching Veronica Mars, however, I was struck by how different the two shows were. I was confused. Only when I began to appreciate the show on its own terms, without making constant comparisons to Buffy, did I begin to grasp its particular achievements.

Episode structure in both shows is very similar. You have an episode arc balanced by a longer season wide arc. In Buffy, there's usually a monster of the week, and a 'Big Bad' masterminding everything behind the scenes. In Veronica Mars, there's a mystery of the week, and an ongoing Desperate Housewives season spanning mystery to be solved.

The difference between the two shows comes in the balance between plot and character. Veronica Mars relies on the twists and turns of the season arc to hold audiences in. The characters, while believable and interesting, ultimately serve the plot engine. With Buffy, it's the opposite - plot serves character. Buffy plots are - sometimes self-consciously - ridiculous (they involve monsters, for God's sake!). The thing is, the show isn't about the monsters, but the people being affected by them. Character is centre stage. With Veronica Mars, character time is squeezed by the demands of plot.

It took a while for me to stop being peeved about this. Of all the elements that comprise storytelling, plotting holds the least interest for me. It's a nuts-and-bolts thing. It needs to be done, but it doesn't make a story special. The focus on plot in Veronica Mars couldn't rope me in the way Buffy's characters could. But once I got over myself, I started to appreciate other aspects the series got right.

Joss Whedon is prone to lambasting much of television as 'radio with faces', and he has tried to make his shows more visually interesting. Watching Veronica Mars, I'm thinking he needs to try harder. The show is consistently beautiful - playing with an assortment of tilts, angles, lenses and special effects, and using sophisticated tracking shots and crane shots. Many of my exclamations were prompted by a particularly delicious-looking frame.

Many other exclamations were prompted by dialogue. Veronica Mars works off the noir genre, and so everyone is a wiseass, stuffed to the gills with wisecracks. You can't stop grinning at the coolness of it all. I don't think all this wit can quite compete with the hilarity to be found in Whedon's shows, where you get more situational comedy, silliness and the fourth wall being broken. But you can definitely see why the show drew Whedon in.

This leads me on to the final thing I wanna say about Veronica Mars. The show is based around a teenage gumshoe investigating cases in the high school she attends. It's noir in high school, which meant I was constantly aware of the film Brick, something original audiences would not have had to contend with. With this in mind, I initially felt that Veronica Mars did not take its genre far enough. Having finished the series, I now think my assumption was wrong. Veronica Mars not only uses noir to talk about teenage alienation and the gulf between rich and poor, it goes to those dark places noir has to go to - abuse, rape, madness, incest. The sunny high school setting only makes these elements more surprising and disturbing. The final episode is by far the best, being genuinely chilling, and with an extraordinary climax and emotional release at the end. It's noir through and through, and I hope season 2 continues in this vein.

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