Smart girls

Veronica Mars and 30 Rock go to the head of the class
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  December 12, 2006

WATCH IT: Veronica goes to college as sassy and confident as ever — and then gets it all wrong.
In its third year, Veronica Mars, late of UPN, joins the new CW network (Tuesdays at 9 pm) as the most critically praised show on its roster. That praise has never fully translated into ratings, and the CW initially ordered only 13 new episodes (since upped to 20). In a TV season that’s seen CBS kill off the most daring new show, the critically acclaimed and star-powered Smith (with a cast that included Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen), after only three episodes, that’s still reason for fans to worry.

Presenting itself as a smart-ass Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars is perhaps the quickest, brainiest, snappiest show on TV. Teen sleuth Veronica (Kirsten Bell) and her private-detective single dad Keith (the wonderful Enrico Colantoni) enjoy a father-daughter version of the breezy, lovingly sarcastic repartee you associate with The Thin Man or The Big Sleep. (Maybe you have to be an only child to know that this kind of wise-acre talk between parent and child isn’t as unlikely as it might seem.) The great joke of Veronica Mars has always been that since Veronica grew up helping out her dad with everything from office work to background checks to stake-outs, she grew up with parental approval to do everything kids are taught not to do: lie, snoop, sneak around. And since Veronica, formerly in favor with the rich kids of her rich SoCal home town, took a social nosedive when Keith was fired from his job as sheriff (he’d insisted that the guy fingered for the murder of Veronica’s best friend was innocent), she had already achieved the outsider status of the classic gumshoe.

It was the inspiration of the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, to take the sunny California setting that has served so many noirs and hard-boiled novels and transplant it to high school. And with the wised-up seen-it-all attitude of noir and hard-boiled fiction, the show could address issues of class and sex and corruption without seeming like a prime-time Afterschool Special. (An example of its guts: a few weeks into its first season, on Election Night 2004, it ran an episode in which a high-school campaign was stolen. While Bush was seesawing to a second term on the other networks, VM was reminding viewers how he got the first one.)

Series about teenagers generally have trouble managing the tone shift when the characters head to college. (And viewers often have trouble acclimating to the new tone.) VM sent Veronica into college this season as sassy and confident as ever — and then watched as she gets it all wrong. In one of this season’s first episodes, her eagerness to prove that a sorority house has a link to a series of campus rapes results in her outing a school official who’s growing marijuana to alleviate the pain she suffers from chemotherapy. And even when Veronica is right, clearing a frat house of the rapes, she might as well be wrong in the eyes of people like her friend’s roommate, who’s one of the rape victims. Veronica is getting an education by fire, her eagerness to show what she can do ramming smack into her realization that there are realms of human experience and knowledge of which she has no idea. What’s especially bold about the show this season is that she’s been plunked down among kids who, with the self-righteousness of youth, believe they already know all they need to. And so the show is functioning as something like a metaphor for the preconceptions and rejections of nuance that characterize public discourse in America right now.

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