Martian Chronicles

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars.Photo: Scott Garfield/Warner Bros.

After all these years, I still haven’t figured out if I actually jinx a new high-school show when I happen to like it or whether, instead, the universe goes on about its business, entropic unto heat death, no matter what I think. Probably both. Veronica Mars (Wednesday, September 22; 9 to 10 P.M.; Tuesdays thereafter; UPN), with Kristen Bell as a part-time student, part-time private eye, and in full-time mood swing, is wonderful fun with a sinister streak. Not only will Veronica, working for her father (Enrico Colantoni), end up investigating the murder of one of her best friends, but she is also missing a mother. And if the high school she goes to is the usual Balkan snake pit of blood feuds, learning disorders, class privilege, and mob justice, the town she lives in, Neptune, is even worse, a kind of banana republic.

Although Veronica is blonde enough to pass for royalty at most high schools, she is downwardly mobile. Before her father became a private detective, he had been the town sheriff. Then he tried to pin a murder rap on the wrong plutocrat. So he lost his job and Veronica’s mother, while Veronica lost her frat-boy boyfriend and her VIP seat at the lunch table. It is amazing to look into the faces of these self-important teens, their eyes the colors of Byzantine icons, of smoke and flame. No wonder Veronica looks for strength of character elsewhere, in her fellow pariahs instead of the phonies. No wonder she enters into deals with savage tribes at the city gates—a motorcycle gang, for instance. And no wonder that, while her sad dad is out of town chasing deadbeats and divorce cases, Veronica is up late looking through a motel window or hacking into a computer file.

“Veronica is an affecting amalgam of Holden Caulfield, Philip Marlowe, and Miss Marple.”

She loves her father, but he’s keeping secrets. She hates her outcast status, but has too much respect for herself to compromise or curry favor. As conceived by executive producer Rob Thomas (Cupid), she is an odd and affecting amalgam of Holden Caulfield, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Here is where I make the obligatory reference to Freaks and Geeks and shed the obligatory tear. It is also where, ordinarily, I would recall My So-Called Life—in which, on one memorable occasion, high-school students really read Franz Kafka—except that, considering what Claire Danes and Billy Crudup apparently did to Mary-Louise Parker, I am prepared to swear that I never saw Crudup onstage or Danes on television. Who?

One teen show I liked a lot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, did become a hit, but I can’t pretend that I would have predicted such a fervent, even fanatical following, as though it were the Bhagavad Gita. If we can’t have a television series in which people of my own age contemplate whatever became of our notion of honor and our sense of decency, there ought at least to be a series reminding us of how hateful high school was to anyone odd, a serial saga somewhere between, say, Heathers and Clueless. Or brainwashing and foot-binding. Roswell tried, with aliens. Veronica succeeds, from Mars.

Lost (Wednesdays, starting September 22; 8 to 9 P.M.; ABC) invites us to be suspicious. Can Matthew Fox (Dr. Jack) possibly be as unalloyed a hero as he seems, tending to all 48 surviving passengers from a plane gone mysteriously down on a tropical island somewhere between here and Australia? After all, he has tattoos. And we already know that Evangeline Lilly (Kate) has a very dark secret indeed, though it doesn’t stop her from being Ava Gardner gorgeous, Susan Sontag smart, and Margaret Sanger practical-nursey. Also marooned are Harold Perrineau (Oz), trying to be a father to a little boy, Malcolm David Kelley, who has already lost his mother and now is missing his dog. And Naveen Andrews (The English Patient), who naturally fits a terrorist profile. And Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings), a rock musician with a bad case of bleeding nose. Not to mention Terry O’Quinn, who gets so much work because we never know if he’s a bad guy or good and neither does he. Plus Jorge Garcia, Maggie Grace, Ian Somerhalder, and Yunjin Kim.

In other words, executive producer J. J. Abrams (Felicity, Alias) has himself a tropical island that closely resembles a mixed-greens crazy-salad war-movie foxhole. Except that out there, or in there, in the jungle, there are beasts, not yet quite glimpsed, that reek of the Jurassic. And whoever else wound up among these palm trees decades before Jack and Kate seems to have sent out a distress signal that still hasn’t been answered. And we are promised, every week a day at a time, not only an exploration of the island by a cast that steadily diminishes, but also flashbacks to whatever got them on the bad-luck plane in the first place. I’m willing to trust Abrams, who brought Keri Russell and Jennifer Garner to our attention even before he found Evangeline Lilly. It’s ABC, the Port-a-San of quality programming, that I don’t trust. Last fall about this time, I was raving about Karen Sisco.

Rob Lowe tries again, after bailing from The West Wing a couple of years ago in what seemed at the time like career hara-kiri—till The West Wing last season turned into The Right Wing, inflicting wounds on itself not even Jimmy Smits may be able to heal. Anyway, if Rob is unlikely ever again to have an Aaron Sorkin writing for him, neither is anyone else in the foreseeable future. So he might as well work on the comic timing Dr. Vegas (Fridays, starting September 24; 10 to 11 P.M.; CBS) will have to depend on. Reporting to hotel-casino boss Joe Pantoliano, Rob, who graduated 117th in his class at medical school, is an in-house sawbones with a penthouse suite, a gambling habit, and an insufferable smirk. Joey Pants is not James Caan, or William Petersen either, and neither Nikki Cox nor Marg Helgenberger is anywhere to be seen, and in a Friday-night head-to-head with Medical Investigation on NBC, Lowe’s smirk and Neal McDonough’s scowl are equal appetite suppressants. I would be writing here instead about CSI: NY (Wednesdays, starting September 22; 10 to 11 P.M.; CBS), except that all they’ve given us critics to look at is the cold potatoes in which David Caruso last year left Miami to meet Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes in Manhattan. The real creepy thing, which is also supposed to be a threat to a geriatric Law & Order, remains to be screened.

Martian Chronicles