Friday, May 04, 2007

The Veronica Mars dilemma

After a long hiatus, Veronica Mars returned this week to play out the remaining five episodes of its third season, coming back to both low ratings and dimmed fan enthusiasm (a number of rabid online fans declared this week's installment the worst episode ever). The show is in a curious position now for a number of reasons, and it seems like whatever happens from here is going to be frustrating in one way or another. From the start, VM was a show with a rabid cult following, critical acclaim and low ratings. As I said in a recent article about shows worth saving, it's one thing for a network to express confidence in an underperforming show and give it a chance to grow after one season; after three seasons of dismal ratings, there isn't much chance of somehow attracting a wider audience. This is the lesson that Arrested Development fans learned.

Yet there is some hope for VM, or at least there is still effort being put into broadening its viewership. After two years of season-long mysteries, this year featured two shorter mystery arcs, and these final five episodes are all stand-alone stories. Obviously the show's serialized nature is a big barrier to entry for anyone who hasn't been watching since the beginning, as it is even for successful shows like Lost, Heroes and 24. But loyal VM fans have been conditioned from the start to be constantly on the lookout for clues to each season's (or arc's) big mystery, and to expect an exciting climax in the finale. It seems to me that stand-alone episodes would have worked better as a bridge between the two longer mysteries, but since the season wasn't planned that way to start (initially there were to be three mystery arcs, before the CW cut the episode order from 22 to 20), that wasn't possible. And I really doubt that new fans are tuning in at this point to discover what Veronica has to offer.

Which means that the new format isn't really serving anyone, and of course creater Rob Thomas and company can't just put the brakes on ongoing storylines that are not about solving mysteries; it seems that in the absence of a crime to solve, this last "arc" is going to be about resolving Veronica's love life. Which is something with a lot of meaning for longtime viewers, but very little for newcomers. I have a hard time believing that done-in-one mysteries are viable as a long-term future for the show, although I think that the dialogue and characters are rich enough that such a format would still be rewarding. Really, Thomas has been faced with this problem ever since the end of the first season, which gave us a satisfying end to the Lily Kane murder investigation and left the show with the insurmountable task of finding a new crime for Veronica to investigate with as much resonance for both the characters and the viewers. It's useful to remember that Thomas originally conceived of VM as a novel, with a clear beginning, middle and end, and the show's second and third seasons have largely been efforts to come up with worthy sequels to that self-contained story.

So what's next? If you believe various online rumors, the show has no chance of coming back in its current state, and the only possibility is a completely revamped concept that jumps ahead several years in time, with Veronica as a junior FBI agent. Although I am skeptical of this potential revamp's ability to attract new viewers, I'm optimistic about its possibilites as a creative direction for the show. Since each new season has been a reinvention of sorts anyway, a more radical departure might be just what's needed to give the show back a strong identity and an exciting hook. But even with the announcements that both 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls will be ending, and the CW's likely interest in keeping a show that appeals to the teen-girl demographic, I think ultimately they'll decline to take a gamble on a risky new direction for a show that is already barely hanging on. And sad as I will be to see VM go, it's practically a miracle that it's lasted this long, and I'll be happy to see the many talented people involved move on to new projects that can showcase their skills to a larger potential audience.

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