Veronica Mars’ superb revival rejects Neptune nostalgia for seedier, grittier noir

Starring Kristen Bell in her breakout role, and created by Rob Thomas (Party Down, iZombie), the consistently brilliant and critically adored (yet criminally underseen) Veronica Mars was undoubtedly one of television’s greatest shows. Following a whip-smart and ultra resourceful high school girl moonlighting as a private detective, the series was a hard boiled gumshoe noir disguised as a teen drama. From investigating petty theft and cheating spouses, to serious cases such as the murder of her best friend and her own rape – Veronica Mars tackled corrupt power structures and class warfare just as seriously as other teen shows treated love triangles.

Although brimming with wit, snark and wonderfully complex mysteries – the show was sadly cancelled after three seasons in 2007 due to low ratings. Undeterred, its devoted cult following raised $US 5.7 million on Kickstarter to shoot a crowdfunded Veronica Mars movie in 2013. While the effort was admirable, Thomas understandably leaned hard into saccharine fan service to please the film’s backers. The result was a fun, but ultimately forgettable excuse to bring back as many old favorites as possible. Now back again for a fourth season revival on Hulu, Veronica Mars has wisely worked all that wish-fulfillment out of it’s system to return to it’s bleak noir roots.

Veronica Mars is at it’s best when it denies the audience what it wants and gives them what the story demands. Season four might shock some viewers – it’s seedier, grittier, darker and more unflinchingly adult – but it’s also a more natural evolution for a character who’s been through so much loss and trauma. Set five years after the movie offered happy endings for it’s cast of characters, we find a bitter Veronica struggling to make ends meet after rejecting a lucrative legal career to return to her hometown of Neptune. Despite working her dream job and living with the love of her life, her experiences have made her distrustful and self-destructive.

When not busy trying to keep Mars Investigations afloat as her P.I. dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) grapples with ill health and advanced age, she’s trying to convince herself that rejecting a sweet marriage proposal from long-time boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is a good idea. Of course, personal tensions take a back seat when a series of bombings rock Neptune’s annual spring break celebrations, killing a handful of tourists and locals – each with a messy backstory for Keith and Veronica to probe. Everyone from the brother of an Arab-American congressman, to the nephew of a Mexican drug lord, to a sleazy sexual predator could be viable targets.

But Veronica suspects a broader motive at play – orchestrated by crooked real estate mogul “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk) who has been trying to rebuild (ie. gentrify) Neptune by driving out small businesses and low-income households. As commerce dries up from fleeing spring break kids, mom-and-pop establishments are forced to sell their land to avoid bankruptcy. Set in a California beach town with no middle class – only the wealthy and the people who work for them – the show has always dealt with class divisions. But never has it dealt with the issue this pointedly, going much deeper than the original series’ rich kids versus poor kids dynamic.

This season’s twisty overarching mystery introduces a host of new faces – including Patton Oswalt as a nebbish pizza delivery man who witnessed to the first bombing, J.K. Simmons as a slick ex-con, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a bar owner Veronica befriends, Izabela Vidovic as preternaturally savvy teen (reminiscent of young Veronica), Mido Hamada as Congressman Daniel Maloof, and Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos as two cartel hitmen who feel like they strolled in from a Tarantino movie. Impressively, all the fresh characters are richly defined and instantly memorable – but it’s J.K. Simmons’ grizzled charm that often steals the show.

Combined with lots of familiar faces (the returns of Max Greenfield, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, and Ken Marino all feel organic) and plenty of new angles from a Byzantine case, season four’s early episodes can be overwhelming. But rest assured, the mysteries are so absorbing, and the way disparate narrative threads intertwine are so clever, that you’ll effortlessly binge this eight-episode story in one sitting. The intricately crafted mystery itself is suspenseful and addictive, but it never distracts from the important things – exploring Veronica’s damaged psyche through her relationships, particularly with Keith and Logan.

Despite the lightness of it’s quippy banter and sharp-witted humour, Veronica Mars has always held a dark perspective. And if it’s early days were Raymond Chandler set in high school, this adult evolution is simply Raymond Chandler. Veronica can’t help but search for the truth – no matter how much it hurts or who it hurts. Her upbringing has made her shun vulnerability and avoid intimacy. Those aren’t ingredients that make for a happy person – and this season takes some extremely painful (but perfectly natural) turns to illustrate that. It all makes for a terrific and uncompromising fourth season that returns Veronica Mars to it’s seminal season one form.

Rating: 8.5/10