Veronica Mars trailer

It’s become old hat for a cult TV show to get revived in some capacity now, but rare is the TV show that gets two different revivals across different mediums. Veronica Mars is that rare show. First, it was brought back from the dead because of a passionate crowdfunding campaign that led to a movie released by Warner Bros. Pictures in the spring of 2014. Now, Veronica Mars is back again with an eight-episode fourth season airing on Hulu starting on Friday, July 26. Where the Kickstartered movie felt haphazard and mildly uninspired, this revival is incredibly well-written and conceived, a return to form at least as good as the show’s second season.

For the uninitiated, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a hard-nosed private investigator in the Southern California hamlet of Neptune, where the richest of the rich rub elbows with the lower classes. On the original show, airing on both UPN and the CW, Veronica is a high-school student whose dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) had once been the city’s sheriff before accusing one of the richest men in town of having murdered a teenage girl (who happened to be Veronica’s best friend). After his fall from grace, Keith became a PI, with Veronica as his aide and a sleuth of her own, trying to solve the case of her best friend’s death and figure out who date-raped her at a wild party. Over the show’s three seasons, Veronica graduated high school, solved various murders and other crimes, went to college, had numerous romantic entanglements, etc. The show, created by Rob Thomas, was always at its best in balancing Veronica’s distinctively witty, charming personality with a neo-noir sensibility.

And the fourth season of Veronica Mars (I’ve seen all eight episodes) is a remarkable, bracing reminder of why the show is so rightfully beloved. Veronica and Keith are still at Mars Investigations in Neptune, but a lot around them has changed. After the events of the movie, there’s literally a new sheriff (Dawnn Lewis) in town, who’s clearly a good detective despite still disdaining the presence of PIs like Ketih and Veronica. Our heroine and her paramour Logan (Jason Dohring) live together, but Logan, a Naval Intelligence officer, is often away on classified missions. He returns from his latest, at the same time as Neptune celebrates another hedonistic Spring Break season, with a surprising question for our heroine: a marriage proposal. 

Veronica can only distract herself from that shocking offer when a bomb goes off at one of the local motels, leading her down a rabbit-hole conspiracy where she and Keith are tasked with figuring out who set off the bomb and why. And, in Veronica Mars form, the question of who the bomber is involves a lot more figures than would be expected. There’s a Muslim Congressman and his rigid family, a true-crime obsessive (Patton Oswalt), a Neptune entrepreneur and his enigmatic fixer (J.K. Simmons), Mexican hitmen, and more.

The era of streaming has made it so even a revival of a beloved show doesn’t guarantee it will feel the same as the original did. As was the case with the show’s third season, the case here doesn’t span the course of 20-plus episodes. There’s also not a lot of side cases for Veronica to investigate, just the spate of bombings and their unique aftereffects, as detailed in the eight 50-minute installments. And unlike in the original series, there are only three regulars in the opening credits: Bell, Colantoni, and Dohring. (This credit choice is interesting because you could make a very solid case that Oswalt, Simmons, and Clifton Collins, Jr., as one of the aforementioned hitmen, have at least as much to do as Dohring does. Oswalt, too, appears in every episode.) A number of the show’s supporting characters from the old days do show up, but often very briefly and sometimes in ways that make you wonder why they’re there to begin with. (As a longtime fan of the show, I was very happy to see Percy Daggs III as Wallace Fennel again, but the character serves very little purpose in these episodes.)

That said, within the first hour, it becomes exceedingly clear that Rob Thomas and his writing staff — including, in a delightfully inexplicable twist, legendary NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — have an exciting, novelistic story to tell that demands to be told in ways that simply weren’t the case with the recent film. The world has changed in the 15 years since the show premiered, but those changes all are logical within the framework of the new season. Oswalt’s character, who convenes a group of fellow “Murder Heads”, is as solid a way to skewer the rise of true-crime shows, podcasts, etc., without actually turning him into a would-be podcaster. And the presence of a politician of color introduces the inescapable element of how the world looks today. (Though the current president’s name doesn’t get mentioned, there are enough references to him that make you smile at how much Veronica must loathe him.)

Somehow, it all largely works, though a few of the subplots and new characters work better than others once you look at it all in hindsight. The new cast — also including Izabela Vidovic as a teenage girl with a connection to the bombing who might as well be Veronica Mars 2.0, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a local club owner — all acquits themselves quite well. Simmons, as an ex-con who seems like the obvious bomber from the outset, is the MVP. He and Colantoni have a loose, lived-in chemistry, as Keith and this new guy try to feel each other out and end up with a shared mutual respect despite being on two sides of the law. But Howell-Baptiste, who some will recognize from a recurring role on the third season of The Good Place (making her time onscreen with Bell even more enjoyable), is a lot of fun too. And Oswalt especially, who’s close to the third lead of the season, proves his dramatic chops in a role that could’ve easily been a source of mockery.

Where the season stumbles (and only slightly) is in its finale, both in revealing the truth behind the first bombing and subsequent bombs set around Neptune as a morbid way to punctuate Spring Break parties, and in revealing what will happen next for Veronica. Being a neo-noir show implies that Veronica Mars can’t ever truly be all sunshine and rainbows — our hard-bitten heroine would likely blanche at such a fate. However, the events of the last 30 minutes of the season, despite technically playing fair logically, feel a bit reverse-engineered (and one specific choice is probably going to alienate a lot of fans). 

These spoilery quibbles are just that, though: quibbles. Largely, the streamlined focus on having an eight-episode story spread out over the course of 400 or so minutes makes for the kind of season a streaming service like Hulu must be salivating over: this is an exceptionally bingeable revival, with each episode structured both as its own thing and offering enough teasing excitement for the next installment that you just want to keep watching. More to the point, the story mostly feels true to the Veronica Mars world; it’s the truly singular revival that proves its existence almost instantly and is one of the best TV returns to date.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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