This moment—the TV revival moment—has had, to this point, meager upsides. True reboots can be wonderful (see “One Day At A Time,” lately at Netflix and now migrating to PopTV, as one such example) but most of the shows that have taken the “Will & Grace” route have stumbled, at best. That’s the only question such series seem to ask: Why do something new when there’s that first thing that worked 10, 15, 20 years ago? The fourth season of “Veronica Mars” is the exception that proves the rule. This Veronica is the Veronica we met in the aughts, no question, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Here, Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, and company treat the built-in strangeness of the revival as an essential part of the storytelling. Who is this woman? How has she changed? And perhaps, most importantly, in what ways is she the same?
The result is a captivating, deliberately frustrating season of television that’s very nearly as good as the show’s first and considerably more compelling than its second or third (to say nothing of the sporadically vibrant and tissue-thin movie). “A long time ago, we used to be friends,” the theme song says (now sung by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders), and for the first time, it sounds true. The truth, as it so often does, hurts—but it’s great television.
The events of this unexpected fourth season (hopefully, considering the strength of these eight episodes, not the show’s last) pick up about five years after the events of the fan service-heavy film. (The storyline includes the events of two Veronica Mars novels, released after the film, but neither is essential to following the plot here.) Veronica (Bell, as good as she’s ever been), two fancy-ass degrees in tow, is still in Neptune, using the P.I. license she got for her 18th birthday and harboring the same well-worn resentments. Sure, she’s got a new dog (Pony, taking over for poor old Backup) and a new rent-controlled beachfront address, and sure, she’s still in a relationship with the new and improved mostly-stable Logan (Jason Dohring, appealing as ever), but the damage is all very familiar. She’s stuck, tied inextricably to the person she was at age 16, but she’s nevertheless showing signs of wear and tear. That invaluable capacity for empathy is a little harder to access; that hope for something better and kinder greatly diminished.
That’s not true of everyone in her orbit. Poor old Weevil (Francis Capra, terrific) has lost his grip on the stable, chino-wearning life he built for himself, and once again rides at the front of the 09ers (a group that now includes “American Vandal’s” Tyler Alvarez), but Wallace (Percy Daggs III) has a wife and a son now, having left the days of swiping files from the principal long behind him. Logan’s change is even more dramatic. Revealed to be a Navy pilot in the 2014 film, he’s now an intelligence officer who’s on great terms with his therapist and concerned by his girlfriend’s apparent desire to get the old rage-filled, self-destructive Logan back from time to time. And then there’s Keith (Enrico Colantoni, doing series-best work in a career-best role), still recovering from a brutal car accident five years after the fact with little-to-no hope of improvement, but trying to make way on the long, hard path that leads to whatever comes next.
Most of all, however, it’s Neptune that remains the same. There are some new faces, namely J.K. Simmons as a mysterious associate of Richard “Dick Sr.” Casablancas, Patton Oswalt as a pizza guy with terrible timing, Izabela Vidovic as a local kid with a whole lot of trouble on her plate, and Clifton Collins Jr. as a new ruthless adversary, but the stark class divide and the simmering tension that comes with it is as prominent as ever—perhaps moreso. The biggest difference on the Neptune front, however, is how beautifully it’s shot. Never do the show’s directors descend into what you might (with great respect) call “Brick” territory; there’s the occasional atmospheric, intentionally Dassin-esque shot, particularly in the Mars Investigations office, but for the most part, the noir elements can be found in tone, dialogue, and story. Instead, we see Neptune as Veronica and Keith Mars see it: Sometimes small, sometimes grand, nearly always either empty or totally claustrophobic. That’s always been true, but now there are fancy cameras and Hulu money; never, not even in the film, has the show looked this good.
Still, none of the thoughtful camerawork would matter one lick if the acting and writing weren’t so damn good. “Veronica Mars” has never come anywhere near the realm of comedy, but all these years later, it remains one of TV’s most reliably lively dramas, with dialogue that sizzles and pops. More importantly, it makes for a hell of a character study, perhaps now more than ever before, with Bell and Colantoni in particular doing layered, often upsetting work with the terrific scenes and stories given to them. If there is any justice in this world, and “Veronica Mars” doesn’t seem to think there is, both will finally be in the awards conversation for their turns in this season.
This has always been a show about a young woman whose trauma, compulsions, and (on the positive side) bone-deep desire to fight for the underdog regularly lead her, and those who love her, into danger, but it’s in this fourth season that the costs of those compulsions become most clear. There are also mysteries, and those are entertaining, too. Upsetting, but entertaining. There are hiccups, to be sure—a few too-obvious plugs for Hulu (just wait for when Veronica and Logan can’t wait to catch “Harlots”) and an affecting but uneven finale keep this from entering the realm of the straight-As—but overall, these eight episodes are likely to leave you with a crowded mind, a sore heart, and a potent longing to see whatever comes next, in the pitiful hope that things might bet better.
It’s a painful show. It always has been. A passing one-liner reveals that the new Mars family motto suggests they’re no longer angry and instead are trying to be amused, but Veronica seems pretty angry. The hits, as always, keep on coming; the hurt never truly goes away. But part of taking steps toward healing involves acknowledging the anger, the pain, the fear, and the emptiness. This isn’t a season about healing and happiness, but it just might be one about nearing those places, by inches, by baby steps only. The hurt runs deep, a band-aid won’t do it, and the past seems to always become more and more present. A long time ago, the song says, we used to be friends; the ‘we’ might be unclear, but the ‘long time’ and the ‘used to’ carry a hell of a sting.