The One About Veronica Mars

Time for a round-up of my recent TV feasting. I’m keeping my discussion to generalities and opinions so there are no plot spoilers here beyond what you’d learn in the pilot episodes.

Empire
There’s a mini-series set in Ancient Rome called Empire starting on Hallmark this weekend. In the unlikely event that this has caught your attention, don’t bother. It’s rubbish. Even Janet, who admits that the show was basically designed to appeal to the demographic of People Who Are Obsessive About Roman History And Are Called Janet, thought it was pretty shoddy. It claims to be a mini-series but plays like the first six episodes of a cancelled TV series which had to hastily wrap everything up. Although there are some glimmers of interesting Roman politics, once Julius Caesar dies the rest of the show plays like a more upmarket version of Hercules, with Gladiator Tyrannus wandering the country protecting the young future Caesar. The gladiator played by Jonathan Cake only has one expression – a sort of pained look of concern – while his Hornblower-esque companion lacks any hint of the gravitas needed to be a future leader. Best thing in it is Vincent Regan as Marc Anthony who gives a truly odd performance, but one which grew on me. (I’ve just checked, and blow me if he isn’t that bloke from the rather dodgy Invasion: Earth. Huh.) The worst part is when the gladiator is faced with the prospect of his son being raised by a rich man, and is told that his son will receive the finest schooling, and will even learn Latin. Gladiator: “Latin…” Me: “Er, so what are they supposed to be speaking then?”

Empire is not to be confused with John Milius’ unrelated HBO series Rome, which premieres later this month. Needless to say we’re in the target demographic.

House, MD
House continues to be extremely enjoyable long after I thought it would have palled. It’s a formulaic show in many ways, but it’s held my interest mainly because Hugh Laurie is fantastic and is given some marvellously acerbic material to work with. There’s just enough of a focus on the regular characters to lift it from being dull and procedural (Law & Order: Criminal Intent take note). Last week’s episode on C5 was particularly entertaining. Hopefully they can continue to spin out entertaining variations on the basic themes without going stale too quickly.

Veronica Mars
Thanks to a bout of cold at the weekend, Janet and I ended up vegging on the sofa and finishing the entire first season of Veronica Mars in three days. Previously we’d watched the first 5 episodes in fits and starts and been mildly impressed, but I think it’s fair to say we hadn’t really “got” the hype. So now that we’ve finished the first season, the burning question is: did we get the hype? Well, mostly.

Initially the show is clearly above average, but has very little to distinguish it from other high school dramas about a quirky wisecracking outsider and her sidekicks. Imagine Smallville with Chloe as the lead character. More obviously, the series is Buffy the Private Investigator: the outcast hero who becomes grudgingly feared-but-respected because of the special help she provides to her peers. The vibe is very much Early Buffy, and although Veronica is her own person, whenever she mouths off to authority it’s hard not to have flashbacks. Meanwhile the season-long arc is basically Twin Peaks with Veronica taking the “Donna” role, investigating her friend’s murder and exposing the dark underbelly of her small town. So far, so by-the-numbers.

In the show’s favour, like its predecessor it successfully fuses cliched genres into something unique, but is far subtler and more morally complex than Buffy was in its early years. Even the Generic High School proves to be a microcosm for the extreme divides of wealth, class and race in the community as a whole, something which provides a rich seam for the show to mine and which sets it apart. Indeed as the season develops the focus turns increasingly to the community outside the school, and the show feels weightier, and darker. Much darker.

The initial welter of High School stereotypes resolves itself in surprising ways into a group of far more rounded and memorable characters, and the adult characters become ever more important in their own right. Most interestingly the characters are all deeply flawed (except perhaps Best Friend Wallace) and of course, most of them are potential murder suspects. There’s a real snap to the characterisation.

Even Veronica, though basically good-hearted, is shown to be damaged goods in all manner of ways. The show is about her attempts to redefine her place in the world; having lost her friends, her reputation, her virginity, and her mother. She seeks purpose in becoming her father’s daughter, the perfect P.I., and is unhealthily obsessed with solving Lilly’s murder at the expense of her present happiness. She continually manipulates the people around her, lies to her father, and a lot of her investigative techniques are morally dubious to say the least. Amazingly, she still winds up being sympathetic.

I was also very impressed by the programme’s ability to continually inch-forward the story arc while keeping things entertaining and internally consistent. The events of the past come to dominate and intertwine with the present towards the end of the season, and although there’s some distinctly uneven pacing it does bring together all the trailing story threads in a generally satisfying conclusion. (So much so that it’s really hard to see where the show can possibly go in its second season.)

Having raved about the show at some length, I do have to say that I don’t love it unreservedly. It’s absorbing, interesting, hilarious, complex, ambitious, you name it. It just never quite punched me in the gut. It never had that one big episode that completely blew me away. It didn’t leave me gasping for air or hugging myself or weeping uncontrollably. And it’s slightly weighed down by the familiarity of its influences. At the end of the day it’s merely… …extremely good television. Boy am I a tough audience. 😉

But it has to be said, it’s not every show we watch from beginning to end in a three day marathon.

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