TV: Veronica Mars (Season 4)

If you can revive a beloved television series, should you? In the era of Peak Television, Hollywood’s answer tends to be “of course.” The results, however, have ranged from the execrable (The X-Files) to the divine (Twin Peaks: The Return). Well, add Veronica Mars to the update list—now for the second time. After a nostalgic 2014 Kickstarter movie, this time Veronica revisits Neptune, California in a new eight-episode Hulu season. This latest iteration makes interesting decisions, to say the least, and some of them are liable to have fans up in arms. But overall, it’s a successful revival. Its tactics are occasionally questionable, but its strategy is sound, a mindful interrogation of the show’s past.

The 2014 movie reunion brought Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) back to Neptune after finally escaping for a new life in New York. The lure: her on-again, off-again relationship with Neptune bad boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who needed her help after being falsely accused of murder. As the new season begins, we learn that Veronica’s return was permanent. She’s set up shop at Mars Investigations with her beloved father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) and fallen into her old life of living hand-to-mouth while solving local crimes. Everything is slightly different: the agency has expanded its space to give Veronica her own office, and Keith’s in rough shape, still struggling in the aftermath of a car accident that’s effected both his mobility and his memory. But Veronica herself is much the same: snarky, resourceful, deeply devoted to her father, and wrestling through a slightly off-kilter long-term relationship with Logan. Logan, now a Naval intelligence officer, is prone to disappearing for long stretches on deployment. His latest return coincides with Neptune’s yearly spring break rush, when partying college students bring much-needed business to the beachfront town but also disrupt the calm status quo, upsetting Neptune’s wealthy NIMBYs. An explosion at the Sea Sprite Motel sets in motion a complicated tapestry of investigations, embroiling Veronica, Keith, and Logan in events which ultimately reveal a nefarious conspiracy and devious villainy under Neptune’s mundane surface.

The season gets off to a rocky start, shaking the rust off as it gradually reintroduces us to familiar characters and clutters the stage further with new ones. Everything feels slightly off: the people, the look, the pacing, the awful new theme song, and especially the setting. Neptune’s class warfare divide had a mythical, bottle-show feel in the original series; today’s Neptune feels almost too much like authentic, contemporary Southern California, as if the harsh reality of the real world has pierced the Neptune bubble. It’s disconcerting at first, and so is the uptick in explicit sex and violence, now that the show is on a more permissive network. Of course, Veronica’s cases had always been steeped in heightened-reality sleaze and scandal, in keeping with the show’s noir influences. But back in the day there was something one-step-removed and comfortably unreal about it. By contrast, season four feels crass and graphic, as if trying to keep up with the shocking new TV landscape shaped by shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Held side by side with the first season, which for all its problematic missteps was breezy and upbeat, this new Veronica Mars feels like a weird new beast, and initially it doesn’t appear to be working.

Eventually, though, things click into place. Bell and Colantoni share an effortless rapport as these characters, and their chemistry leads the charge in the show’s return to form, improving as the season progresses. I also warmed to the season’s new characters, especially Veronica’s plucky new protege Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), crime buff pizza delivery man Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), free-spirited night club owner Nicole Malloy (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and shifty ex-con fixer Clyde Pickett (J.K. Simmons). Once this new Neptune landscape starts to come into focus, the complex tangle of plot threads becomes more engaging, a better backdrop for the zippy character interactions and heartfelt relationships that have traditionally been the show’s strong suit.

But more important to the revival’s success is the thoughtful way it examines itself as a revival. The Kickstarter film felt like a throwback homecoming reunion; season four introduces fierce winds of change. Indeed, the very elements that seem jarring and incongruous in the season’s early stages ultimately wind up contributing to the show’s coherent thematic approach. Indeed, much about Neptune has changed, so much so that the things that haven’t changed seem weirdly out of place. Count among these recidivist biker gang leader Weevil (Francis Capra), who seems chronically exhausted by the rut of his criminal responsibilities. Also include shallow asshole party boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) and slick, dick-swinging PI Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), both of whom feel like relics from an earlier era of TV. But most importantly you can include Veronica, who’s walking through the same patterns: an up-and-down romance with Logan, witty banter with her father, investigative rivalry with the local authorities, and so forth. Everything about Neptune that hasn’t changed, including Veronica, feels a little sad and unhealthy. Peripherally, this also includes Keith, who’s struggling to keep up with his old chipper self even as he’s terrified by new uncertainties about his health.

The new Neptune, meanwhile, feels more realistic and natural and in touch with itself. This includes, fortunately, old characters like Wallace (Percy Daggs III), who has grown up and married and seems to have advanced to a new stage in life. And crucially, it includes Logan. This season’s Logan, in fact, is thematically key, because the way that he doesn’t seem like his old self in the early episodes—kind of haunted and somber and restrained—turns out to be a good thing. Tortured both by the turbulence of his Neptune youth and the horrible things he’s seen overseas, Logan is different, but it’s primarily because he’s actually dealing with his shit, confronting the accumulated traumas of his life in a way that Veronica, who shared many of them, never quite gets around to. I always found the Veronica-Logan relationship a stretch, and during a recent rewatch wondered if you could even redeem the irredeemable asshole Logan of those early episodes. Season four interrogates that, and seems mindful of the fact that many of the characters of the show have been through trauma, and in many cases never adjusted their MOs to move forward from it. In that sense, this season of Veronica Mars reminds me just a tiny bit of Twin Peaks: The Return, at least inasmuch as it thrusts viewer expectations back into their faces, challenging their cravings for nostalgia by delivering them into uncharted territory. It may not be entirely what the fans wanted, but it’s probably what Veronica needed.

Does it deliver the show’s transition to a new place perfectly? I don’t think so. The uglier world of the new Veronica Mars is harder to like, and its increase in sordid brutality occasionally grates against its breezier rhythms. The show still has some male-gaze sexism and unfortunate racial characterizations. Then again, the old Veronica Mars had plenty of problematic business. At least now it seems aware of it, which makes me think the show, like Veronica, may be trying to finally grow up. I didn’t always love the way it did that, but I came away respecting that it was trying.

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