It could have been so much better!

It’s a wonderful thing that a new Hulu season of Veronica Mars exists, if only because it has focused brief media attention on a show that never quite got its due in the mainstream during its original run. Its first revival, a cheap crowdfunded movie that was transparently a fan convention, only less fun, wasn’t substantial enough to bring about a reassessment. Season Four, which replicates some of the show’s age-old problems and introduces some new ones, is good enough to recommend. Unlike some other shows that returned from the dead to diminishing returns, like Arrested Development, Futurama, and Gilmore Girls, no real fans are going to be disappointed that these new episodes exist. But given the financial resources and creative freedom creator Rob Thomas and star/producer Kristen Bell had working for an attention-hungry second-tier streaming service, the more you dig into Veronica Mars 2019, the more it feels like a missed opportunity.

The movie, at the very least, put all of the pieces into place such that the new episodes aren’t overburdened with straightening furniture and spilling out exposition. Veronica is working as a private investigator in her hometown of Neptune with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni, marvelous), living with her reformed bad boy Logan (Jason Dohring, slightly less wasted here than in the film and buff as hell), still suppressing the many personal issues that were only beginning to hurt the other people in her life as of the third-season finale. A serial bomber is targeting spring breakers and local businesses on the Neptune waterfront, and Veronica and Keith are quickly on the case. Many recognizable faces from the TV show pass through in the course of the eight episodes, though none are particularly integral to the plot. Thomas chooses to focus on a number of new characters, including a Congressman (Mido Hamada) and his family, a charming ex-con fixer (JK Simmons), a bar owner (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a philosophical Mexican cartel assassin (Clifton Collins Jr.), and a high school girl who inexplicably has the same elusive Super Detective powers as Veronica (Izabela Vidovic). The biggest name among the new additions is Patton Oswalt, who gets far too much screen time as the self-appointed leader of a meddling group of true-crime nerds. Oswalt is so clearly coasting on his Star Wars-filibustering reputation as the aggrieved nerd that the many repetitive scenes of his character and the murder club (which also includes Clark Duke sporting a KoRn mustache) could easily have been cut in favor of almost anything else.

The season makes two critical decisions early on, and neither work. One is that there aren’t going to be any “cases of the week,” as there were in almost every single episode of the original network run. Veronica and Keith are investigating the bombings, and that’s it. There’s a suggestion that we might see them taking some more mundane cases in the season premiere, but the idea is dispensed with almost immediately (but not before we get to see Eliza Coupe in swimwear, thankfully). There’s one Keith storyline that just disappears as soon as the bombs start going off. Thomas and his writers (including series veteran Diane Ruggiero and, delightfully, NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) choose not to use the extra time on serving the many returning actors or digging deeper into Veronica’s personal life. In fact, Bell is less central than she ever was in the first three seasons, where her workload was heroic. Instead, every episode spends time, usually too much time, with the various new suspects. Collins’ Alonzo and his partner Dodie (Frank Gallegos) get an extended, elaborate setup, but then don’t end up interacting with any of the other cast in a meaningful way besides menacing and shooting at them. Simmons and Oswalt are on screen so much that the effectiveness of both their characters as mystery figures is greatly diminished. The material with the Congressman seems at various points like it’s going to justify itself through a connection to one or another of the other major characters but it never quite does. Vidovic’s Matty is so blatantly a younger identification figure for the aging Veronica that it’s impossible to take her seriously as her own person. Dawnn Lewis, who plays yet another in a long line of venal Neptune law enforcement officials, is so thinly sketched a character that it’s bizarre how often the season comes back to her.

