Friday, August 23, 2013

Week 13 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

This was one that I very seriously considered cutting at the last minute to replace with something else. And of course, as tends to happen when I think about doing that, it ended up being one of the most fun re-watches for me on the list and absolutely confirmed why it's an all time favourite, even if the show as a whole is probably nowhere near my top 25 list of series.

If you're interested, here's a list of 15 shows I really like but don't have an episode on this list, and the episode I probably would've picked: "The Sopranos" ("College"), "Parenthood" ("Road Trip"), "Undeclared" ("God Visits"), "24" (season 1 finale), "Miracles" ("The Battle at Shadow Ridge"), Ricky Gervais' original "The Office" ("Training"), "Extras" ("Chris Martin") "Peep Show" ("Dance Class"), "Homeland" ("Q&A"), "Louie" ("Duckling"), "Girls" ("The Return"), "Happy Endings" ("Party of Six"), "New Girl" ("Chicago"), "Suburgatory" ("The Wishbone"), and "Shameless" ("A Long Way From Home"). But anyway...

After the break: I must've been the only person who wasn't hoping it was you at the door.

Veronica Mars, "Leave it to Beaver"
First aired on UPN Tuesday, May 10, 2005

“I have this feeling that things are gonna get really bad” – Logan Echolls

Fair warning: if you have not seen the first season finale of “Veronica Mars,” which resolves a season-long, 22 episode mystery, and you have any reason to believe you might want to watch the show at some point, a good place to stop reading would

“Veronica Mars” is kind of a messy show. Upon first reading its premise, it didn’t sound like anything that would be of interest to me. When I picked up the show last summer I was coming off a stretch in which I was feeling especially burned by shows pulling cheap bait and switches, especially when they were coming from corners I really didn’t expect like “How I Met Your Mother”. So the story of a spunky, blonde, sarcastic teenage girl who moonlights as a private eye seemed of particular disinterest.

I knew Veronica was known for a wit beyond her years, but I couldn’t envision it not collapsing into a derivative, treacly mess by whatever teen actress they got to play the character as a girl who would so clearly be in love with how awesome she was. That was before I met Kristen Bell. With decades of film noir history in the rearview mirror, there was no way a talented writer would be able to do something interesting with the formula on tightly-scheduled network television, especially a baby network like UPN that wouldn’t give them very much money to work with week in and week out. That was before I met Rob Thomas (nice of the lead singer from Matchbox Twenty to lend his steady hand as a screenwriter). And considering how young that network’s target demographic was, I was absolutely certain there was no way that the show’s season long mystery arcs, asking viewers to maintain their interest and attention as information was slowly – glacially – doled out one episode at a time from September until May, wouldn’t end with some sort of “shocking twist ending” that the kids would think was cool but would have made me tear my hair out and yell “Bullshit!” at my TV.

That was before I met “Leave it to Beaver,” the first season finale and easily the best episode of “Veronica Mars”. It’s an hour that so deftly quells any and all fears I had about the show before I started it, full of surprisingly good performances even from the “Mars” actors that are consistently great. And it concludes the Lily Kane saga in exemplary fashion – believably taking those small bits of information from all the previous episodes and building a logical case that psychotic and abusive Aaron Echolls was the killer – while also tying up the emotional loose ends that were far more necessary considering how much of my investment in the case had dwindled to the bare minimum (outside of Veronica’s personal attachment to it, I was quickly losing interest).

Though as I mentioned, this is not a flawless show by any means. “Veronica Mars” would disappointingly never reach these heights again in its remaining 42 episodes. Sure, Veronica knew some of the kids that went over the cliff in the bus crash mystery of the second season – she herself came very close to being one of the victims if it hadn’t been for Lily’s ghost. But none of them were really close friends (due to narrative convenience, anyone she really knew closely including new arrival Gia Goodman had the foresight to drive back to school in Dick’s limo) and none of them certainly meant as much to her as Lily did in the first mystery. Again, it takes a very skilled writer to make a show like this work, and I think Thomas did about as good a job as he could have. Overall, I trust him as a writer. I loved his next television series (more on that later) and will watch at least one episode of anything he does in the future. That said, even the most capable hands could only sculpt one really coherent season of this show. Though I don’t think that says any bit as much about Thomas, Bell and anyone else involved here as it does about the time we live in culturally (i.e. not 50 years ago), it’s still kind of disheartening.

But we are here to praise “Veronica Mars,” not to bury it. For whatever errors and miscalculations were ahead of it at this point, it doesn’t change how good “Leave it to Beaver” is, an episode produced for about a half million dollars, and with four extra production days, more than the average hour of “Mars”. The bigger budget and lengthier shoot are critical to why this episode is one of my favourites, because if there’s one thing I love about a series or an episode, it’s being able to see how much care was put into it. The majority of people like to watch TV for escapist value, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when you a) watch as much as I do and b) care enough about it to decide you want to write about the particular minutes you have liked the most in your life, you’re constantly looking for something you can feel passionate about and most crime procedurals and family sitcoms have nothing new to offer you.

