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Jim McDermottNovember 07, 2005

In the sugarplum candyland of Neptune, Calif., the high school student Veronica Mars had it all--smarts, a cute boyfriend, a stable nuclear family and social status. It is true that, unlike most of her peers, she was not wealthy; as sheriff, her dad was actually closer to “the help.” But with all the right friends, it mostly didn’t matter.

Then her best friend Lilly was murdered, and everything fell apart. Veronica’s dad accused the girl’s grieving father. When he failed to make the case, he lost his job, his wife ran off and Veronica lost all her friends. Eight months later, she pines for the past and tries to discover who killed her best friend and where her mother is.

Welcome to Veronica Mars (Wednesdays, 9 p.m.), UPN’s sophomore standout about a young woman searching for truth and love in a troubled world. On one level, the program offers classic high school fare--mean kids, insecurity, the quest for autonomy and identity. Come on, now--who wants a swirlie? On “Mars,” though, the cruelty and loneliness that color the adolescent years are understood as emblematic of life in our society. Glamorous, wealthy and well known, the parents of Neptune have largely achieved the American dream. But the “perfect life” has its costs. Jake Kane, a software designer, and his wife have riches beyond measure, but a theirs is a sterile, loveless existence. The actor Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) is everyone’s favorite movie star; yet in private he cheats on his wife, worries about the press and beats his son. Wealth and status, once realized, become obligations to be maintained. The resultant world is a harsh place, indifferent to the needs of almost everyone within it.

A classic film noir hero, Veronica is witness to the brokenness and a seeker of truth. The landscape through which she travels is always shifting, and each new fact only provokes further, deeper, more personal questions: Was her mother having an affair? Is her father hiding something? The conclusions Veronica draws about life can be painful: “If there’s something I’ve learned in this business,” she tells us, “[it’s that] the people you love let you down.” And: “Love is an investment. Information is insurance.” Beneath the tough facade remains a little girl grieving because she has been abandoned by everyone she loves except her father. Though she eschews her peers, she pursues the truth as though it might repair those relationships. It never does.

What is more, in a sense it does not need to. On “Mars,” with suffering comes empathy and new, unexpected possibilities. When the Latino gang members at school bind an African-American student naked to a flagpole with duct tape, only Veronica moves to help him. He in turn will reach out to her and become her first reliable friend. In another episode the rich kid Caitlin Ford (played pout-perfectly by Paris Hilton), treats Veronica with that strange combination of vacuity and disdain one only experiences in high school. But when Caitlin is herself suddenly rejected by the in-crowd, Veronica looks on with pity.

As imagined by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, “Veronica Mars” is crisply written, witty and captivating. Veronica herself is a dazzlingly nuanced young adult woman, strong and attractive but also troubled. Combining screwball comic timing with a steely sense of understatement, Kristin Bell as Veronica and Enrico Colantoni as her father bring these characters to life with deft, light touches. Their characters’ grief is held close and revealed obliquely.

Of course, at the end of the day, the question is “So what?” On television the real trend this year is the end of the world. Three new series, “Invasion” (ABC), “Surface” (NBC) and “Threshold” (CBS), imagine aliens (or something equally maleficent) on the way to conquering the planet. On the Emmy Award-winning “Lost” (ABC), life might as well be over for the survivors of a plane crash stuck on a scary island. This season’s television is preoccupied with the attempt to survive disasters.

Yet, as the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams warns in his book The Truce of God, the danger of catastrophe fantasies is that they tend to absolve us of responsibility for our situation. Something outside of and far more powerful than ourselves causes a disaster; our responses (often violent) are justified by the extraordinary circumstances. Portraying us as both powerless and innocent, these stories encourage fatalism and “impenitence,” an unwillingness to consider our own part in the sinful world in which we live, indeed an unwillingness to see the world as sinful. Something “out there” is causing our troubles; it’s not our fault.

What makes “Veronica Mars” interesting is that although it too presents a catastrophe, it begins from the opposite premise. We are not powerless, Veronica Mars tells us. Our society is built upon the choices we make. The catastrophe is the world that we have created, a reality in which some people’s wants overwhelm everyone’s needs, and life is marred by infidelity and rejection. Friendships are possible, and family can survive, but callousness and indifference prevail.

Filled with unkind but also fragile adolescents longing for connection with their parents, many of them emotionally battered and alone, “Veronica Mars” cries out like the prophets of old that our American dreams and escapist fantasies come at far too high a price. We must change our ways. And for our troubles, we have only ourselves to blame.

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