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Buffy, It Ain't

At Veronica's Neptune High, battles are between the multiracial underclass and a mostly white, ultrarich crowd of '09ers.'
 
 
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I've been dying to obsess about TV again, but until recently my quest seemed hopeless. No shows created by Joss Whedon are on the air, and popular, new science fiction series Battlestar Galactica makes me feel crawly and abused rather than fannish. I'd been reduced to late nights with my vaporizer and replays of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on the SciFi Channel. I'd hit rock bottom.

Then I started hearing about this show called Veronica Mars, whose kick-ass teenage heroine sounded like Buffy, only without the whining. Initially I was dubious. No spaceships, mythological creatures, supernatural lawyers, slutty aliens or time travel? It sounded dangerously like realism. But what did I have to lose? I was sick of watching the chick who played Ensign Ro Laren on Star Trek tell her troops they could beat and rape cylon prisoners on Battlestar Galactica. If things got any worse, I was going to start watching Drawn Together.

Luckily, around that time Warner released a DVD box set of Veronica Mars' first season. My all-knowing girlfriend Charlie picked it up, and one evening we began to watch. Every 50 minutes or so, we'd look at each other and ask, "Should we watch another one?" We didn't stop until 4 a.m.

Yes, it was realism -- a rather extreme version of realism, in fact. This isn't Buffy's Sunnydale High, where battles are fought between humans and demons from the Hellmouth. Instead, at Veronica's Neptune High, battles are fought between the multiracial underclass and a mostly white, ultrarich crowd of "09ers" (named for the suffix in their zip code). Veronica's hard-boiled voice-over tells us there is no middle class in Neptune. There's just class warfare.

The first episode finds Veronica, once a popular "nice girl," becoming the town outcast when her 09er best friend, Lilly, is murdered and Veronica's father, Keith -- Neptune's sheriff -- accuses the girl's software mogul dad of the crime. The 09er parents band together, using their wealth and influence to shuffle Keith out of office. Meanwhile, somebody doses Veronica with rufies at an 09er party and rapes her. She has no superpowers, and she has no Scooby gang. All she's got is a plan to get even, and her father, who hires her to assist at his PI firm, Mars Investigation.

Eventually, Veronica gains allies. There's Wallace, the boy next door with a mysterious past; Mac, the computer geek with a blue streak in her hair; and Weevil, the Mexican biker-gang leader who's sick of the 09ers calling him "the pool boy" or "the housekeeper's son." And then there's sexy, troubled 09er bad boy Logan, whose movie star father has a violent streak a mile wide (and seems to have passed it on to his son).

I call these people allies because Veronica doesn't really have friends or buddies in the way TV heroes usually do. She's too hardened to have pals. She's had to do things like kick her boozed-up mom out of the house and accuse her boyfriends of murder.

Most of Veronica's sometimes-twisted energy is focused on work: investigating for her father, solving Lilly's murder, getting to the bottom of the murders of dozens of her classmates in a bizarre bus crash. She spies on people; she plants GPS devices on their cars and bugs their phones. She uses her blond hotness to weasel information that's inevitably guarded by horny dorks. Sometimes it's hard to sympathize with a character who is willing to play bimbo and whose wiretapping habits are so prodigious they make the NSA seem like a bunch of pansies.

Veronica's not a particularly nice person, but whenever there's an injustice, she does something about it. No magic or sword necessary. I think that's the core of what makes this often depressing show so addictive. We've got a flawed and nonsuperpowered person whose life has been shattered, but she still fights for truth and protects the proverbial little guy. She'll always make time to rescue the stolen dog of an unpopular girl or make sure Weevil isn't victimized by racist 09ers. This isn't to say there aren't enough salacious plotlines in Veronica Mars to satisfy even a Twin Peaks fan. The first season and a half are packed with violent infidelity, possible incest and dramatic family secrets.

Although I still love Wonder Woman, Xena and Buffy, I've always found it a little disturbing that their justice-making powers were somehow supernatural. Sure, Veronica may not be entirely realistic, but at least she follows the laws of physics. So hurry up and watch, already! It's nice to imagine justice in the real world for once.

Annalee Newitz ( happilyobsessed@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who can't wait to read Veronica/Mac fanfic, but would be willing to make do with more Veronica/Logan 'shipper trash.