Veronica Mars is as good as Buffy.
Veronica Mars, for those of you who don't know, is a TV show whose second season is currently airing on UPN Wednesdays at 9. (So far as can be told thus far, the new network that will result from the just-announced merger of WB and UPN will renew the show and continue to carry it -- though nothing's guaranteed, to be sure.)
The first season is out on DVD. For those thinking of getting into it, I strongly recommend getting the DVDs and starting from the beginning. While each episode makes a fairly good effort to be self-contained, there is definitely a season-long arc each season (so far), and the shows are much stronger when watched in order, from the beginning. (Buffy's first season, as nearly all of the even the most diehard fans will admit, was more inconsistent than its latter seasons and, as a whole, not as good; Veronica Mars's first season, in contrast, is superb and worth seeing from the get-go.)
But the comparison with Buffy is not merely in terms of quality. The two shows are, one might say, in the same genre -- a new genre (so far as I know) that I never considered as one until Veronica Mars made me see the pattern. This genre results from taking another genre (for Buffy, horror/fantasy; for Veronica Mars, mysteries/noir) and focusing it on a high-school girl (indeed, a short, blond high-school girl from southern California) in an hour-long drama that includes a great deal of comedy.
But this doesn't mean that Veronica Mars is the least bit derivative -- it isn't. (Interestingly, Veronica-creator Rob Thomas noted in an interview that he had only seen a few episodes of Buffy before creating his show.) Rather, like any good pair of examples from the same genre, the two shows do very different things with similar premises. (Grant Morrison once compared writing a superhero story to composing a rock song: it all comes down to the same three chords -- the trick was to make them new.) In fact, while I don't mean to engage in what is apparently a small-scale trend of praising Veronica Mars by bashing Buffy, it seems to me inarguable that, in some areas, Veronica Mars is better than Buffy (heresy as that claim might sound to Buffy fans (save for another fact I'll get to shortly.))
Three examples. First, Veronica Mars is infused with a complex politics of race and class that is never simplistic or preachy but makes for extraordinary drama. Second, it portrays a relationship of the heroine with her single parent (a father in Veronica Mars's case) as far more positive and interesting than the comparable relationship in Buffy while never being simplistic or treacly. Finally, the social interaction of Veronica with other high school students seems far more complex and nuanced than in Buffy -- rather than a stable group of allies, she has complex, often fraught relationships with everyone (even her best friend, Wallace). -- Anyway, the point, as I said, is not to bash Buffy, which was superb, but to point out that Veronica Mars is equally superb.
I'm far from the first one to notice the comparison, either in terms of the nature of the show or in terms of quality. Just as one example, Salon.com gave the show it's second annual Buffy award for most underrated show. (It's first one was given to The Wire, a show which, although very different from them in feel, was equal in quality to Veronica Mars and Buffy -- and hence also a show that I'd recommend -- though that's a whole 'nother post.) And lots of other writers & critics have made the comparison.
Most prominently for Buffy fans, however, one of those to praise the show is none other than Buffy-creator Joss Whedon, who went on an internet bulletin board and wrote:
My peeps and I just finished a crazed Veronica Marsathon, and I can no longer restrain myself. Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I've never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn't making, and maybe even more than those. Crazy crisp dialogue. Incredibly tight plotting. Big emotion, I mean BIG, and charsimatic actors and I was just DYING from the mystery and the relationships and PAIN, this show knows from pain and no, I don't care, laugh all you want, I had to share this. These guys know what they're doing on a level that intimidates me. It's the Harry Potter of shows. There. I said it. People should do whatever they can to check out this first season so the second won't be a spoiler fest. I'm nutty.... Some of you may already be all up on this, and some may disagree, but I'm urging peeps to check it out, 'cause there is great TV afoot, and who doesn't want that?
After this, Joss has praised the show in a number of other places, and then done a cameo as an actor on a second season episode. (Alas, he hasn't written nor directed an episode yet... so far as I can tell from a bit of googling, the hang up seems to be Joss's own willingness to do so -- which he attributes to being intimidated by the show's quality (!?!) -- and not Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas's willingness to have him do one.) There's also a bit of other Buffy/Veronica overlap: in actors. Alyson Hannigan has a role as an occasionally-recurring character, and Charisma Carpenter plays a recurring character in season two.
So if you don't believe me, believe Joss: Veronica Mars is superb. (I won't say "Best. Show. Ever" -- but I bet Joss was just being modest.) Anyone looking for some good television -- or good narrative art regardless of medium -- should check it out.