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Life On Mars
2006-10-11 05:09
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I was foolish to get all worried about "Veronica Mars" after only one episode on the new CW network. While "Welcome Wagon," the third season premiere, was slow and meandering, "My Big Fat Greek Rush Week" was like a primer on all of the things that make "Mars" great. Except one, but we'll get to that later.

When I write about "Lost" and "Veronica Mars" or "Heroes" or any of the other shows I am now following closely, I'm going to address my posts to fellow fans who are watching along with me. That means I'm going to assume you've seen the latest episode. Otherwise it kind of limits me in what I can and can't discuss. If you're still on the fence about "Veronica Mars," you should watch it. It's good. And then you will be able to enjoy this page even more, because I suspect I will be writing about "Veronica" pretty much every week.

"Rush Week" had a setup that could have seen the episode simply recycle the material from the second season's "The Rapes of Graff." In both cases, Veronica went undercover to weed out shady dealings in the campus fraternity/sorority scene. ("Weed out," get it? Not if you haven't seen the episode, I guess. But see above.) However, this offering was taken in a very different direction. "Veronica Mars" is most challenging to watch when Veronica isn't clearly the hero, and the sorority's secret in this episode turned out to be a real ethical conundrum. I appreciated what they were trying to do here, and I liked the way that Veronica's questioning of her motives dovetailed with Keith's angst over a rare bad call on his part. However, there was an obvious tactical mistake. The sorority mother at the house Veronica was investigating was growing marijuana to treat her cancer. Got it. Veronica felt guilty about exposing this because the only effect of her detective work was taking away the medicine of a severely ill person. Works for me. However, in order to get a big reaction for an act break, the producers had Veronica open a locked door to a field of cannabis. We're not talking about a single plant on a windowsill, we're talking about a pro-quality organic production line. If this woman had cancer that severe, she didn't have enough time left in her life to smoke all of that pot even if Ricky Williams, Snoop Dogg, and the entire Portland Trail Blazers roster came along to help her out. This kind of wrecked the whole moral grey area situation as far as I was concerned. Look, I went to UC Berkeley; I know from homegrown.

A small mistake in set dressing is hardly enough to scuttle an entire episode. "Rush Week" had a lot more going for it. For one thing, it had one of the strongest non-Veronica subplots I can remember seeing on the show. Wallace, Logan, and some beautifully stunt-casted guest stars participated in a sociology experiment where students were divided into prisoners and jailers. I really enjoyed this story. Dan Castellaneta played the professor! That's awesome, especially because Castellaneta's unaffected speaking voice sounds more like Mayor Quimby than any other of the legion of "Simpsons" characters he voices. (If you look at Dan's list of credits, his good judgement when it comes to taking on-camera roles is impressive: "Arrested Development," "Frasier," "Stargate SG-1," "That 70's Show"...but I digress.) Plus Rider Strong and Samm Levine. This whole plot was given more time than such things usually are on "Mars" (partly because the main story was kind of thin, but that's OK) and on the whole it was well-written, nicely acted, and had a good surprise ending. It was good to see Wallace get the last laugh over Logan. Unless, of course, Logan secretly enjoys running around in the nude in public, which I suspect he might.

Almost but not quite lost in the shuffle was a quick but nice little C-story involving Mac and Parker, and a wildy tonally different piece with Keith wandering through the desert after the apparent murder of Kendall. I'm not sure where they're going with the whole Keith/Fitzpatricks thing. I hope the next few episodes will have Keith interacting with the rest of the regulars more. On the whole it seems as if the show's emphasis has been shifted towards a much higher percentage of self-contained story per episode. I'm fine with that. While the ongoing murder investigation was a major part of what sucked you in to the first season, the second year's more complicated mystery threatened to swallow whole every episode. Some of the best shows they've ever done have been mostly stand-alone, like "Betty and Veronica" and "Drinking the Kool-Aid" from the first season and "Ain't No Magic Mountain High Enough" from the second. The show has developed to the point where the characters are interesting enough to stand on their own without a strong running storyline to provide artificial momentum. If the writing continues to be this strong, I think it will be fine. I don't think it's going to grow into a colossal hit, which I'm sure is not what the CW wants to hear, but it ought to settle in for a long and creatively satisfying run. Indeed, not having to constantly shovel coal on the fire of a massive supermystery ought to help the writers push the series to greater heights.

