Sunday, July 31, 2005

TV Review: Veronica Mars is from Mars

Feel for Kristen Bell. Really feel for her. She's twenty-five and stuck playing a headstrong and plucky high schooler. On TV -- which means her character, Veronica Mars, is a real drip. As if a 25 year-old trying to portray Shirley Temple sans curls isn't difficult enough, it gets worse, oh does it get worse. Sexual tensions flies all around Veronica, but none of it is aimed at her. She's like a straight woman hoping for a hook up at a Cher concert.

Veronica Mars, for those who've missed it, airs on UPN although Friday night an episode we like to call the "Knock Down That Closet Door, Mary!" aired on CBS. Since this is no Joan of Arcadia, you can forgive viewers who were caught unaware and left to wonder if same-sex flirting is the new machismo for the young male set?

Like a less disrobed version of Oz, Friday night was all about the boys. The episode offers a poker game before the main titles which allows the fellows to get to know each other. Weevil catches your attention early on. (No, we're not making that name up.) Played by a 22 year-old Francis Capra, all we can say is he's a long, long way from his great-grandfather's It's a Wonderful Life. Right away, Weevil sets the tone telling a cigar sucking Logan, (23 year-old Jason Dohring) "You look pretty comfortable with that thing in your mouth."

We're imagining the usually staid CBS Friday night viewers asking one another, "Honey, did I hear that right?" Yes, you did. And hold onto the bran, there's more coming. Banter, the type one may be more used to coming from the mouths of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, gets tossed around quicker than the cards in said poker game. The climax to the scene, or maybe just more intense foreplay, is Weevil winning only to find that the five thousand dollars is gone. He's starts making noises about turning the other boys upside down ("and inside out?").

Weevil's supposed to be bad ass. He works hard to establish that point and possibly he could frighten a few on Rodeo Drive -- which must be the "street" he hails from. Here's a tip for Weevil, a pout is not a sneer no matter how many times you utilize it.

So this "bad ass" has just learned he's out five thousand dollars. Thinking things are about to get nasty? Maybe, but not in any traditional way that the CBS viewers are used to. No fista-cuffs, no blood shed. But clothing, that gets shed.

Weevil insists that the four boys strip. And naturally, none of them have any objection to that because Straight Outta Malibu might get all . . . what exactly? on their asses.

The camera's on their asses. Or on two of their boxer clad asses -- Logan's and Duncan's (Teddy Dunn, age officially unknown but we're told he's 24) . The camera really lingers on the cheeks before pulling back to note all four boys standing in boxers (apparently they phoned one another that morning in a "Boxer or briefs?" conference call) while Weevil pouts at them, making noises about how he will get his money out of them one way or another, and Sean (Kevin Sheridan, 23 years old) moans, "This is the worst game of strip poker ever!"

Before you get your hopes up (or other things) calm down and remember it's not HBO, it's broadcast TV.

But don't get too disappointed, all that's happened before the credits will be relived repeatedly in flashback as various boys get to retell their version of Chippindales Poker.

Take for instance Logan, who we see, in Weevil's flashback, on his knees before Weevil at school.
The opening line to this curiously staged scene? Logan to Weevil, "If you're asking me to the prom again, the answer is still no." Weevil's explains this -- and much, more more -- to Veronica who's obviously on The Case of the Homoerotic Subtext.

All she need do is keep her eyes and ears open. Because shortly after Duncan suspects Logan of being the thief (it's very Postman Always Rings Twice as the fellows turn on one another) the drama flares up as Duncan ends it with Logan:

Duncan: And I'm over it.
Logan: What, are we breaking up now? You want your best friend charm back?

Apparently tired of the boys having all the fun, Veronica hunts down the fifth hand in Chippindales Poker, Connor (Travis Schuldt, 31 in September but he's playing a non-high schooler) on the set of the movie he's starring in. A lot of talk is wasted by Logan and Veronica about Connor's "six pack" -- there's not one. So we're guessing that what has Veronica slack jawed is Connor's erect nipples -- nipples which seem to greet her as she bends and leans her head towards his torso for a closer look.

We're trusting that you're getting the point so we're leaving out the whole narrative of how when Logan was ten, Rosie Perez came to his birthday party to wish "Lauren" a happy birthday and brought a purse as a gift for "Lauren." The boys may have only one thing on their minds but we're not guessing it's "girls."

We're not knocking it, we just wish they'd upfront it. We're expecting that the CBS viewers were deeply, deeply confused when this show popped up Friday night.

