The girl detective goes to college and most of Neptune High goes with her in the third season of Rob Thomas's too-smart-for-prime-time teen noir, Veronica Mars. Last season piled on so many mysteries that it often seemed like a game of one-upmanship among the writing staff scrawling over a flow chart like John Madden at his most caffeinated. Indeed, the season finale proved that Thomas and his staff could aim high and still hit their targets, pulling the strands of two seasons' worth of mystery plotting in a manner that would make Hammett proud. The fact that Veronica did it all while graduating, going to the prom, and resolving the conflicts in her love life was what made the show special from the start: the perfect fusion of detective fiction in the high school universe of Buffy and Dawson. Unlike the overrated Brick, Veronica Mars wasn't Hammett in high school attire but the real thing, Hammett in high school himself, late for class and with a hangover.
The challenge of the third season is seeing if Veronica and the gang can operate within the context of a college-based noir. Last season was so complex that it even made time to plant the seeds for the first major mystery arc of this one: a serial rapist on the campus of Hearst College who shaves his victims bald. The season opener just touches upon this while focusing on the mystery-of-the-week involving Wallace's (Percy Daggs III) new roommate, Piz (Chris Lowell), who is the newest cast member and a possible rival to Logan (Jason Dohring) for Veronica's hard-won affections. Mac (Tina Majorino) is now a regular cast member and scarred by her unfortunate, sexually-frozen relationship with Beaver (Kyle Gallner), who took a swan dive off a hotel roof in the season two finale. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) is still the moral spine of the show, his close relationship with his daughter Veronica the heart inside the genre blender. But it's Veronica we came to see and Kristen Bell does not disappoint. The actress is so comfortable in her shoes that we feel as though she must solve crimes and trade wisecracks on her days off the set as well.
Secondary mysteries are already brewing, but this season Thomas plans on using a different structure, splitting the season up into three separate major arcs, each resolving its main mystery before diving into the next. A possible solution to the last-minute writing-room cramming of last season, this also seems to be a shrewd decision based upon the unfortunate sink-or-swim challenge from the CW to quickly find its audience in a 13-episode run for survival. Perhaps this is the real mystery of Veronica Mars: The mystery of why a show as well written as this one needs to beg for an audience supposedly starved of quality entertainment. A mystery likely to remain unsolved.