When the Veronica Mars fan-funded film was released in 2014, no one could have predicted it would help to usher in a trend of revivals and reboots and remakes that would come to dominate Hollywood. And certainly no one could have predicted the series, a neo-noir about a teenage private detective in its original form, would be returning again five years later, this time as an eight-episode limited series on Hulu.
And yet the show's refusal to accept defeat feels like a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of Veronica Mars herself. Brought to vivid life by Kristen Bell, Veronica always gets back up. She plays by her own rules, never allowing herself to be content with or conform to the status quo. She's never what you expect, and she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Along with her sparkling wit, these are her most admirable traits. But as with any revival, one has to wonder what the end goal ultimately is.
The feature film funded by fans through a Kickstarter allowed series creator Rob Thomas to craft an ending where there previously wasn't one. A parade of familiar faces, it was heavy on the nostalgia but light on the intricate, well-paced mysteries that originally set the show apart. This new chapter in the Veronica Mars saga doesn't serve the same purpose. It's not a trip down memory lane or an extended coda; it's an opportunity to test the waters and find out whether or not Veronica Mars still has life left in her. The world of television has changed a lot since the series first debuted on UPN, and although audiences might not have been ready for her then, they very well may be now.
Hulu is referring to these eight new episodes as Season 4 rather than simply a limited series, and while that doesn't necessarily mean anything, we can't discount the fact this is the second time the show has returned from the dead or that Bell, whose NBC series The Good Place will be ending after this upcoming season, and Thomas have both already expressed an interest in continuing Veronica's story beyond what we see here. The stakes are infinitely higher now than they were five years ago when the film hit theaters. The new season has to appeal to longtime fans as well as potential new ones. This ultimately means the overarching mystery at the heart of the season has to be strong enough to carry the weight and then some. The story has to push Veronica forward in a meaningful way. And for the most part, it succeeds.
When the show returns, Veronica is still working alongside television's No. 1 dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), as a private eye in her hometown of Neptune, California. She and Logan (Jason Dohring), who is still in the military (and remains incredibly handsome), are still together and have adopted a dog named Pony since we saw them last. They're happy and stable, but Logan's job often takes him away suddenly for weeks or months at a time. While he's constantly moving, Veronica is more or less standing still. And she appears completely content with her life. But when a series of deadly bombings hit the town during the month-long celebration of spring break and threaten the city's tourism industry, and thus the livelihood of Neptune's quickly disappearing working class, Veronica dives headfirst into solving the case.
The class divide of Neptune, with the working class pitted against the town's rich elite, was built into the foundation of Veronica Mars, but when Veronica was in high school, it often played out through Veronica's status as an outsider. She didn't fit in with the popular crowd, known as the 09ers, because of Keith's wrongful accusation of the Kanes in the wake of Lilly's (Amanda Seyfried) murder. But she also didn't fit in with the working class because of her former association with that same rich crowd. In 2019, with Veronica now in her 30s, the class warfare manifests itself differently. Veronica and Keith are still hustling to make ends meet as private eyes — Veronica is hesitant to take any job that won't pay them well and drives up their retainer whenever she can — but a pointed C-plot also finds Keith, who is still struggling in the wake of the car accident that occurred in the film, attempting to navigate our country's broken healthcare system as a member of the have-nots. It's familiar social commentary for the series, but it's perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 2004.
So when bombs start going off, putting many of the businesses that rely on local tourism in jeopardy, like a rowdy nightclub owned by Kirby Howell-Baptiste's Nicole, Veronica naturally starts digging. Technically she and Keith have been hired by the family of a congressman whose brother was injured in one of the bombings, but Veronica is interested in the case for other reasons too, namely Matty (Izabela Vidovic), the daughter of a divorced single father who dies in the first explosion. The show takes every opportunity to remind us Matty is a lot like a young Veronica, for better or worse.
The ensuing investigation, which plays out over the entire season, puts Veronica on a collision course with Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), a local pizza delivery guy with a true crime obsession, as well as a few familiar faces from the original series. They include Weevil (Francis Capra), who's back in his criminal element after being framed by the sheriff's department in the film and taking an out-of-court settlement in Mr. Kiss and Tell, one of two canonical books published after the film; Leo (Max Greenfield), who now works for the FBI and continues to have sparks with Veronica; Vinnie (Ken Marino), whose office is a strip club because that's the logical next step after a van; and even Liam Fitzpatrick (Rod Rowland), who's still a scumbag and may or may not be involved in planting the bombs. Eventually, the case leads Veronica to none other than Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk), who seems to have suffered very little from his time in prison. Now cozied up to a man he met on the inside, Clyde (the always excellent J.K. Simmons), he's attempting to transform Neptune from a wild spring break destination into an elite and idyllic seaside community only the rich can afford.
This is a Veronica Mars that is both familiar and new. As Bell and Thomas promised, the new season is a different beast from the show that initially ran for three seasons on UPN and The CW in the mid-2000s. It's been described as more adult and as "hardcore So-Cal noir," and although it's difficult to imagine a scenario for Veronica that is worse than her own rape and the murder of her best friend as a teenager, the series somehow manages to go bigger and darker and create a more dangerous atmosphere, complete with increasingly dire consequences. In the process, it also evolves into a show about Veronica's emotional stagnation.
A running thread this season finds Logan pushing Veronica to go to therapy so she can hopefully begin to cope with her trauma rather than continuing to ignore it. He credits his therapist with helping him manage his anger — Logan might have evolved and matured during his time in the military, but he's still Logan — but Veronica repeatedly refuses, insisting she's fine. Of course, anyone with a working set of eyeballs can obviously see that Veronica is not fine, that she's been hardened by everything that has happened to her over the years and still suffers from the trust issues that have plagued her since her high school days. It's not entirely clear if Veronica is even happy working as a P.I. in Neptune or if that's just what she thinks she should be doing. All the same, Logan is determined to help Veronica, and after seeing plenty of men on TV struggle in this same way, seeing Veronica face these challenges instead is a welcome role reversal that still feels completely in character. In fact, everything that occurs between Logan and Veronica throughout the season is well done, completely thought out, and true to both characters.
But for all the good, and for all the fun it is to return to Neptune and watch Veronica continue to be smarter than everyone around her, the new season isn't without its faults. A major twist near the end of the season feels like it belongs in a different series entirely, like it was added more for shock value than anything else, and I worry about its lasting implications and how it might affect the possibility of another season. If it's an attempt by Thomas and the writers to convince Hulu to grant the series more episodes to explore the aftermath, it's a big swing, and not one I am sure will pay off.
It's unfortunate that one bad decision in a sea of good ones can so easily color the rest of a finished product, but there's a very good chance that is exactly what will happen for many fans. If they can get past it, there absolutely could be life left in Veronica Mars. For most of the season, the show is a lot of fun, balancing its well-honed sense of humor — many times at the expense of fan-favorite character Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) — with Keith and Veronica's powerful family dynamic and a sometimes predictable but nevertheless engaging central mystery. There were many times throughout the season I found myself wishing Kristen Bell would never stop playing Veronica, that we never stop getting to spend time with what might be one of the best and weirdest supporting casts on TV after FX's Justified (another series I would kill to revisit in the future). And to an extent, I still feel that way; Veronica is one of the most competent characters on TV. After 15 years, she's now an old friend, and I'd rather spend time with her than most anyone else. But after these eight episodes, I also won't be surprised if this is the end of her story, and if it is, it's a somewhat disappointing one.
All eight episodes of Veronica Mars debut Friday, July 26 on Hulu.