This is an episode where you can see that everyone left everything they had on the field, in actuality and metaphorically. While some “Mars” actors like Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni are great no matter what they’re given to do, their performances over this hour are really something to see. Bell in particular is asked to bounce around a lot in her wide range as an actress – she’s overjoyed in learning that Keith (and not Jake Kane) is her real father, she’s shocked to discover who really killed Lily, she’s so fantastically terrified when Aaron Echolls basically has her cornered, and she’s forced to tearfully send her absentee mother who has just rejoined the family away again for the sake of her father. I can’t imagine the UPN network in general had a very good track record at the Emmys in their eleven years on the air, but the failure to recognize Bell still seems pretty egregious. Her moment with Colantoni as Keith tells Veronica he’s definitely her father is a little clunky in its writing, with him telling her she needs to sign away any claim to the Kane family’s fortune and then asking her “Do you know what you just signed away? Absolutely nothing –I am without a doubt your father” (it’s just one of those writing/acting things where I have to remind myself that people on TV don’t talk the way people do in real life and will occasionally try to hype a moment for the sake of drama by withholding information in a way that would probably piss someone off in real life), but they’re both so good that it made me not care about anything I just wrote in those brackets.

It’s a very solid episode for the supporting cast as well, with Amanda Seyfried returning for what has to be her biggest and best episode as Lily ever. I was never really a fan of Logan and I never understood what it was the “Mars” fan base saw in him considering what an asshole that character was, but I would even tip my hat to Jason Dohring in “Leave it to Beaver”. It’s a performance I would point to as indicative of how much of a “less is more” kind of actor he is, and how good he could have been if the writers had not tried to push so hard for the audience to sympathize with Logan and when Dohring would not decide to randomly play the character with a Boston accent. Hell, even Teddy Dunn – yes, the personality-less Duncan Kane who was such a nothing character that he lost fan affection to Logan the dick – is not very good in this episode, but it’s commendable that he’s been written some actual dialogue, some of it needs to be shouted, and he’s actually really trying to make it work here. It’s another instance in this episode where a character is deliberately given their biggest role to date and kind of runs with it, even if it’s a character like Duncan where the bar is pretty low.

But when I talk about the care put into “Leave it to Beaver,” I’m referring mostly to the behind the scenes of “Veronica Mars” – being able to see, in every shot of every scene, Thomas spending long hours and late nights in the editing room carefully piecing this episode together. When a show asks for more money and a longer schedule, it’s usually to film one big, expensive sequence, and granted three of the four extra shooting days were with the second unit that was likely handling the episode’s outstanding stunt work (Keith and Aaron fighting at the end, and Aaron lighting the freezer he trapped Veronica in on fire). But you can also sense the added production time in little things that all add up to the sum total of a great TV episode. Rather than all being spent on one big choreographed scene, you can tell when X number of additional minutes was spent on lighting a particular scene here, and when the time was taken to use a particularly interesting and unusual camera angle there. You can see director Michael Fields calling for an extra take or two to get things perfect.

While making dinner with Liane at the start of the episode, Veronica makes the observation that her mother always coordinates the meal she makes with the music she listens to while making it. “It’s called setting a mood,” Liane says when Keith teases her for this practice. “Setting a mood” is what always made “Veronica Mars” work as well as it did, but in its first season finale, “knowing how to set a mood” also becomes “knowing when not to set a mood”. With earlier mentioned elements like lighting, blocking, and camera work, Thomas and co. create a very unsettling, even more than the show’s usual noir look, atmosphere that completely meshes with certain reveals, such as when Sherriff Lamb (looking peculiarly rough in this episode, at least when he shows up at the Echolls’ door) tells Logan he shouldn’t be calling Veronica for help since she was the one who tipped off the Neptune PD that he might be a suspect. And as much as I usually hate the trope of “person is hiding in the backseat and the protagonist did not see, hear, or feel their presence like normal human beings who live on planet Earth are able to do,” it’s still damn, damn scary when Veronica, on her way to give Lily’s incriminating tapes to the police, looks up at her rearview mirror and sees Aaron’s menacing eyes glowing back at her. But I also like when the show realizes that at times, the noir, old school crime feeling it has can be somewhat inappropriate or ineffective – the fistfight between Keith and Aaron while Veronica is trapped in the burning freezer is shot very conventionally, and is presented without any music playing over it. It’s a sign of the heart and conscience that make “Veronica Mars” none of the things I thought it would be that the show knew enough to realize when this entertaining game of “whodunit?” stopped being fun and started being very, very real danger.

And yet the sheer fun and joy this show was able to have at its absolute peak is perhaps the thing I will take away from it the most. And no doubt about it, “Leave it to Beaver” was the peak of “Veronica Mars” as a weekly series and could have, should have, been a good sign of things to come. Knowing how long and how badly they waited to continue the story of Veronica and her classmates at Neptune High, my enduring faith in Kristen Bell and particularly in Rob Thomas leaves me hopeful that the “Veronica Mars” movie will be bursting with all the care that was unable to really translate onscreen in the last two seasons and has been stored in reserves over the last six dark, stormy years.

Next week: Are we having fun yet? Good, because the Rob Thomas party continues next Friday!