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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Veronica’s appealing, but Buffy’s really a tough act to follow

Tim Goodman

Tuesday 3 October 2006, by Webmaster

For anyone who took the wildly charming, pop culture roller-coaster ride known as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the olden days of television, there was a truism you knew deep down in your soul — the show was for the young and the young at heart, catered to disaffected and intelligent TV watchers, and reveled, for years, in a misunderstood brilliance that attracted a cult and not much more.

"Veronica Mars," entering its third season on the CW tonight, has many of the hallmarks of "Buffy," but suffers from a kind of version 2.0 downgrade because part of the charm of "Buffy" was its originality, and "Veronica," as smart and sassy as it is, will forever be seen as a cousin, if not a copy.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, but it does leave you with a kind of been-to-this-genre-before jadedness. And yet, if you haven’t completely lost your taste for a little youthful drama (as opposed to, say, "House," or "Law & Order") then "Veronica Mars" fills a certain nostalgic void. How many times can you find an immensely talented young woman like Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) and now Kristen Bell (Veronica) who is 80 percent of the reason you watch in the first place (or why the show is successful)?

For her part, Bell is both outstanding and irresistible but, despite the mutual appreciation society between "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon and "Veronica" creator Rob Thomas, the fact is that "Buffy," at least to this point, is the gold standard in this limited genre and still the better show. Part of that may rest with the premise — high school (and then college) girl slays vampires and other evil beings. There’s a fantastical element that viewers went with (and the writers played with) that allowed a greater disconnect from reality (and thus any comparisons rooted in other familiar shows on the schedule).

In "Veronica Mars," Bell plays the title character who, first in high school and this season in college, becomes a crack private investigator and crime solver. Her father is her mentor and rock, her boyfriend loving but flawed, her friends equally fast-talking and hip — the similarities to Buffy go on and on. Smart, sassy, good looking (but almost always oblivious to that power), eternally the outsider, both characters are instantly likable. But since Veronica is rooted in reality — no vampires or living dead anywhere in the fictional town of Neptune — the show wherein she displays her biting tongue and impressive detective skills gets cut infinitely less slack. What hurts "Veronica Mars" is the milieu in which she’s cast. Somewhere between "Monk" and "Scooby-Doo" is the feel of the mysteries presented in the series (not so much the actual whodunit, which can be convoluted, but the route taken to the solving of the crime). So maybe it’s a problem of gravitas.

Then again, the mysteries at hand are not really why anyone would watch "Veronica Mars." Bell is the reason you watch. And the way Thomas and his writers are able to make her a girl-power heroine with enough pop-culture asides and cutting remarks to not make the whole thing feel corny. Certainly Bell can take viewers through a half season before they desire something more meaty from the ensemble or the story — she’s that good.

But the problem with cult shows that eagerly desire (and certainly need) a larger audience, is that if said available audience (heretofore watching something else, presumably) gets wind of all the hype (and there’s been lots of it for "Veronica Mars"), its expectations may be too high. For all of its wondrous charms and agreeable reasons for watching, the fact is that after Bell and a smattering of quote-worthy dialogue, "Veronica Mars" probably doesn’t have enough dramatic heft to break out of its own cult status. That doesn’t make it unworthy of attention, but leaves it somewhat shy of greatness.