UPN (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET)
For an American kid, the only thing worse than puberty must be class, and not the kind conducted beneath the cheap paneled ceilings of a high school. The tussle of the haves and the have-nots is played out on one show after another aimed at young audiences FOX's The O.C. and Reunion, even ABC Family's recent Beautiful People. But Veronica Mars, an hour-long drama now in its second season and intelligent far beyond its sleuthing heroine's 18 years, is practically the only one where you feel the corollary sting that comes with the arrogance of the rich: The non-rich feel the shame. Veronica, who works part-time in a cafe and is never allowed to forget her pinched social standing—in the first season, her father was forced out of the sheriff's office after he seemed to have bungled a case—has the charm and wiles to attract the superprivileged guys at Neptune High while investigating crimes that inevitably seem pinnable on their families and associates. If she's Cinderella, it's never a far stretch to imagine one of these Prince Charmings coming at her with a gun.
As Veronica, Kristen Bell has a lovely smile, but she doesn't have the radiance or sheen of so many other young actresses. Next to Mischa Barton she'd look bleached out, like driftwood. Which is exactly right for Veronica. She's not hardboiled. Not yet. But you got an egg timer?
Veronica is also a smart derivation of LA noir: It's not Buffy the Vampire Slayer sopped in the sordidness of James Ellroy, but the show has definitely been flavored, consciously or no, by the nasty cultural down-trickle of real-life crimes of pampered West Coasters: the Billionaire Boys Club, the Menendez brothers. Veronica could have cracked those cases even if she'd had cheerleader practice.