The premise sounds a tad Nancy Drew. High school dolly Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) helps her private investigator dad (Enrico Colantoni) solve cases! You're thinking: ''If I want a cute blonde sleuthing spunkily, I'll reread The Clue in the Old Stagecoach,'' right? But it turns out Veronica Mars is far more than Drew redux.
Veronica's dad used to be the sheriff, until he went after billionaire Jake Kane (Homicide: Life on the Street's Kyle Secor) for the murder of his own daughter, Lilly (played in flashbacks by Amanda Seyfried, of the Mean Girls ''Plastics'' clique). His attempt to nail the local hero got Papa Mars fired and turned the family into pariahs: Mom skipped town and Veronica has free-fallen from incrowd to freaky-loner status. ''I will find out what really happened, and I will bring this family back together again,'' she vows in the pilot. Lilly was Veronica's best friend and the sister of Veronica's now ex (Teddy Dunn) so she obviously wants to solve the crime. But what makes Veronica so strangely touching is that on a larger scale, her quest mirrors the common teen conundrum: My family's screwed up, and I'm not cool enough. How can I fix it?
The overarching, slightly mythic mystery lends the series a Twin Peaks aura. Sure, Lilly wasn't discovered dead, wrapped in plastic, but she's still dead, hit on the noggin, with a really creepy family. And the setting, the wealthy Southern California town of Neptune, has a heightened-reality, Peaksian vibe. (Neptune? Mars? It's on the edge of otherworldly.) With its teen biker gangs and secret rich-kid societies, Veronica's world is like an Archie comic gone really dark. The one element that needs toning down is the slimy, bootlicking sheriff (Michael Muhney), who's too much of a capital-C character.
Overall, however, Veronica Mars avoids slipping into capital-O oddness by keeping its heroine busy with small assignments like dead-beat dads and e-mail scams. These jobs allow for sillier moments, as they can require her to don Sydney Bristow-esque disguises, including the unnecessary but nonetheless amusing naughty-schoolgirl outfit she wears to infiltrate a nerdy gamer's club. (Veronica's hair-pieces can get wiggy. Loved the black Cleopatra number, but her hair in the when-I-was-a-good-girl flashbacks looks like someone scalped one of the Nelson twins.)
As for the lead actress, Bell has created one charming character: a girl whose pert, pretty face masks a green-apple personality. Her Veronica is sour but still wishful, tart but well-meaning, and her slowly building friendship with fellow outcast Wallace (Percy Daggs III) will make you smile. Plus she's one of the few TV gals who's funny without being broad, flip-over-the-chair ''funny.'' Veronica, friends, is a quipper. ''Flat?'' asks the cute new boy, as he watches her change a tire. ''I'm just as God made me,'' she replies, barely looking up. It's also refreshing to see Colantoni, who played womanizing Elliott on Just Shoot Me, land a good role. Heck, his dad is almost revolutionary: a family man who truly enjoys hanging out with his kid. When's the last time you saw that on network TV?
Creator Rob Thomas (who wrote the flat Melissa Joan Hart big-screen vehicle Drive Me Crazy) promises a resolution to the Lilly Kane murder by season's end, which already has me worried that Veronica will sink into Twin Peak's second-season morass, when, literally, the mystery was gone. But those worries can wait: Right now, in addition to the whodunit, there's the disturbing question of who drugged and date-raped Veronica after her fall from grace. This story line has been ignored of late, but surely Thomas knows a plot point this heavy needs to be addressed. (Right, Mr. Thomas?) On a fizzier note, I'm looking forward to seeing real-life couple Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna as the movie-star parents of Veronica's nemesis, Logan (Jason Dohring). That stunt casting is so smart, I'll minimize my snipes about Paris Hilton's sore-thumb stint as a debutante if it pulls viewers to this dandy little UPN show, I can accept dead line readings and deader eyes. Just promise me no Nicole Richie and I'm yours for the season.