It's hard not to be confused. Veronica's mother is dead. In this episode. Later it will turn out that she's still alive. Logan's parents have a whole Cheaters melodrama brewing and his father Aaron (Harry Hamilin) is a movie star while his mother Lynn (Lisa Rinna) is fond of boozing it up as Aaron beats Logan with a belt. Considering that Rinna's lips appear to have swollen up even more than when she was last spotted on Melrose Place, we're wondering if there's an as yet unrevealed subplot where Aaron uses the same belt on Rinna's mouth?

"This is confusing!" we hear some of you saying. We're not done yet. Duncan's parents? Somehow involved in Veronica's mother's death. (That's not a death, but you don't find that out until after this episode.) While Veronica's chasing down The Case of The Jock Itch Blues, her father (Enrico Colantoni) is actually a private investigator and Lynn's hired him to find out which one of Aaron's extra-marital affairs has resulted in death threats.

Veronica will figure out the twists and turns of her case before her father susses out his. At lunch, she'll announce that she knows who the thief is and all she needs to prove it is for another poker game to be called. All boys will keep their pants on in this one, but then, there is a lady present.

Prior to Veronica's announcement, Logan will join Sean and Duncan at the table. As Logan grabs a slice of pizza, Duncan will stand and huff causing Sean to ask, "Will you guys kiss and make up already?" The impish Logan will blow Duncan a kiss. And, later on, Veronica will note of Duncan's iced tea, "How very musical theater of you!"

Is your mind reeling? Let's cut to the chase. Before the episode comes to a close, we'll learn that rich boy Sean isn't rich and that he stole the five thousand (Weevil will disappear with him briefly -- presumably to work out some payment agreement despite the fact that Sean is dirt poor and has shoplifting charges), Veronica will scream at Duncan's father about the fact that he had something to do with her mother's death (or "death"), Duncan's father will confront his wife and pull her out of the party. Rinna will grin throughout all of this (she paid a lot for those lips, people!) up until Alex is stabbed, Logan will watch his father bleeding and hesitate before calling an ambulance.

"Woah!" you sigh thinking you've digested it all. Not really.

See the whole season, Veronica's on the trail of the person who killed her best friend Lilly (who, unlike Veronica's mother, will stay dead) as well as trying to determine who date raped her ("her" being Veronica, not the friend -- we know, it is confusing).

If you're thinking that it's all very Lace ("Which one of you bitches is my mother?") and Lace II ("Which one of you bastards is my father?") let's underscore that by noting that the date rapist is revealed to be . . . Duncan! Drugged with GHB by Logan! And that Duncan broke up with Veronica because of the fact that she may be . . . his sister!

Paternity is solved by the finale which also informs us that Logan's dad Aaron (Hamlin) was the person who killed Lilly! Veronica also, in that episode, will kick her mother (remember, she's come back from the "dead" by then) out of her life because Mom can't lay off the booze! As though this life and death and back to life thing were easy!

What was CBS thinking when they made the decision to spring this show on Friday night viewers only recently weened off Nash Bridges? And what is Bell thinking with the hair style?
It works for Patricia Arquette on Medium because she's playing a busy mother of young children. On Bell, it never quite works.

Nor does the wants-so-bad-to-be-Twin-Peaks vibe when it's combined with the sort of knowing, insider commentary by "high schoolers" last heard on Dawson's Creek. It's honestly as though they attempted to combine everything they could think of ("they" starting with creator Rob Thomas -- no not that Rob Thomas) starting with the banter of screwball comedies, the pulp of film noir, the scandal of a page turner you're embarrassed to be caught reading, "topical," "teenagers" (played by adults) and a heaping dose of homoeroticism. The latter was the only thing that actually held our interest.

Bell didn't. On the episode we watched, it wasn't that she was too glum which would, all things considered, make sense. She was, after all, the victim of a date rape with a then still dead mother, a dead best friend and suffering from questions of paternity. What we couldn't take was Little Miss Plucky seeming to forget any and all long running sub plots from scene to scene. Yes, it's a hell of a lot to keep with up but Bell didn't seem able to and the character lacked a gravity that recent events seemed to dictate that she should have.

Too many plot lines and too little attention mars Veronica Mars. On UPN it may develop a cult following but if it wants to play on the big three, it needs to work on reigning in the hyper activity and Bell needs to work on creating a character whose suffering plays like something more than "I so cannot believe he sprung a pop test on us!"

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