In case it’s escaped the notice of even the dullest reader out there, I’ve got a pretty special place in the black rock I call my heart for “Veronica Mars.” Now cruising gamely along in its third season, despite low ratings and a network dumb enough to pair it with “Gilmore Girls” (a show about absolutely, positively nothing at all), “Veronica Mars” is still one of the best shows on TV. But after two full years of exploring high school life, Veronica up and graduated, and is now attending Hearst College. Her matriculation mirrors not just the show’s transfer from the defunct UPN to the new CW, but also the fact that the show itself is at a crossroads, namely, the elimination of its premise — high-school private eye — and a gradual change in its mission statement.
This is bound to be a polarizing time for the show’s hardcore fans, and it’s reminiscent of the similar struggle faced by what some have called the show’s ancestor, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Granted, I think that comparing any two shows beyond a certain point is unwise, and most people are just linking “Buffy” and “Veronica Mars” out of a well-meaning laziness: Both shows were centered around a strong, flawed, complex female character in high school; both shows placed a premium on witty dialogue and interpersonal relationships; both shows are on low-rated pseudo-networks; etc. But the shows do have their similarites, primarily their ability to explore the hell of growing up through the archetypal lens of high school, the one experience that unites us all in common misery. After its third season, “Buffy” went through the same growing pains now working their way through “Veronica Mars,” as Buffy went off to college and the show struggled to find its larger purpose even as its core dynamic was forever altered. More than just having key characters removed and assigned to a spin-off, the “Buffy” universe had to deal with its very own existential crisis: What happens when the teenage superhero starts to grow up?
The show dealt with the inevitable problems the only way it knew how: By pushing through them. The first episode of the fourth season features another pack of vampires led by one of the lamest ringleaders the show ever came up with, but the villain of the week did one thing right: She broke Buffy’s umbrella, a symbol of the good work she’d done in high school. It was a crushing, visceral way for the show to proclaim that the times were changing in a big way.
The fourth season, though certainly not a favorite of some fans, nevertheless turned out some great episodes — the experimental “Hush,” the crossover “Pangs,” the enjoyable one-off “Superstar,” the excellent “Fear, Itself” — and, much more importantly, broadened its worldview. College is a world of gray tones next to the starkly defined areas of high school, and Buffy interacted with a greater variety of people with more darkly human (as opposed to demonic) traits, including Parker, who slept with Buffy and never called her again. He wasn’t supernaturally evil, just a tool. It was in important step for the show, and one that paved the way for more complex relationships in the characters’ collective futures. The fourth season was radically different from the first three because it had to be.
That’s the problem, and possible solution, facing “Veronica Mars.” The show’s first two seasons delved into the dark sides of class warfare between the haves and have-nots of the small town of Neptune, smartly recognizing that cash is the biggest dividing line between the lunch tables in the cafeteria. But university life is rarely that stratified, and the only people who cling to such dated notions of how to define themselves are the jerks who seem to think college is basically Grade 13. “Veronica Mars” is going to have to figure out how to let go of the rich-poor struggle that so often defines the stories.
Veronica used to be a high-school snoop, and but she’s going to have to transform into a bigger, more nuanced character to get the show over the tough bumps coming out of two solid years of stories. The show should set about trying to define Veronica in grander terms, like what kind of person does she want to be, in order to work. The central group of characters has been altered — Duncan’s gone, Beaver’s dead — and the remaining ones aren’t what they used to be, none more than Weevil, who’s gone from ruthless gang leader to the equivalent of wacky sitcom neighbor in only a few months (seriously, making Weevil the janitor at Hearst was a low blow, especially after offering up the tantaloizing possibility that he might work with Keith). But “Veronica Mars” can and will succeed if it pushes the characters to grow, and if it becomes comfortable with somewhat redefining itself. You don’t go back; you go on to the next place, whatever that is.