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The Original Veronica Mars Pilot: An Appreciation

Why the show's very first episode ranks among the all time greats.
  • Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars
    Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars

    Many great shows have rocky starts. How often have you heard, "just get to the second season and you'll really fall in love with it"? Not every first season can be Stranger Things or Big Little Lies, and very few first episodes of great TV start with the story and characters being fully formed. There's the LOST pilot, theTwin Peaks pilot, the Jessica Jones pilot, and then there's the Veronica Mars pilot. I'm talking about the original first episode, not the one for the revival (which unexpectedly dropped on Hulu last Friday, a full week ahead of schedule). The one that in its original cut opened with this choice bit of Veronica dialogue, delivered perfectly by Kirsten Bell:

    "I'm never getting married. You want an absolute? Well, there it is. Veronica Mars, spinster. I mean, what's the point? Sure there's the initial primal drive. Ride it out—better yet, ignore it. Sooner or later, the people you love let you down."

    And that's it. That's the whole show in one short inner monologue. Cynical but strong, Veronica Mars is the teen detective we deserve. And she doesn't have time for anyone's bullshit.

    Within the pilot's first ten minutes, we're quickly introduced to nearly all of the show's Season 1 characters: her soon-to-be new best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III), her recently estranged love interest Duncan (Teddy Dunn), her frenemy Logan (Jason Dohring), the gang leader with a heart of gold Weevil (Francis Capra), her dead best friend Lilly (Amanda freakin' Seyfried), and her beloved dad Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni). An episode with this much exposition within the first act shouldn't work, but it does. Series creator Rob Thomas sells every bit of it -- all the while setting the show's tone with its moody, noir lighting and bright teenage outfits. Neptune is not unlike Parks and Rec's Pawnee or Stranger Things' Hawkins in that it's a fictional town with an almost cartoony supporting cast of townsfolk, but the show itself is like a Raymond Chandler novel put through the lens of the early 2000s and told from the perspective of a sarcastic teen.

    We also learn just how much you don't want to mess with Veronica. From the "surprise" locker inspection where her principal finds nothing but a picture of him in a heart frame inside, to her having her "backup" (aka her dog named Backup, who we only see when the plot requires him), to her getting back at the terrible Neptune sheriff (Michael Muhney) by humiliating him in court. 

    When her future love interest Logan smashes her car lights in, she doesn't flinch. When Weevil fights Logan right in front of her, she doesn't flinch. When Weevil makes gross sexist comments to her, she doesn't flinch. Veronica is always one step ahead of everyone in Neptune. But while Veronica has her hard-boiled detective exterior, she also also has a softer interior, as explicitly stated by Wallace when he delivers the iconic line, "You're a marshmallow, Veronica Mars." A line she repeats again at the very end of the episode when she determines to find out what tore her family apart.

    "You're a marshmallow, Veronica Mars. A Twinkie." Kristin Bell and Percy Daggs III in the Veronica Mars pilot.

    It really is bananas how much is packed into one episode. But it works because the writing is tight and Kirsten Bell's Veronica is just so damned charming and enjoyable to watch. While Veronica voices over nearly every scene, that's just set up. Truth is, it's all in the showing. We see Logan smash her car lights. We see the sheriff downplay her rape charges. An episode where Veronica is just studying for midterms with Wallace would have probably been satisying in and of itself. But here, surrounded by great moments in an episode jammed packed with characters, it's nice to have an intro that starts halfway through the story: Veronica's BFF Lilly has been murdered, and Veronica is is now exiled from her former rich-kid friends. It's both complete and perfect in the way that it sets up the season to come (and even some things that come in later seasons).

    If you haven't watched the series and are tempted by the early praise for the Hulu revival, I heartily recommend starting at the very beginning. And if you're a veteran Marshmallow, you've probably already binged the new fourth season, why not revisit the episode where it all began?

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    Ian Carlos Crawford is a freelance writer, host of the podcast Slayerfest 98, and someone with way too many feelings. Follow him on Twitter at @ianxcarlos.

    TOPICS: Veronica Mars, Hulu, Kristen Bell