Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Director: John Kretchmer, Nick Marck, Michael Fields, Harry Winer, Jason Bloom
Screenwriter: Rob Thomas, John Enbom, Diane Ruggiero, Phil Klemmer, Jonathan Moskin, David Mulei
Of course, it helps that season three of Veronica features a healthy portion of the show at its best, alongside the weaker. In previous years, Veronica would be working on a single over-arching case throughout the season, even as each episode brought a new mystery-of-the-week. This format was dropped in season three in an effort to bring a new audience to the ratings-challenged show. While these 20 episodes lack the long build and unity of purpose afforded to previous story arcs, the experiments with format -- shorter arcs at first, and then "stand-alone" episodes which are nonetheless rich in both story and character development -- reveal Veronica Mars as a sturdy enterprise, entertainment value intact across structural changes.
The season begins, in "Welcome Wagon," with Veronica moving from the fictional, class-stratified Neptune High School to the equally fictional but somewhat less cruel Hearst College. The sunnier campus environment sometimes feels at odds with the show's noir roots, but series creator Rob Thomas (no relation to the pop singer) and his crew of writers find their share of underworld twists -- prostitutes, gambling, cheating rings, secret societies -- even without Veronica spending quite so much time in the corrupt, shadowy Neptune. Some of the best campus cases include a girlfriend with an enternally sunny disposition, convinced her boyfriend is missing, not cheating ("Of Vice and Men"); a nerd in love with a hooker ("Poughkeepsie, Tramps, and Thieves"); and a missing lab monkey ("Show Me the Monkey," natch).
Though some of these stand-alone mysteries lack invention -- some of the solutions don't snap the way they did in previous seasons, and a couple of episodes even use similar templates for the "surprise" perpetrator -- Kristen Bell continues to engage throughout with her characterization of Veronica, equal parts tough and chirpy. One of the season's best throwaway moments comes late in the season: A guilty party turns on the lights in his apartment to find Veronica sitting in a chair in perfect film noir fashion -- until she sings, with mock enthusiasm, the chorus to wuss-rock hit "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter. It's little moments like that (including several tart heart-to-hearts with hacker sidekick Mac, played with charm by Tina Majorino) that keep the show going during less inspired plotting.
The season's first longer arc, which has Veronica trying to track down a serial rapist on the Hearst campus, struck some as tacky both for the sexual assault-driven plot and for the accompanying negative, allegedly stereotypical portrayals of both strident feminists and hard-partying frat boys. The show may not have introduced any productive new characters during this story, the way that resident high-school jackass Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) became a perversely welcome presence throughout the show's run, but Veronica doesn't crusade against frat boys or feminists in particular, nor do the writers. On the Hearst Campus, they all represent different forms of the establishment, which makes them fair game for Veronica's sleuthing.
The rapist storyline also has a sense of danger, culminating in the tense "Spit and Eggs," lacking in the next arc, with Veronica trying to solve the murder of a college authority figure. Still, a life-altering, vaguely personal major mystery is probably too much to ask for every year of Veronica's life. Without a complex central arc underway, the episodes towards the end of the season are packed with great character moments, and the finale "The Bitch is Back" is a series highlight that paves the way for future adventures.
Unfortunately, the open-ended finale is all we get; this season of Veronica would prove to be the young sleuth's last hurrah (at least until comic books, TV movies, and/or a theatrical film revive her; fingers crossed for even more format versatility to come!). The fully imagined modern-noir world of Veronica Mars is ideal for the immersive quality of a DVD collection; it's a shame the show couldn't find a bigger audience outside of the box-sets.