On the other hand, Tuesday night's "Veronica Mars" lead-in is in trouble. "Gilmore Girls" just isn't very good anymore. It's not as dramatic as when the end came for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," where the show completely fell off the cliff right at the top of its seventh season, but the "Gilmore" writers have just run out of material. Like "Moonlighting," as soon as the showrunners let Luke and Lorelai get together the writing was on the wall. Their relationship has been so on-again off-again that it borders on viewer abuse at this point. The constant drumbeat of babies and weddings isn't interesting anymore. I don't care about Lane's baby. Boy, I deeply don't care about Kirk's wedding. And I mostly don't care about Logan and Rory. The writers have playing out the end to their doomed-from-the-start relationship as if they had all the time in the world. If the show continues to be this uninteresting, they're not going to have enough time to wrap that up satisfactorily and put Rory into a good place by the series finale, which at this rate will be in only 19 more episodes. If they hadn't spent so much time torturously pulling Lorelai and Luke apart, they could have had that wedding already and ended the series on the birth of a new Gilmore Girl, which would be highly poetic and kind of sweet. TV writers can't resist putting births in series finales. The symbolism!

At this point I'm kind of in for the duration, even though "Gilmore Girls" has been bland since the sixth season. I sure hope Milo Ventimiglia can make time from his "Heroes" shooting schedule to show up at the end of the finale to sweep Rory off of her feet. Or would a Luke-Lorelai Rory-Jess double wedding be too much to ask for? Yeah, I guess so. Still, after completely toying with the emotions of their viewers for the entire run of the show, the "Gilmore" writers owe us some kind of huge payoff. It would be easy to blame the show's decline on the departure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, but new exec producer David S. Rosenthal is only following the trail the Palladinos left behind. The sixth season had Lorelai deliberately sabotaging things with Luke at every possible opportunity and Rory's huge blind spot with regards to the phenomenally unpleasant, shallow Logan remaining in place. Out of respect for the characters and the Palladinos Rosenthal has thus far resisted the urge to make any abrupt changes, but ironically, if one or two aren't made soon, they're going to have to be made in order to wrap things up as the seventh "Gilmore Girls" season becomes the final one.

I still totally have a crush on Paris, though. She's sassy and she's left-handed. This is important to me because I want my children to grow up to be middle relievers. Does anyone with HD know what kind of hat Luke was wearing in his one scene last night? It looked like it might be a Rockies hat but the image on the back appeared to be the minor league logo. It was weird to see Scott Patterson in any hat besides the hat. I think apart from the pilot he's worn that same blue hat in every episode in which he's appeared.

2006-10-11 13:20:14
1.   Voxter
Knowing the way "Veronica Mars" works, that field of pot may not just have been bad set dressing. Of course, that makes Veronica look dumb for not figuring out that no one needs to grow fifteen plants to combat chemo-induced nausea. Sigh. I guess you're right.

I can't escape the feeling that "Veronica Mars" has been, I dunno, softened up a little bit for a broader audience. It's still the same show, for sure, but a lot of things are just slightly different: Veronica's voice-overs have lost a bit of that old hard-boiled Mike Hammer feel, the cinematography contains more bright colors and fewer dark corners, and there's less of that Southern-California-Is-Rotting-from-the-Inside feel I used to get. There also seems to have been a (probably wise) executive decision to make it a little less convoluted. I guess it's only two episodes, but still.

My nominee for best line of the episode is from the surviving Mr Casablancas: "In an alternate universe, Bizarro Dick is being a total killjoy."

