If you judge Veronica Mars on the gap between its creative peak (a first season that marked a near perfect exercise in balancing serialized and episodic mystery storylines) and its creative trough (a flaccid movie pandering exclusively to the fans who basically funded it), you get a disparity nearly unprecedented in recent TV.
That erratic quality has extended to distribution: The series has aired on UPN and The CW and as a spinoff on CW Seed, been a Kickstarter-ed feature and several YA novels.
To be a fan of Veronica Mars is to embrace inconsistency.
By that standard, Veronica Mars devotees are well and truly prepared for the show’s latest incarnation, an eight-episode Hulu run premiering July 26. In their best moments, these episodes coast on the charm and precision pluckiness of star Kristen Bell and a decently curated cast of returning and new faces. In its worst moments, the new Veronica Mars struggles to generate tension around a thin and dull season-long arc, and strings along tantalizing and long-necessary character growth for a hypothetical fifth season, eschewing closure for an ending that’s ill-considered on several levels.
Never a complete dud — it’s many orders of magnitude better that the movie and requires only a Hulu subscription and not a donation — the fourth Veronica Mars season nevertheless has many more of the latter moments than the former, which shouldn’t stop obsessive fans, who are well trained to superimpose the good over the bad, from continuing to ignore the flaws.
With Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright back at the creative helm (and The Hollywood Reporter columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the writing staff), the season picks up with Veronica (Bell) still working as a shamus in her SoCal hometown of Neptune. She’s in a long-term relationship with Logan (Jason Dohring), who frequently leaves her for long stretches with only her dog and father (Enrico Colantoni’s Keith) as company. Keith, walking with a cane after a car accident, is also suffering from memory lapses, which Veronica barely notices. Spring break has brought its normal chaos to Neptune, and things get worse when a bomb goes off at a seaside hotel, prompting fears of a serial killer.
The ensuing drama involves shady real estate mogul Richard “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk), Big Dick’s menacing prison pal Clyde (J.K. Simmons), a pair of hitmen (including Clifton Collins Jr.’s Alonzo) up from Mexico, butt-kicking bar owner Nicole (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a clever teen who reminds Veronica of herself (Izabela Vidovic’s Matty) and Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), a pizza delivery guy and true crime fanatic who takes it upon himself to find the bomber after he’s injured in the initial blast.
While not quite as relentlessly “Hey, remember THIS character?” nostalgic as the movie, Veronica Mars is still aggressive in trotting out characters both favorite and otherwise. It isn’t spoiling anything to say that Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Weevil (Francis Capra), Dick (Ryan Hansen), Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino) and Cliff McCormack (Daran Norris) are back, but there are deeper-cut returnees as well, plus shoutouts to absent favorites like Piz or Mac. For all the affection that Thomas and company clearly have for these characters, it’s odd how rarely the show’s second-tier ensemble is well used; most egregious is the utter wasting of Wallace.
As a character, Veronica is in a bit of a rut, something the show understands, but dawdles in dealing with. The entire premise of the show hinged on filtering a hard-boiled pulp sensibility in unlikely ways through a pint-sized blonde teenage girl. But what does it mean when a character who once exhibited boundless potential is still, over a decade later, doing the same thing she did as an after-school job in high school, when the guy she’s dated has gone to exhausting lengths to improve himself — to the point that Logan has no more rough edges and is a buff, acquiescent, fan-servicing mannequin — and she’s unchanged? Is Veronica hiding her deep, unexplored trauma behind quips and pop culture references or is the show hiding its inability to handle that complexity behind the same glibness? It could be both, but it feels much more like the latter, especially in the scenes with Veronica and Keith, a key pairing too often pushed to the background by Veronica’s dating life.
It’s just hard to tell if the repetitive and season-long plot is meant as a reflection on Veronica’s own wheel-spinning or if it’s an uninspired loop of empty tragedies and limp twists that you’re supposed to invest in because Simmons is, as ever, wonderful and Oswalt and Collins are the sort of decent additions better suited for a one-off guest turn than a season-long arc. I never cared about whodunnit and the crime itself lacks any particular resonance.
In this respect, it isn’t just Veronica struggling to move on. The depiction of beach-town gentrification as a white-collar crime perpetrated mainly on college-aged white tourists would be shallow even if Veronica Mars weren’t already a show that has struggled to depict any of the demographic realities of Southern California, particularly failing to treat its Latinx characters as more than stereotypes or facile “What if the gangbanger/hitman were also sensitive?” inversions. With the better part of a decade for introspection, that is unimproved. There are frequent, hollow references to our current political moment, but the show gains little value or context from those nods to immigration or Muslim politicians or the borderline disturbing way that sexual violence is reduced to red herrings or even kink.
As ever, what keeps Veronica Mars watchable in its low moments is Bell, hinting at the character’s emotional wounds through Veronica’s occasionally amusing barbs, and her interplay with the rarely better Colantoni. It isn’t the mystery and it certainly isn’t the romance, sparkless even in this marginally more permissive Hulu world. It’s a tribute to how well-trained I am by the show’s inconsistency that after eight episodes of general disappointment, I’m still ready for a fifth season.
Oh, and one last piece of advice: If you care about Veronica Mars but maybe don’t have time to binge the new season immediately, stay the heck away from social media on premiere weekend. There are things people are going to be reacting to very vocally.
Cast: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Patton Oswalt, J.K. Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr., Izabela Vidovic
Creator: Rob Thomas
Premieres: July 26 (Hulu)