Even after decades in the business, Thomas still has the instincts of a novelist, not a showrunner. Veronica has never figured out how to generate make-work scenes for series regulars, or pace the appearances of its recurring guests. At this point it’s hard to tell who has taken Percy Daggs’ loyal Wallace more for granted, Veronica or the writers. Francis Capra has the most moving moments of the whole season as Weevil, but the story bizarrely pushes him out to the margins even though he logically could be used to convey much of the information we get instead from scenes with the detached Mexican guys and Simmons and his boss, Big Dick (David Starzyk). The always entertaining Ryan Hansen gets to strut his stuff in a handful of episodes, but the season abandons him even though later events ought to give his character a rare chance to display some emotional range. At first it seems as if Logan is only going to be around as Veronica’s love interest, as in the movie, but then the show finds a contrived but satisfactory way to get him integrated into the plot, and then just as quickly it backs down and sidelines him again. Dohring is less sleepy than before, and his chemistry with Bell remains a very real thing, but in serving first the needs of their lead, the Veronica Mars writers have aged out most of what made Logan so compelling as a character. At the very least we get one of his signature inspirational quotes, although it’s odd that he delivers it as regular dialogue instead of as a voicemail recording.

Stylistically, Veronica Mars makes substantial changes from its original look and feel in the new season. Largely gone are the artificial neon lightning schemes and wide, symmetrical angles that gave the old show rare visual distinction. From the opening credits, which have widely been compared already to those of True Detective, the producers are waving their new reference points in our faces. We cut from arty, aggressive sex scenes right to waves crashing on a beach: Jean-Marc Vallée, call your office. How the show uses music, how the guest actors are cast, written, and costumed, the basic color scheme and look of the sets, all have been intentionally changed so that Neptune hardly seems like the same place. Thomas has never been in the least subtle about tipping his cap to his influences — never you worry, the Big Lebowski worship remains strong here — but the prestige TV affectations that abound in Mars S4 are often poor fits. In particular, the homages to Vince Gilligan’s work tend to overwhelm the series at points. JK Simmons’ character is obviously a Mike Ehrmantraut riff. The chatty gangsters from across the border are another unhelpful addition, especially since their scenes cut into those of more original characters about whom we care a lot more. Allusions to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul locations are dropped so often you could make a drinking game out of them. What’s the point?

It’s not unheard of for a TV or movie series to change its whole look and feel, even genre, while retaining the same title, actors, and characters. Evil Dead did it. Hey, Star Trek did it. An intellectual property returning after a long absence shouldn’t try to be exactly what it one was, and critics would pounce on new Mars if that was what they were going for here. The Fast and Furious franchise, which is explicitly referenced in Weevil’s few scenes, has made a fortune off triangulating its style to the requirements of the market. But whether these new coats of paint are effective or not is all contingent on the requirements of story. Veronica’s obvious stylistic makeover in its new season works against what the story is trying to tell us about its heroine. In a way it telegraphs its shock ending by so firmly seeding the subconscious notion that we are in a new reality. That’s not the right choice, I’m here to argue. Veronica, the character, is really trapped in a decades-old pattern of thinking when this new saga begins. Really smart filmmakers would use their lead’s illusion of continuity as part of the fabric of the revival. They would deliberately pattern the early episodes after the look and feel of the old series, then gradually pull the rug out from under the viewer as the season went on. They could do this in any one of a number of ways, or a combination of many of them. Some inconsequential, low-stakes case-of-the-week episodes would actually help the overall storytelling here. It would make us see that Veronica has long become dependent on the comfort of old patterns, rather than having her tell us so in after-the-fact narration. The color tone could gradually shift over the course of the series, starting out with the reds and greens and pinks of the old days and giving way to creams and blues. It also wouldn’t hurt to just go back to the original version of the theme song, while we’re at it.

Veronica Mars was only ever great in its first season. It’s not great now. It seems as if the impact of this latest mystery is largely going to center on the big surprise fatal twist in the last minutes of the last episode. I don’t feel strongly one way or another about how Thomas and Ruggiero (and Kareem) decided to punish their heroine this time. I do feel strongly that they could have made something really special, and a memorably clever comment on the very nature of the new-era TV “reboot,” if they’d put more thought into how they could play with viewer expectations in the presentation of their story. Rather than trying nakedly to emulate the biggest critical successes of the last decade of TV, they could have plotted their own course, staying truer to the show’s pulp and genre roots while blowing the tiny minds of semiotics scholars everywhere. Instead, they’ve made another pretty good but flawed chunk of television in a time when there’s a new heavyweight contender for audience attention literally every week. Veronica Mars is not bad in 2019. But the bar has been raised.

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