“Veronica Mars” was a slap to the face of high school dramas when it premiered on UPN in 2004. Creator Rob Thomas took the well-worn “who killed the pretty teenager?” whodunnit and hard-boiled it, following a traumatized girl desperately trying to harden herself to the world’s harsh realities as she tried to solve the case. As a heroine, Veronica (an immediately magnetic Kristen Bell) is typically pretty and blonde, but also deeply cynical, furious, and stubborn to a fault. Between trying to reconcile the facts of her best friend’s murder and her own sexual assault, Veronica Mars — a name her friends and enemies alike tend to say in full, such is her outsized stature — spent her evening hours doing stakeouts with a taser in her purse. Outside Veronica herself, the series also took an unflinching look at the inherently imbalanced power dynamics of “a town without a middle class”; many of its storylines about gentrification, corruption, and privilege remain depressingly relevant today.
That first season — taut and smart and genuinely thrilling — still holds up as one of TV’s best debut seasons to date. In fact, the show’s initial sharpness made its subsequent messier chapters feel even duller by comparison. Veronica remained Veronica, but the mysteries surrounding her got scattered and bigger than the scripts could generally handle. Her tortured on-and-off again romance with reformed(ish) bad boy Logan (Jason Dohring) became a revolving carousel of cliches. The final third season, which began with promise but hastily ended in narrative chaos, seriously tested the patience of an otherwise fervent fanbase. And yet the fans still turned out to help Thomas successfully raise money to make a standalone movie (released in 2014) about Veronica’s 10-year high school reunion. It gave her another murder mystery to solve, but was mostly a sentimental parade of familiar faces and greatest hits that made it seem “Veronica Mars” had well and truly run its course.
Now, 15 years after the pilot first aired, Hulu’s 8-episode revival does its damnedest to prove that there’s more life in the franchise yet. Veronica is back to living and working as a private investigator in Neptune, but this time, she’s on the other side of 30 and living with Logan in a cozy beach-side apartment. Her father and co-worker Keith (Enrico Colantoni) is still recovering from a devastating car crash circa the “Veronica Mars” movie and trying to figure out how much longer he can stay in the PI game. Her high school best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) is teaching at Neptune High and married with a kid. Weevil (Francis Capra), Veronica’s least likely ally, is back in his family’s chop shop after making a run at a more sedate family life. Maybe most surprisingly, Logan is working through his anger issues in therapy — and doing all he can to convince Veronica to one day join him on the path to true well-being.
The “Veronica Mars” characters navigating Neptune in their advancing age make for much more interesting stories over the course of Hulu’s eight episodes than the movie ever attempted. Bell and Colantoni are still aces as they both trade snappy comebacks at each other and struggle to accept Keith’s deteriorating health. Bell and Dohring’s once white-hot chemistry has undeniably cooled, but the new dynamic works as Veronica and Logan reevaluate their relationship and the often unhealthy ways they relate to each other. (Veronica’s flirty teasing with Max Greenfield’s dimply federal agent Leo, thankfully, remains perfectly intact.) And after everything Neptune’s put him through, it’s genuinely lovely to see Wallace settle into a happy groove with his family and job, Veronica’s restless eye-rolling about it be damned.
Personal friction aside, it wouldn’t be “Veronica Mars” without a tricky mystery or five to unravel — and this is where the revival stumbles. At first, it seems like the case of a serial bomber targeting businesses during Neptune’s infamously debaucherous spring break might be the perfect way for “Veronica Mars” to express some of its more prescient commentary about class inequality and the whims of the rich, but it spirals in too many different directions to be coherent. J.K. Simmons and Patton Oswalt dig into their roles as an ex-con and attention-seeking bomb victim (respectively), but their scenes quickly get repetitive. The weakest side-plots belong to a potentially shady Congressman (Mido Hamada) known as “the Muslim Barack Obama” and a pair of Mexican cartel buddies whose entire characters seem to be “behead now, ask questions later.” Between them and Veronica’s alarming belligerence towards Weevil this season, it’s concerning, to say the least, that these new stories concerning the few people of color shown in Neptune are so poorly handled. (The exception to this rule is Kirby Howell-Baptise as a snarky bar owner, though that’s mostly thanks to the strength of her and her “Good Place” co-star Bell as a team.) It’s too bad that the detective noir thread of “Veronica Mars” gets so muddled in its 2019 permutation, though perhaps unsurprising given the can’t break the show’s general curse of diminishing returns following that stellar first season.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Veronica Mars” 4.0 — or at least its most surprising, given the movie so aggressively courting fan favor — is its willingness to push the show in directions that risk alienating its devotees. This season highlights how selfish its heroine can be, why its love story isn’t aspirational, and the folly of believing that catching The Bad Guy means that the danger is gone. It doesn’t always work, but at the very least, it goes down swinging.