"Veronica Mars" is the smartest teen-oriented drama since "Freaks and Geeks." A unique and inspired looked at teen angst shrouded in a P.I. show, the UPN drama features Kristen Bell in the lead role.

“Veronica Mars” is the smartest teen-oriented drama since “Freaks and Geeks.” A unique and inspired looked at teen angst shrouded in a P.I. show, the UPN drama features Kristen Bell in the lead role — as charismatic as she is tough and intelligent, giving a multilayered perf that touches on simple 17-year-old insecurity and convincingly incorporates deeper issues concerning family, love and disappointment.

The rare UPN show with cinematic ambition, “Veronica Mars” has a rich visual appeal, establishing the fictional Neptune, Calif., as a rich person’s enclave, a place where Mars fails to fit in financially or socially. Her smarts — street and book — are sufficient to keep her head above water.

Veronica’s father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), is the former sheriff, disgraced and booted from his job when he couldn’t capture the killer of an Internet billionaire’s daughter. The billionaire’s son, Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), was Veronica’s b.f.; together dad and daughter fell from grace, with mom Lianne (Corinne Bohrer) leaving the family, and Keith setting up shop as a private investigator.

Keith, still haunted by the Kane girl’s death, begrudgingly enlists his daughter’s help at the office, where she has no sense of boundaries. That lack of fear gets her into some dicey situations — with motorcycle toughs, the popular kids at school and a couple of cops — yet ultimately her pluckiness and skill with a camera land Veronica on her feet.

Pilot is heavy on flashbacks and purposeful voiceover. Neither get in the way of the storytelling or feel obvious; both techniques flesh out Veronica’s past, including a date rape, the disappearance of her mother and the lurid discovery of the Kane girl.

Veronica’s relationship with her father has a warm realness — he’s a bit clumsy, she’s nicely over-accepting. Together, their hearts are centered.

“Veronica Mars” opens with our heroine going against the tide and assisting a new kid duct-taped to a flagpole with the word “snitch” painted on his chest. The victim, Wallace Fennel (Percy Diggs III), quickly ingratiates himself with Veronica and the two become companions, if not necessarily friends; by seg’s end, they’re partners in crime.

“Veronica Mars” has the potential to draw in “The OC” crowd, especially with its enticing use of contempo rock music, and then build from there: Show is less melodramatic than its Fox counterpart even as it ventures into the familiar territory of teen issues, gang violence, one side of the tracks vs. the other and the disappointment teens feel in their parents. If the tone of the pilot continues down the road, though, “Veronica” has the potential to bring in auds without resorting to caricature or exploitative sexuality.

Creator Rob Thomas has crafted a fine script for the opener, giving just enough details on the entourage to make them affecting, while investing heavily in Veronica’s character. Mark Piznarski directs with an even hand, making the most of all the colors provided him, whether they be in the scenery or the perfs.

After premiering Wednesday, Sept. 22, “Veronica Mars” moves to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. where it faces off against two other shows with teen leads, “Clubhouse” and “One Tree Hill.” Considering the fact “Veronica” looks more like an Eye drama than a UPN series, if it clicks, it might make sense for this to be the first series in the Viacom family to switch webs.

Veronica Mars

UPN, Wed. Sept. 22, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in San Diego by Silver Pictures Television in association with Warner Bros. Television. Executive producer, Joel Silver, Rob Thomas; co-executive producers, Jennifer Gwartz, Danielle Stokdyk; line producer, Paul Kurta; director, Mark Piznarski; writer, Rob Thomas.

Crew

Camera, Victor Hammer; editors, Robert Frazen, Jim Gross; music, Josh Kramon; production designer, Alfred Sole; casting, DeeDee Bradley. 60 MIN.

With

Veronica Mars - Kristen Bell Keith Mars - Enrico Colantoni Wallace Fennel - Percy Daggs III Duncan Kane - Teddy Dunn Logan Echolls - Jason Dohring Eli "Weevil" Navarro - Francis Capra Sheriff Lamb - Michael Muhney Cliff McCormack - Daran Norris Lianne Mars - Corinne Bohrer Hector - Patrick Wolfe Jake Kane - Kyle Secor
With: Brandon Hillock, Duane Daniels, Brad Bufanda, Kirk Fogg, Lisa Thornhill, Benito Paje, Amanda Seyfried.

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