If “The Outsiders” author S.E. Hinton and Raymond Chandler had a child, she might be Veronica Mars. The teenage title character of UPN’s new one-hour drama, “Veronica Mars,” has the outsider angle covered, and she narrates events in a Chandler-esque voice-over. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, the people you love let you down,” the preternaturally cynical Veronica intones.
While trying to navigate the everyday drama of her Southern California high school, where, as she says, “If you go here, your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires,” Veronica (Kristen Bell) moonlights as an apprentice private investigator. The show is character-driven. There are Veronica and her only pal and fellow outcast Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), who must avoid both Veronica’s popular ex-boyfriend and malevolent juvenile delinquents such as Weevil and his P.C.H. Biker Boyz.
There is Veronica’s father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), the town’s former sheriff, who is struggling to establish a P.I. business. Veronica helps him by sneaking through back alleys and scoping out motels with her telescopic-lens camera hidden behind her math book.
The pilot, in flashbacks, relates the Mars family’s reversal of fortune. As sheriff, Keith fell from grace after fingering one of the town’s richest and most powerful men, Jake Kane, in the murder of Jake’s own daughter, Veronica’s friend Lilly.
When billionaire Jake was exonerated, we learn, the scandal cost Keith his job, his home and his wife, and Veronica was ostracized by her friends and dumped by her boyfriend, Duncan (Teddy Dunn), Lilly’s brother.
But clearly something is fishy in the fictional town of Neptune. The rich and powerful make the rules and desperately try to keep their dirty little secrets hidden. The current sheriff is a psychopathic sleazebag. It’s left to plucky Veronica to reclaim her father’s honor and her own reputation with the in crowd, and to answer her lingering questions about Lilly’s death.
Bell does such a good job playing the world-weary Veronica that she manages to get away with voice-over lines like “I’m no longer that girl” and “The detective in me knew something was wrong” without sounding silly. She channels the charisma, smarts and frustration of Angela Chase, Claire Danes’ character in “My So-Called Life.” At one point Veronica’s friend Wallace pegs her: “Underneath that angry young woman ... is a slightly less angry young woman.”
The show’s writing is clever. The resourceful and fearless Veronica, no namby-pamby Nancy Drew, describes her ex-boyfriend’s best friend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) as her high school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass.”
Creator and producer Rob Thomas, a young-adult novelist and former writer for “Dawson’s Creek,” has expressed hope that “Veronica Mars” will do for UPN what “21 Jump Street” did for Fox in 1987 and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did for the WB in 1997 -- give the station its first big dramatic hit. We’ll see. But viewers should find it easy to root for this underdog.
When: 9 to 10 tonight. Regular time is 9 p.m. Tuesdays starting next week.
Rating: TV-PG, L (may be unsuitable for young children; strong language)
Kristen Bell...Veronica Mars
Enrico Colantoni...Keith Mars
Percy Daggs III...Wallace Fennel
Jason Dohring...Logan Echolls
Francis Capra...Eli “Weevil” Navarro
Teddy Dunn...Duncan Kane
Executive producers, Rob Thomas, Joel Silver. Creator, Joel Silver. Director, Mark Piznarski. Writer, Rob Thomas.