Anyway, on the subject of "Gilmore" (and a bit of "Buffy" thrown in for good measure):

You've hit the nail 100% on the head, really. The show spent most of the sixth season in a glum, irritating place, and it only got worse as you saw what they were doing: Deliberately, stupidly, and for no particular reason other than that they could, pulling apart Luke and Lorelei. In order to do this, they had to make both characters act completely in opposition to how they normally would, and for no particular reason. If they hadn't been played by the same actors, they wouldn't have been recognizable as the same people.

And now they persist with shoving the loathesome Christopher on us, and behaving as if he's somehow cute and sweet because he's been treating Lorelei like a blow-up sex doll with no emotions for years now, but has suddenly decided he likes her. This show seems to have had an infatuation with this character from the start, one that I never understood. I hated him to begin with, and as time has gone on, he's gotten glibber and stupider; their attempts to shove some feelings into his barren soul only serve to point out how shallow and feckless he's been since day one.

It has been a slow fade, though, as the sixth season was spent slowly building up in an inevitable kiss-off that you could see coming but which turned out to be even worse than you expected. As opposed to "Buffy". I didn't see "Buffy" when it was on the air, but gobbled it up on DVD; on my first viewing -- I watched the first six seasons in essentially one eight-day sitting, and then bought the seventh season the day it came out and watched the whole thing -- I didn't notice it happen. But when I re-watched the seventh season, right around the time Faith showed up I found myself wanting to strangle Buffy. I found my self actually yelling at the TV: "Shut up! SHUT UP, BUFFY! JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!" But she wouldn't. She didn't stop bugging the hell out of me until she was holding hands with Spike as he caught fire. Finally, then, she quit being self-righteous and stupid for about thirty seconds.

And then the show was over. And I was suddenly so mad about it all.

Anyway, on the subject of Luke's cap: It's a Colorado Rockies hat. I'm not sure if that should make you feel good or bad, given the unfortunate furn this show has taken over the last year and a half.

2006-10-12 08:46:56
2.   Jon Weisman
I don't watch Gilmore, but good post about Veronica.
2006-10-12 14:35:32
3.   4444
I used to watch gilmore because the writing was so clever, but then it started to kind of all blend toegether and it lost some of its sparkle. Some shows you just want to keep going and going (and usually, that's not necessarily good for the show), but other times, maybe 3 or 4 seasons is just right.

I remember really liking NBC's boomtown (unique overlapping structure of episodes) through its first season, then it started changing, kind of like how #1 mentions VM might be...and then it was gone.

2006-10-12 15:05:21
4.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I sense that the CW has asked Rob Thomas to try and ease new viewers into the show to a certain extent. I'm okay with that as long as the characters don't start behaving wildly different. Hasn't happened yet. I also think that if you look at Veronica's character arc, you can see how her attitude right now might be a little less hardened than we've gotten used to. When the first season began Lily had already been murdered and all sorts of horror had rained down upon Veronica and Keith. The second season showed Veronica trying to get her life back together only to be immediately pulled back into detective work by the bus crash.

The third season thus far hasn't provided a crime to which Veronica has as deep of a personal connection. Parker is a new character and neither we nor Veronica has adjusted to her yet. Also, the serial rapist storyline is a holdover from the second season. That softens the impact as well.

I definitely agree that steps are being taken to change the show's format. However, at this early point in the season, I'm happy with the way the characters are being serviced, so I'm fine with it. They have some work left to do. Obviously what's going to happen with Weevil is still unresolved, and I want to see how Sheriff Lamb's promotion to regular status will pay off.

I think that the show might not really kick back into full gear until this first running mystery is solved. That will give the show time to balance the new character dynamics created by the shift in setting from high school to college.

I hate to keep harping on the similarities between "Veronica" and "Buffy," but the first few episodes of the fourth season of "Buffy" (the first and basically the only college year) had the same kind of general new-situation hangover that "Veronica" has demonstrated. More so, even. What happened there is that the writers got their bearings before the characters did, and the payoff down the stretch of the season added up to my personal favorite year of the show's whole run. Although there are a ton of people who would disagree with me...possibly for the exact same reasons.

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