Tuesday, February 15, 2005

'Mars' vs. 'House' vs. 'Scrubs' vs. 'Race'

By this point in the season, anybody with any television taste knows that no time period during the week makes for more complicated viewing than Thursday nights at 9 p.m. In one hour, viewers are forced to choose between television's best medical procedural (FOX's House), medium's finest teen drama (UPN's Veronica Mars), the highest quality reality show available (CBS' constantly recycling Amazing Race franchise) and the finest scripted comedy this side of Arrested Development (NBC's Scrubs). That's too much to handle if you have a TV, a VCR, a TiVo and one or two different friends with similarly compatible technology. Things will get even more confusing later in the spring when NBC pairs Scrubs with its surprisingly effective adaptation of The Office to create a pairing of workplace comedies the likes of which haven't been seen on any network for several years (I'm not really sure what the competition is, honestly).

Fortunately, despite the fact that we're in the February sweeps period, CBS is Amazing Race-free for the next couple weeks before whipping out Boston Rob and Amber in the show's 7th installment in early March. And fortunately again, Scrubs is paired with the distressingly mediocre (at its best) Committed, which leaves two real strong options for your network television dollar this evening. You can watch TV's best new actor Hugh Laurie in House or TV's best new actress Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars. But what to do?

On this issue, I have to go with my colleague and fellow Quaker Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Leger of Newark, who argues that House doesn't need your stinking support anyway. Heck, House was delivering nearly acceptable ratings when it had that silly Richard Branson reality show as its lead-in. Since American Idol moved in at 8 p.m., House has become darned near unbeatable. The show has also delivered, producing some of its best episodes yet for the increased fan-base. The Feb. 1 episode "DNR" with Harry J. Lennix and Chloe Webb (Nancy, baby!) was one of the most thought provoking hours you'll see on the telly all year and with Chi McBride showing up for a guest run, things should improve. I'm not a medical procedural fan, but Laurie's caustic, but humane performance is genuinely Emmy-worthy, far superior to anything Kiefer Sutherland has done on the past three seasons of 24, for example.

Perhaps Veronica Mars is a smidge more appealing than House because while both shows feature prickly, but ultimately redeemable leads, Bell's title character is capable showing warmth. Both House and Veronica are misfits, uncomfortable with social niceties and glad-handing and both characters are fueled by an insatiable craving for the truth. On the surface, though, House is purely ego-driven and misanthropic. He needs to find all of the answers because he needs to be right. That's very different from Veronica, who fell out of favor with the popular clique at her high school because of circumstances beyond her control. She doesn't even want to punish the people who treat her worst, much less the whole of humanity. Like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (an inevitable and semi-appropriate comparison), Veronica is content that doing the right thing is its own reward. Even though Buffy saved every individual Sunnydale student from any number of supernatural creature, it took three years for her classmates to offer any kind of acknowledgment. It's doubtful that Veronica is going to get welcomed back into the fold any sooner than that.

Of course, it's doubtful that Veronica Mars is going to be back at all next season. Despite critical raves and a good amount of network support, the show just hasn't shown any ratings growth, in large part because of the impossible time period. The teen viewers have stuck by the insipid One Tree Hill on The WB and even if older viewers could somehow be convinced that they're missing one of the sharpest written, most visually stylish shows going, they could hardly be blamed for sticking by any of the hour's other gems. Bell is a great discovery and she'll eventually find her niche, but it'll be a shame if she can't do it here.

So give Veronica Mars a shot. You'll like it. But I won't be offended if you watch CBS, FOX or NBC instead. But if you're watching ABC...

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