Women Are From Venus, Veronica Is From Mars

I see Paris: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) runs up against the blondest constellation in the universeguest star Hilton
Warner Bros.

Themes of rebirth, flux, and trial by fire are newbiquitous on the tube this fall. There's Kevin Hill, the new Taye Diggs vehicle, in which an attorney inherits a gurgling infant that (gasp!) forces him to reexamine his lifestyle. There's the promising Life as We Know It in which a group of horny schoolboys clamors to score that essential "first piece." Prim Rory Gilmore, God bless her, has sheared off her hair and begun an adulterous affair with Dean on The Gilmore Girls. Even George "Pauncho Villa" Lopez has cut back on the chiles rellenos and unveiled a newly trim silhouette over on ABC.

Change is all around us, like a cold snap in the autumn air or Gwyneth Paltrow's breast size. It would seem, then, that Veronica Mars is hardly a thematic standout, what with its phoenixlike main character adjusting to a new persona on the very first episode (is Veronica just a new alias for Alias?). Surprisingly, Mars is one of the freshest offerings of the new season; not since Angela Chase has a more wry or intriguing teenage girl been introduced on prime-time.

The titular character, underplayed nicely by Kristen Bell, is a tough cookie with the sort of physically angular presence that recalls a DC superhero. (Even her hair has sharp edges.) Veronica attends a tony high school in Neptune, California, where she simultaneously invokes fear and derision from her peers (much like a distaff A.C. Slater in better denim). Veronica works as a junior private eye with her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), the disgraced former town sheriff. Television PIs always have amazing hair and an amazing wardrobe, and the Mars team is no exception. I half expected to see E!'s Steven Cojucaru crouching beneath Keith's stately desk, brandishing a purse-sized Evian atomizer and a jar of hemp-seed sculpting wax. Anyway, Veronica is a certified Grade-A rebel, the kind of gal who packs a switchblade like most girls carry Dentyne Ice.

Yet we're soon shown through a series of flashbacks that Veronica was not always an unapologetic badass. In fact, she was once the sort of easygoing, popular blond teen who participates in car-wash fundraisers and surprise parties. But then, her best friend Lilly Kane was brutally murdered. Next, Veronica's hot, richie boyfriend Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), who happens to be Lilly's brother, dumped her without provocation--a blow that probably smarted worse than the whole murder thing. Ultimately, Veronica's father became obsessed with proving that Lilly's father committed the murder, a fixation that sullied his own reputation and cost him his job and marriage. Did I mention that Veronica also gets acquaintance-raped at some point?

So transformed is naive Veronica by these events that she abandons her wealthy friends, chucks the Abercrombie wardrobe, and becomes the smart-mouthed, caustic loner we meet in the pilot. It's an exhausting backstory, but gracefully drawn. Kristen Bell's portrayal of her smiling former self vis-à-vis the new, tougher Veronica is a feat of acting rarely seen on the UPN. The pre-trauma Veronica beams shyly beneath a curtain of Alice in Wonderland hair, average in every way. The new Veronica's face has calcified into a mask of rage and resignation, and Bell pulls off the quick change without descending into Affleck-ian imitations of angst.

After the never-ending exposition of the pilot, the second episode brings some present-tense action. Unfortunately, it also features Paris Hilton as serial dater/town bicycle "Caitlin." Yeah, that's the kind of ratings stunt that I relish on less intelligent shows, but I don't need any Hiltons polluting my new fave. This ep reveals juicy new details pertaining to Lilly Kane's murder: It seems that Lilly received a speeding ticket two hours after she was allegedly killed, which contradicts her father's story and bolsters Keith Mars's case. Adding to the Kane family drama, it seems apparent that Duncan wants Veronica back. Really, who wouldn't want Veronica back? She's the millennial Kate Jackson!

Let's hope the writers realize that the petty interactions between the haves and the have-nots at Neptune High are every bit as intriguing as the big hairy murder subplot. Watching Veronica be ostracized by her rich former friends and lionized by the outcasts lends the character an appealing Robin Hood quality. And anyone who's ever undergone a radical change knows how isolating the resulting fallout can be. Still, I'm betting everyone who caught the first couple of episodes wants to know who offed Lilly Kane, and you can count me among the obsessives. In this sense, Veronica Mars is two shows in one, and better than most other shows by half.

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