Originally created 09/21/04

UPN's new teen detective is no Nancy Drew

SAN DIEGO - When Rob Thomas, creator and executive producer of the new UPN series "Veronica Mars," first dreamed up the teen detective series, the main character was male.

He can't quite remember the moment he thought "This would be better if it was a girl," as he developed the TV script. But he knows why.

"I think a noir piece told from a female point of view is more interesting and unique," says Thomas.

The series premieres 9 p.m. Sept. 22 before moving to its regular 9 p.m. Tuesday timeslot Sept. 28.

Veronica Mars is a smart, bold high school student on a mission to undercover the truth about the dark side of the wealthy seaside community of Neptune, Calif.

When her father Keith was the local sheriff, she was part of the popular crowd and dated a wealthy boy. Then came murder and scandal, and the Mars family became outsiders.

Dad runs a struggling private investigation agency, where Veronica helps out after school. Her alcoholic mother has left. She's been the victim of date rape. She's definitely no Nancy Drew.

"Nancy Drew is about finding the hidden jewels in the haunted cave. We want our episodes to feel real," says Thomas.

Veronica Mars doesn't go looking for action-packed adventure like the teenage heroine from those detective novels first published in the 1930s. Rather, she helps solve the problems of her community that arise from a clash of cultures and conflicting moral values.

On a recent evening in La Jolla, the "Veronica Mars" cast and crew occupy the lobby of a luxury hotel.

Several guests, not immediately aware that cameras are rolling, seem startled by the hubbub Mars (Kristen Bell) and her dad (Enrico Colantoni) are causing at the reception desk as they try to obtain billing information that may solve a crime.

Bell says she's thrilled to play "a female character with grit, not just a sappy ingenue ... The root of her is such strength of character."

The 24-year-old Bell's credits include the lead role as the daughter of a drug addict in the Lifetime movie "Gracie's Choice" and the young girl in the Los Angeles Opera production of "A Little Night Music."

"Kristen is legitimately a smart girl and it really comes across," Thomas says. "Veronica has to play dead-smart. She's not a big girl and you are never going to see scenes of her literally kicking [filtered word] like on \\u2018Alias,' so it's all about being wily and clever and sharp."

Earlier this day, a seaside neighborhood of expensive homes was the location for an action sequence featuring guest star Paris Hilton.

As local kids watch with fascination, a posse of motorcycles roar round a corner, headed up by series regular Weevil (Francis Capra) - an unlikely Mars ally.

Revving their engines, the leather-clad bikers face off with a red Jeep full of rich kids who were apparently connected to a crime. A scuffle ensued, reflecting that constant clash of cultures and values that surrounds "Veronica Mars."

"Veronica stands for what's true and good, and integrity," says Jason Dohring, who plays Logan Echolls, the most seemingly self-satisfied of the rich kids.

Thomas emphasizes that this drama of "haves and have-nots" needed a cast that was different from the cute, non-threatening young actors traditionally found in TV teen series.

"Generally what I feel you get told by networks is, \\u2018We need dreamboats.'" says Thomas. "Jason, while he's a handsome guy, is a real actor. He has an intensity that almost can make you uncomfortable ... I'm just riveted by him."

Dohring, who originally auditioned for one of the good-guy roles, says he's glad he got cast as the "edgy, off-tilt" character. "Each of the cast members - there's no two alike - we all come from totally different backgrounds, and we kind of clash beautifully," says the 22-year-old actor, who, like Bell, looks young enough to pass for a high school student.

"The wild card is our cast," agrees the heavily tattooed Capra, 21. "It's the biggest thing that separates us from everybody else."

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