The spunky star of UPN's teen detective drama ''Veronica Mars'' has critics swooning. But there's one mystery Kristen Bell can't solve: where are the viewers?

By Jennifer Armstrong
Updated December 06, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Every TV season, critics anoint one young woman as their new darling. There was Calista Flockhart, Keri Russell, then Jennifer Garner, and Amber Tamblyn. This year’s It Girl, Kristen Bell — star of UPN’s noirish teen drama Veronica Mars — thinks the accolades are nice, but really, there’s only one man’s approval that matters to her.

”Daddy!” she squeals, running to embrace her TV pop, Enrico Colantoni (Just Shoot Me). He lifts her off the ground for 15…20…30 seconds. They haven’t seen each other in two decades. Well, make that two days — it only seems like longer, given the enthusiasm of the greeting. ”Oh, Dad,” she says, making it the fifth time she’s called him that in a 10-minute conversation. ”They did some testing on our scenes, and they said it went through the roof! Something at the network, like they had monkeys watch it or something.”

”Great,” he says. ”I was hoping monkeys would watch.”

Hey, it’s a start. Even though only 2.7 million non-simians watch Veronica Mars every week (landing it in 122nd place out of the 133 shows Nielsen ranks), reviewers and fans are smitten with Bell’s combination of wit, spunk, smarts, and vulnerability. Despite the modest ratings, UPN recently picked up Veronica for the full season, and the 24-year-old star has a sunny outlook about the show’s hit potential. ”When I read the script, I was like, This is UPN?” Bell says.

Not since Buffy relocated from The WB has UPN seen a heroine with such cult appeal. While Ms. Summers had monsters and vampires to vanquish, Veronica Mars, a high school student moonlighting as a private eye, is dealing with far more personal demons: Someone murdered her best friend, Lilly Kane, and the town ostracized her sheriff dad when he implicated Lilly’s powerful tycoon father in the killing. Since then, the cool crowd has banished Veronica, so she spends her time solving mysteries both small (who’s been sending those fake purity test results to the school e-mail list?) and large (what really happened to Lilly?). In one way, Bell can relate to her character’s loss: When the actress was 18, her best friend was killed in a car accident. ”When you have a loss at such a young age, you become bitter and jaded and your whole perspective changes,” Bell explains. ”Veronica wouldn’t be who she is without it.” And without Bell, says creator Rob Thomas, Veronica wouldn’t be the wry delight it is: ”Veronica out-savvies people. Kristen has to play really, really smarter than you. Hiring this NYU-trained Broadway actress is so much different from casting another pretty L.A. girl.”

Bell studied acting at New York University, but she quit just a few credits away from her degree when she landed a role on Broadway. In 2002, she decided to move to Los Angeles to break into TV and movies. Since then, she’s appeared on Everwood (as a breast-implant patient), HBO’s Deadwood, and in the title role of the Lifetime movie Gracie’s Choice. While she misses New York and the stage, Bell is settling into Hollywood life: To celebrate Veronica Mars‘ pickup, she bought a house in L.A. that she shares with her boyfriend of two years, a high school swim coach and independent movie producer. Bell’s alter ego won’t be nearly as comfortable as the season progresses: She will question her paternity and get closer to identifying Lilly’s killer (creator Thomas promises a resolution by the season 1 finale).