America is a country in which (they say) everyone gets a second act; that motto more recently has been extended not just to real people, but to fictional ones, too. “Will & Grace,” “Roseanne,” “The Gilmore Girls” — so many characters whose stories ostensibly ended a decade or more ago have been allowed a second chance to make a first impression.
“Veronica Mars,” though, did them all one better on Friday, with a third act to what has become an on-and-off franchise for the millennial generation. However, fans shouldn’t just tune in to “Veronica Mars” season four — which dropped on Hulu a week early — for the nostalgia factor. The reason to binge-watch this delightful trip back to Neptune, California, is because Mars, ever the cleverest girl in the room, knows that nostalgia’s why we’re all here.
When “Veronica Mars” premiered back in 2004, it was the strangest teen soap to grace UPN’s final two years on the air before being folded into The CW. The show was one-part high school drama, one-part noir murder mystery. And yet, “Veronica Mars” was oddly nimble in how it threaded the initial season one murder mystery. It practically felt like one had stumbled across an American version of “Masterpiece Mystery,” but with teenagers instead of upper-class British detectives. It also was far franker about social issues than any of its peers, not only in how it addressed class mobility and income inequality but also rape and PTSD. In short, it was far too good to last.
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To no one’s surprise, the show was canceled after season three, surviving only a single year on its new home. And, like all odd cult shows canceled during the nascent years of mass access to home broadband — as blogging became widespread and fan culture rose — an immediate cult of personality rose up around it. “Veronica Mars” became known as a perfect little show, too good for this world. The passion was such that fans even funded a Kickstarter-backed movie, trying to keep the dream alive. But the film wasn’t any good; fan service without a plot will only get you so far. In terms of second chances, Mars had blown it.
That is why Hulu’s second revival of the show — this time as an eight-part limited series — is such a joy to behold. It’s a return to form that most wouldn’t have thought possible. This time, show creator Rob Thomas put together a powerhouse team of writers to create the best season of the series since that initial 2004 premiere. No wonder Hulu wanted to release it a week ahead of schedule.
Like so many series reboots, time is operating as a factor, and it’s been 15 years since the titular character was a junior in high school. Veronica (Kristen Bell) is still in Neptune, still working as a private investigator for her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). She’s even still in a will-they-or-won’t-they with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), though now it is less about whether or not they will get together as much as whether or not they will marry. The current problem in Neptune, when fans rejoin Veronica’s adventures, is that a serial bomber has hit the town, targeting the precious spring break locations that fuel the city coffers every year. The town’s current sheriff, Marcia Langdon (Dawnn Lewis), doesn’t seem all that interested in solving the case for mysterious reasons. The Mars are on the case, and Neptune will hopefully be a little better for it.
The good news for fans is that “Veronica Mars,” at this point, is legendary enough that old characters will come back. The better news is that more than a few Hollywood heavyweights are ready and willing to jump in as new characters. This gives Bell and Colantoni a murderer’s row of talent to work against. For instance, there’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who plays Nicole, the club owner where most of the victims have turned up at one point or another. There’s also Patton Oswald as Penn, the pizza guy obsessed with cold cases. Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons is a great foil for Veronica’s dad in playing Clyde, the right-hand man to “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk), the town’s new seedy real estate mogul. These characters easily fit right in among old-timers like Veronica’s old best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and former gang member Weevil (Francis Capra).
But here’s the thing: Veronica, back in 2006’s season three, was someone on her way. She was smart, clever and funny and, by rights, she should have left Neptune (and Logan) behind ages ago. In show lore, she basically did — it was the events of the film that forced her to come back in the first place. Now she’s a 32-year-old woman still living in her hometown, still doing the same job she had in high school. Not because she’s had some sort of failure to thrive, but because viewers demand “Veronica Mars” remain as it was.
The show is hyperaware of this dynamic, turning that irony of place and time into the miniseries’ theme. “Veronica Mars” was always patently aware that its premise was somewhat ridiculous. The show was the marriage of a dark murder mystery to a Show Geared Towards High School Viewers, and wasn’t afraid of a little meta-commentary on the latter. With Mars long out of high school, the show instead marries their whodunit to a Show Geared Towards Nostalgic Fans and, once again, it’s all about the meta-commentary.
At times, this can get a little too on the nose, such as when a character Veronica locked up in earlier seasons literally sneers at her that she’s still doing this all these years later. But “Veronica Mars” is just one of a slew of nostalgic revivals, all of which have forced characters back to where they were 10 to 25 years after they should have and, in other circumstances, would have moved on. It’s high time someone, somewhere took that trope head on. The Mars are on the case, and the TV landscape is just a little bit better for it.