The Hulu-exclusive fourth season of Veronica Mars—which surprisingly dropped this past weekend ahead of its originally announced July 26 launch—is a wild and wonderfully complex thing. And I don’t just mean the sociopolitical murder mystery at the heart of its plot. This eight-episode run also has a sort of meta thing going on, in which it explores the tenuousness of its very existence, and what a dangerous motivator nostalgia can be.
If you’re not familiar with Veronica Mars at all, perhaps it’s worth stepping back for a minute to explain why the fourth season is such a big deal. The series started life in 2004 on UPN and ran for two years before moving to the CW for one final season. Best described as a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (minus the supernatural elements) meets Raymond Chandler (minus all
the cigarettes), the show launched Kristen Bell into the spotlight, and gained a cult following due to its smart writing, wonderful characters, and incredible performances. And then it was canceled, all too soon, because nobody could figure out how to market a series that looked like a modern high-school drama and acted like a gumshoe classic.
In the years since, word of mouth has elevated the series to must-watch status, so much so that a feature-film
reboot in 2014 broke records on Kickstarter in the video category and held those records until Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along and smashed them. The funny thing about that is that both projects ended up being blatant fan service that failed to capture what made the originals so great.
Re-launches of beloved properties seem to be all the rage in the world of streaming these days, though (think: Gilmore Girls and Full House, of all things), so it’s no real shock to see Veronica Mars return, 12 years after its cancelation. What sets this season apart—from other reboots of other properties, and indeed from the 2014 Veronica Mars film—is that it actually has something to say. A reason to exist beyond mere nostalgia. Some self-awareness about what a double-edged sword one wields when giving fans of a dead-and-buried TV show what they think they want.
In short, Veronica Mars Season 4 is Veronica Mars and it isn’t. It’s many of the same characters we knew and loved from the show’s original run, except they’re not exactly the same people anymore. Since the Buffy vibe no longer quite works, given how far removed from high school Veronica is these days, this season also leans more heavily on its Raymond Chandler roots, and makes playful references to other noir and neo-noir offspring of Chandler, including some blink-and-miss-it nods to Columbo and—true to Veronica Mars form—a good mix of subtle and overt shout-outs to The Big Lebowski.
At its heart, though, what makes this new season work so well is exactly the same thing that made the original series such a joy to watch. Namely, the bond between Kristen Bell as Veronica and Enrico Colantoni as her father and partner-in-crime-solving, Keith Mars. The banter between them puts the best of Cary Grant and Ros Russell to shame, and although that
rapid-fire back-and-forth has evolved to accommodate a world in which smart phones, smart homes, and social media are a thing, that evolution feels organic, not forced or kitschy. As does everything else about how the dark world of sunny Neptune, CA, has changed since we last dropped in on it to revel in the whodunnit of it all.
Perhaps the most impactful difference between the old and new incarnations of Veronica Mars isn’t the time that has passed, though; it’s the new format. By limiting this season to eight episodes, showrunner Rob Thomas (no, not the “Matchbox Twenty” one; the Space Ghost Coast to Coast/Party Down/iZombie one) is able to craft a compact narrative without all of the mystery-of-the-week episodes that padded earlier seasons.
Since the show is also now likely to be binged instead of doled out a week at a time, the new writing team (which also interestingly includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) has also been given free rein to weave a much denser narrative that involves not just a spring-break bomber, but also a blackmailed congressman, two hitmen for a Mexican drug cartel, and a fame-seeking pizza-delivery guy/conspiracy theorist (played to perfection by Patton Oswalt), all of whom come together in one big mystery of misunderstandings, double-crossings, and red herrings.
All in all, Season 4 comes as close to the perfection of Season 1 as anyone could hope for. Only a few minor quibbles (a stray reference to a director’s cut of The Big Lebowski when nonesuch exists, and a minor continuity error involving a cellphone video that doesn’t perfectly match events as they played out in an earlier episode, for example) mar what is otherwise a masterfully crafted reboot that can honestly be enjoyed as its own thing, even if you never saw the first three seasons and might not understand a handful of references to characters who didn’t have an organic part to play in this new story.
That last fact, though, plays right into this season’s larger theme about how nostalgia can bite you in the ass. Some longtime fans may have preferred to see those characters shoehorned into the plot anyway. And others will no doubt rage at the show’s handling of one of the original cast members. (I haven’t had time to peruse the forums just yet, but I can predict the hissy fits without even having read them.)
As for me, you can count this long-time Marshmallow (as Veronica Mars fans are known) amongst those who loved every minute of this season. I want more of the same. ASAP. But appropriately enough, “more of the same” would be outright impossible. The end of Season 4 leaves Veronica Mars (the show and the character) in such a place that it and she are left with no choice but to evolve again.
Technically speaking, I only wish Hulu would likewise evolve. The look of Season 4 is at times held back by the 1080p limitations of the service the show now calls home. Blacks are a bit crushed in some darker scenes, and banding rears its ugly head from time to time. Granted, the show looks better now than it did in its original run, but its mix of bright and sunny beach shots and shadowy nighttime skulking would greatly benefit from the high dynamic range that 4K brings with it.
Hopefully, by the time Season 5 rolls around (fingers crossed), Hulu will have grown up and adapted to the modern era as deftly and meaningfully as Veronica Mars has.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.