Anyone who's written off Veronica Mars as just a pert, teen-marketed detective show has not tuned in to the second season of the UPN drama. After tidily wrapping up last year's overarching plotline Veronica's investigation into the murder of her wealthy best friend creator Rob Thomas has launched a mythology that out-complicates even Lost. Veronica's ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) is blamed for the murder of a biker; her current boyfriend, Duncan (Teddy Dunn), has kidnapped his infant daughter after the baby's mom passed on...from injuries suffered in a deadly school-bus accident that was no accident.
Was high school detective Veronica (Kristen Bell) the target? Who's out to get Logan? Where'd guest star Steve Guttenberg go? Does anyone really believe baseball superstar Terrence Cook (Jeffrey Sams) rigged the bus to get rid of a pesky girlfriend? Does anyone even remember him from his brief appearances on the show back in the fall? Can someone please winnow these story lines down?
There are so many plots with so many characters shuffling in and out that the series (particularly since its January return) is in danger of feeling less like Veronica Mars a charming mix of smart-aleck lines and moody mysteries and more like a dizzying David Mamet card trick. Fortunately, Veronica can be enjoyed even if you've given up solving its clever puzzles. The show has forged a very current brand of noir, in which teen angst (Dad isn't perfect after all; is this guy dating me for the right reasons?) has an incredibly dark side (Dad's not just flawed, he may be a killer; this guy is dating me so he can set up a blackmail scheme).
Of course, the show simply wouldn't work if it weren't for Bell, who's in pretty much every scene and uses her tart delivery to keep things from getting too gloomy. Banging around in an old LeBaron convertible, blithely brushing off adversity, launching bubble-gum-flavored retorts at everyone from disappointing beaus to bullying FBI agents, Veronica Mars is like a cute female Fletch. Her witty interactions with friends and foes are as vivid as ever: ''My boyfriend just fled the country with his dead ex-girlfriend's baby. I need a project,'' she smiles, in her typically glib way, while wheedling an assignment. And Veronica's relationship with her PI dad (Enrico Colantoni) is the best father-daughter act on TV, full of fondness and nudging sarcasm.
The dialogue on Mars is on a par with the best of the 1930s screwball comedies: One gets the feeling creator Thomas has watched his share of Howard Hawks films, particularly when exes Veronica and Logan swap their sexually charged insults. (Part adorable and part loathsome, Dohring's mischievous, twitchy Logan has morphed into the ultimate bad-boy fixer-upper which is, of course, what teenage girls like best.) So watch Veronica to try to unravel that rat's nest of a mystery, or watch for the snappy writing and knowing chemistry. One of Hawks' most entertaining films, the Bogart-Bacall mystery The Big Sleep, was famously hard to untangle too. Veronica has its spirit, and that's a huge compliment.