Summer is right around the corner—the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? Pilot episodes have so much introductory work to do; they’re usually subpar compared with the great stuff to come. And the very best episodes of a series often demand too much knowledge of what came before.
You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it. In this weekly Brow Beat series, we direct you to the best gateway episodes for great series you should watch this summer.
There are people for whom the phrase “teen soap opera whodunit” signifies a mashup of the repulsive and the passé. Then there are people for whom those words prompt the simple question, “Where do I sign up?” I was the first kind of person until 2007, when Veronica Mars was in its third season. That’s when I learned that Joss Whedon had kvelled publically about the show, deeming it “Best. Show. Ever.” Given my previously disclosed Buffy fangirlism, it should come as no surprise that Whedon’s endorsement compelled me to rent the first season on DVD. That is how Veronica Mars became the first series I ever binge-watched. And I have no doubt that the fourth episode of Season 1, “The Wrath of Con,” will prompt your own headlong dive down the Veronica Mars rabbit hole (allowing you to catch up, perhaps, in time for the partly crowdfunded movie).
When we meet Veronica (Kristen Bell), our heroine and narrator, she’s a junior in high school recovering from a trio of losses, which she suspects are connected. She has been dumped by her boyfriend; her best friend (and ex-boyfriend’s sister), Lilly (Amanda Seyfried), has been murdered; and her mom has walked out on the family. Her project over the course of the first season—each season has an overarching mystery as its through line—is to solve Lilly’s murder. A talented sleuth thanks to her afterschool job at her dad’s P.I. firm, Veronica double-fists mysteries, chipping away at Lilly’s murder while solving each episode’s self-contained case.
In “The Wrath of Con,” Veronica gets to the bottom of an email scam that has duped the love interest of her best (and only) friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) out of a few thousand dollars. Veronica not only handily solves the mystery, but in classic Veronica fashion, she also teaches the bad-guy-bullies a lesson. It’s particularly fun to watch Veronica go undercover repeatedly as the mystery unfolds, first as a ditz who falls for the same scam, then as a hardcore video gamer, and finally as a “nerd hag” (i.e., a math geek’s girlfriend).
“The Wrath of Con” showcases Veronica’s most salient qualities: her fierce loyalty to friends, her commitment to fairness and justice, and her wisecracking badassedness. We also get glimpses into her relationship with her dad (Enrico Colantoni)—this episode gives great Keith generally—which remains an important theme throughout the show.
Veronica Mars relies heavily on flashbacks, and this episode has some of the most compelling sequences of the series. Though TV flashbacks can be a ham-handed affair, these don’t feel like exposition machines plunked awkwardly into the action to churn out context, taking the viewer out of the present moment. We are already inside Veronica’s head, because she’s our narrator, so we’re along for the ride as she sails between past and present, remembering her life before Lilly’s murder and mining those memories for clues that will help her make sense of the murder and its aftermath.
“The Wrath of Con” is illustrative of a couple of other things that make the show great. Veronica Mars routinely plumbs emotional depths while avoiding cringey sentimentality. Veronica’s relationship with her dad and her BFF-ship with Wallace are tender but not uncomplicated, and the sweetness of the moments they share are cut with humor. You will also be able to tell from this episode that the show is stacked with characters you’ll want to get to know—from Veronica’s abstruse ex-boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn), to Logan (Jason Dohring), the show’s despicable and irresistibly endearing antihero. With its intriguing characters and compelling relationships, well-constructed mysteries and snappy dialogue, and above all the effortlessly cool main character, Veronica Mars is a not-to-be-missed teen soap opera whodunit.