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It's now or never for ‘Veronica Mars’

Veronica Mars has been through a lot over the past two years. Her best friend was murdered, her father was unceremoniously recalled from his position as sheriff and her adulterous mother fled town with her college fund.

She was shunned at school, drugged and raped at a party and nearly killed three times. The crimes she has solved range from dognapping to credit card fraud to mass homicide. But on Tuesday, the teen detective faces her biggest challenge yet: An ideal lead-in.

Yes, the dream of so many "Veronica Mars" fans (and, reportedly, CBS chief Les Moonves) has finally come to pass. The drama starts its third season Oct. 3 following the highly compatible "Gilmore Girls"  on the new CW network.

But being ensconced in the CW’s smart-girl block is a mixed blessing. The show no longer has any excuses for failing to net decent ratings, so it’s make-or-break time. "Gilmore," the show's former rival, is practically hand-delivering viewers rather than siphoning them off. "Mars" season-two DVDs have been available for a month and a half, giving latecomers the opportunity to catch up before the third season begins (unlike last year, when DVDs didn’t arrive in stores until two weeks after the second season began).

And Tuesday’s season premierewas made available online last week in order to mobilize fans and have them spread the word. Since the show’s fanatical cult following was willing to spend thousands of dollars of its own good money last spring to begging the new network to renew it, it’s a good bet they will.

Add to that the adoration from critics and high-profile fans such as Stephen King and Joss Whedon, and it’s clear that "Veronica Mars" now has almost every possible outside advantage. Show creator Rob Thomas is attempting to capitalize on that with his decision to forgo the first two seasons’ year-long arc structure in favor of three shorter mysteries, making it all the easier for new viewers to start watching the show.

But that’s only the first step. In its third season, the show needs to face the challenges it inherits from season two and earn its post-"Gilmore Girls"  berth.

Show evidence of a surer guiding hand over the storyline. No one seemed to be overseeing the show's second season. Plot lines were dropped. Episodes ended on unresolved cliffhangers. Continuity went out the window; nobody really knew, for instance, whether local entrepreneur and little-league coach Woody Goodman was running for mayor or county supervisor. (It ended up being the latter, with a line explaining the confusion slapped into a later episode like spackle over a crack.) The end result was like a house whose four walls were independently built by four different contractors. No matter how closely each episode followed the grand blueprint, there were ultimately a few spots where the pieces just didn’t fit.

Spread the mystery’s clues throughout the arc. In its first two seasons, "Veronica Mars" scattered hints here and there as to who killed Lilly Kane and who crashed the bus. But hints aren't the same as clues, and for the most part, the bulk of the mysteries were spelled out in the last two episodes of the season. The result was storytelling that was unsatisfyingly back-loaded. The revelation that Beaver Casablancas caused the bus crash was based on information that the audience couldn’t possibly have known until right before he was unmasked. Veronica’s realization therefore wasn’t based on her putting the pieces together so much as making a single guess and sticking to it.

Make Veronica less gullible and impulsive. She's routinely portrayed as the smartest character in the room (unless that room also contains her PI father Keith), yet Veronica jumps to conclusions with unflattering speed. She routinely accused various other characters of being responsible for the bus crash, sometimes to their faces. It’s one thing to develop a working hypothesis and seek to confirm or deny it; it’s another to act on an idea the instant it comes into your head. That’s exactly how she “solved” the mystery of the bus crash: by having one of her impulsive revelations and blurting it out to her suspect the same way she did several times before with several different suspects. The fact that she was right in the end was irrelevant. For all of her investigative skills, Veronica needs to work on actually identifying what’s evidence and what’s not.

Stop undermining the accomplishments of the excellent first season. Season one left a few open doors, such as Veronica's recently returned mother skipping town once again. But a lot of big issues were resolved in deeply satisfying ways. Lilly’s murder was solved and the killer arrested. The question of whether Veronica’s father was Keith Mars or infotech billionaire Jake Kane  — father of not only Lilly, but Veronica's former boyfriend Duncan — was answered in a way that must have made UPN’s Standards & Practices breathe a huge sigh of relief. On the whole, the first season's main stories reached their natural conclusions. The ending, where Veronica has one last dream of Lilly asking not to be forgotten before fading away, had pitch-perfect emotional resonance.

Season two started dismantling that right from the start. Instead of resting in hard-won peace, Lilly reappeared to prevent Veronica from taking the fateful bus. The acquittal of movie star Aaron Echolls for Lilly’s murder was a shocker but dramatically sound, especially for a show that models itself on film noir. But the way the show presented it suggested that maybe Aaron had been innocent all along, which would have reset the show’s progress clock back to somewhere in the middle of the pilot.

Veronica’s rape, meanwhile, was suddenly and unexpectedly revisited in the finale of the second season, despite having been resolved at the end of season one. The new resolution served no purpose beyond opening old wounds, throwing a pointless “gotcha!” at the audience and forcing an unnecessary new layer onto a storyline that had closed a full year earlier.

The above wouldn’t be worth noting if "Veronica Mars" weren’t, at its best, a superlative show. The acting by the main ensemble is top-notch, and whatever flaws there are result from ambition, not laziness. Which is another way that it fits so well with "Gilmore Girls,"  itself coming off a season that frustrated fans and saw the departure of the show’s creator and signature voice, Amy Sherman-Palladino. But whatever happens, "Gilmore Girls" is practically guaranteed the one thing that "Veronica Mars" will have to fight for: a full season. For Veronica, it’s now or never.

Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

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