What is it about spunky blondes who fight injustice that makes for such great television? I’m not sure, but UPN’s “Veronica Mars” has it in spades. Tonight’s episode marks the series’ first new mystery since January.

Jess Cox
Adam Rottenberg

Not since the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” heyday has a show so wonderfully defied the expectations of its genre to become among the all-time great series. “Veronica Mars” has entered that pantheon after only a season and a half on the air.

Let me preface this love letter with a confession – I came late to the “Veronica Mars” bandwagon. No matter how much good press the show got, or even at the urging of some of my best friends (who actually have good taste in television), I wouldn’t give up my weekly fix of “Scrubs” (and this season, “Lost”) to check out a vapid UPN teen drama. Not even the endorsement of “Buffy” mastermind Joss Whedon could sway me enough to tune in.

I was wrong.

“Veronica Mars” is no ordinary WB/UPN teen drama. It may look just like a carbon copy of those types of shows, but it has more in common with the complex storytelling of “Buffy” than “Dawson’s Creek.” In fact, the series even hits at issues like class, race and sexuality in realistic and compelling fashion.

Each week, Veronica, the petite heroine of the piece, helps solve mysteries either for her father (who runs a private detective agency) or for her schoolmates, never missing the opportunity for a pop-culture-laced quip along the way. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The series features overarching mysteries that constantly return to haunt its title sleuth.

If you are sitting on the fence like I was, then I urge you to check it out. What the series really needs is more viewers. And what television needs is more creative and original shows of this ilk.

For the “Buffy” fans who have been waiting for the heir apparent from Whedon himself – it’s not coming, at least not anytime soon – “Veronica” fills in more than admirably. I would even say that both of its seasons are tighter throughout than any single season of “Buffy.” There are virtually no signs of growing pains or truly wretched single episodes; the show hit it out of the park from the pilot. It even features recurring guest parts for Charisma Carpenter and Alyson Hannigan.

Now that may catch those few devout “Buffy” fans who may have missed it, but I bet that doesn’t do much to lure in the rest of you. Especially when you look at what other shows “Veronica” is up against.

You want to watch “Lost”; I understand that. I even do that (at least with TiVo). But believe me when I say “Veronica Mars” is a far more satisfying viewing experience than an hour with our favorite castaways. Both feature complex, dark mysteries and characters with murky pasts. They both even have resident assholes – Sawyer and Logan, respectively – that infuriate and enthrall at the same time. But only “Veronica” seems to be going somewhere. “Lost” dangles plotlines like it’s the second coming of “The X-Files,” whereas “Veronica Mars” eventually finds resolution. Last season revolved around finding who really murdered Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane. That mystery, as well as almost all of the other plot threads, was tied up by the season’s end. “Lost” only opened the gateway to even more plodding stories as its castaways opened the mysterious “hatch.” For the viewer who wants the mystery, even a season-long one, to be solved eventually, “Veronica Mars” is the way to go.

NBC and CBS air procedural dramas – veteran “Law & Order” and the newer “Criminal Minds” – that all deal with unraveling a criminal mystery. Why bother with simplistic, single-episode story arcs and two-dimensional detectives when you can have complex, meaningful cases with well rounded characters? Once again, “Veronica Mars” is the clear winner of the timeslot.

If you consider “American Idol” – which is really nothing more than a glorified karaoke contest – to be satisfying television, there’s probably not much I can do to convince you otherwise.

But at the very least, give “Veronica” a shot if your series of choice is a repeat. The show needs any ratings boost it can get before the bigwigs at the new CW network decide its fate. “Veronica Mars” truly is one of the best series on television and may well be the best show you’re not watching.

– Rottenberg thinks Kristin Bell can out-sass an entire fleet of waitresses. Argue with him at arotten@umich.edu.

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