Veronica Mars has always been a series about compromise. The narrative actions of the characters smash up against myriad motivations, but more importantly, it’s a show that exists within give and take. And there is no component more emblematic of that than this fourth season of a series that simply struggles to be.
Originally running from 2004 to 2007, Veronica Mars told the story of a teenage private eye solving various crimes and misdemeanors in the fictional town of Neptune, California. It opened with a blinding perfection and singular direction. This teen soap opera smashed together with a neo-noir detective story, told with a ruthless efficiency that seemed to stand counter to the bottomless font of style it housed.
It, unfortunately, struggled to gain much purchase with the higher-ups at The CW, despite two tremendous followup (but, admittedly, less intimate) seasons and was unceremoniously canceled. And, as many shows do with a fervent fandom under a delightful moniker (in this case, “marshmallows”), it eventually garnered significant heat for a revival. Following a record-setting Kickstarter, 2014 saw a feature film, and now, after much pleading and plotting and waiting, a fourth season on Hulu.
This sits squarely amidst an era of discrete but amorphous expectations. Will it fall closer to the disastrous Gilmore Girls revival, one so reviled that it almost categorically demolished all the goodwill the original series garnered? Or maybe it’ll be an innocuous and forgettable expansion like Girl Meets World. It could, perhaps, fall in line with the film and just be eight episodes of unrelenting fan service.
In some ways, it is that last one. This last season sees Veronica (Kristen Bell) attempting to solve the serial and lethal bombing attacks across Neptune during a Spring Break, and while it doesn’t trot out classic character like a high school theatre revue, it does feel at times a bit like a sweeping view of a SoCal diorama. They come through whenever they can help Veronica advance the case rather than contribute to the story.
As a consequence, some fan favorites get glancing blows across the bow like best friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) who doesn’t have a lot of do without the conceit of being in the same educational institution as our protagonist. Others, however, get to settle into more expanded roles with a streamlined structure. (I won’t spoil who or how, but know that this person gets one of my favorite introductions a character has ever gotten on this show, a commensurate reward for hefting more of the narrative weight.)
This somewhat forces the show’s hand to evolve beyond its original form (and shoehorned with the movie). The entirety of the school drama has been excised out of necessity and has to instead rely on being more of a strict murder mystery, which results in some less than ideal results. It certainly works; its twists and turns are many and unexpected and become a genuinely thrilling race against time. The last few episodes will be breathlessly and voraciously consumed.
But this is the most detached Veronica has ever been from the proceedings. Her stakes in the matter begin and end with, well, it’s her job. (It doesn’t even feel like her physical proximity to several of the bombings contributes to the impetus.) And, as a result, viewing it feels like a detachment as well. Perhaps both we the audience and the characters are just going through the motions.
To an extent, it feels purposeful. This show, after all, is about compromise. Veronica is the embodiment of it, giving in so much of what she values to feed her addiction. As explored in the film, she ends up back in Neptune as almost a physical imperative. She can’t exist outside of the town, outside of working cases at Mars Investigations—outside of sabotaging herself.
It’s a tremendous throughline for the series. Here is this woman who started as girl avenging a life she lost when her innocence was ripped from her hands. And then she thrived being this angel of vengeance. And then she became dependent on it. Now map that onto the story of all the fans clamoring for this revival. Map it onto creator and showrunner Rob Thomas’ unyielding desperation to return to this electric, sunbleached city.
This season comes across as a statement on that desire (especially with its shocking ending, which reminds me: DON’T GOOGLE ANYTHING ABOUT THIS SEASON UNTIL YOU WATCH IT BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE BAD AT WRITING HEADLINES). What do you give up and what do you gain when you indulge in this? What is inherent in change and what do we instead manufacture as part of a metamorphosis?
Some of it is so deliriously pointed towards this that it’s almost funny. We are introduced to Matty (Izabela Vidovic), orphaned daughter of a victim of the first bombing, who is such a bright, blinking neon sign of parallels to Veronica that it makes your eyes bleed a bit (though Vidovic is stellar in the role). Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) exists solely as a thematic lightning rod, which strips Dohring of every opportunity to bring his delightfully idiosyncratic interpretation of the character to life. And the cartel duo of Alonzo Lozano (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dodie Mendoza (Frank Gallegos) is a sort of Greek force of narrative reckoning.
While every single one of these newcomers (and more) is incredible in their roles, they stand in stark contrast through their simple existence with our returning favorites. The new forms a striking relief against the old.
Perhaps it’s as sad as it is welcome to see our characters static. Stoic in their resolute, immutable natures. The scales tip back and forth between nostalgia and progress—ripping off the spots and putting them right back on the leopard.
Final score: 8 out of 10