DVD Review: Veronica Mars: The Complete Fourth Season (2019) [or, The Complete First Season (Revival), depending on who you ask.]
Veronica Mars is one of the latest beloved series to be revived, and not for the first time. When the show premiered in 2004, it soon earned critical raves and vociferous fans, but the show never widespread popularity and high ratings. It ran for two years on UPN, then survived for one more slightly abridged season on the newly formed CW before a cancellation on a cliffhanger. The better part of a decade passed, the fandom remained loyal, and miraculously, a Kickstarter-backed feature film continuing the narrative was produced, and two novels appeared as well before the franchise lay dormant for several more years.
Then, Hulu announced an eight-episode revival series. As it’s a direct continuation series with most of the original cast returning, the new season is really the fourth, but the DVD box set dubs it the “first season,” which I feel is a poor precedent to take, especially since it may be some years if a fifth series is made, if at all, and since it may appear on yet another network or streaming service, it may get very confusing when someone tries to call an upcoming series yet another “season one.”
Before moving further, I will again indulge in one of my common practices, criticizing the criticism of the show that has come before me. A common, blithely bandied-about disparaging remark about many revived shows is that they are propelled by nostalgia. There is some truth to this remark. Often, the entertainments that added luster to our formative years, or those diversions that sustained us through our toughest times, take on a glorious rosy glow that cannot be duplicated in later eras of our lifetimes. Perhaps the stresses of the current states of our lives affect our reactions to the return of old favorites, and perhaps our expectations may be unrealistically high. Perhaps the excitement of waiting a week or more for new episodes was critical to our enjoyment, a joy that is lost by bingewatching. A lot of the reviews of the new series have droned endlessly about “nostalgia,” to the point where the existing criticism fails to appreciate the new series on its own merits, and instead the fourth season (which is what I contend the latest eight episodes should be dubbed) is linked to the current revival trend, along with accusations of lack of creativity. I argue that that by using nostalgia as a smear, many excellent productions may be denied a deserved future.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert often repeated their mantra that “no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie can be too short.” A similar perspective can be provided to television shows. If the talented cast can still bring life to their characters, and there are worthy and entertaining narratives to tell, then to me there’s no reason why the show should not go on. After all, the “revival” trend is by no means as new as many critics believe. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the classic crime series Perry Mason, Columbo, and The Rockford Files revived as regular TV movies decades after their so-called finales. The Veronica Mars revival ought not to be viewed as dependence on nostalgia or rehashing recognizable names, but as part of a longstanding tradition that the great detectives are immortal. As the fourth season unfolds, the show makes a very strong argument that it should never have been cancelled in the first place.
Like many great television series, Veronica Mars began with a premise that could have failed miserably and made it work brilliantly. The show was a serial noir drama set in a high school, divided into two groups, those with lots of money, and those with very little cash. As the series began, Veronica (Kristen Bell) was an angry teen, her happy, innocent life obliterated by a series of tragedies. Her best friend was murdered, her father Keith, the sheriff (Enrico Colantoni) was ousted from his job after taking the investigation in directions influential people didn’t want it going, her alcoholic mother abandoned the family, and as if all that wasn’t enough, Veronica was drugged and raped at a party. Ostracized and filled with rage, Veronica devoted herself to her studies, working for her father’s new private detection business, and trying to catch her best friend’s killer. After solving the case at the end of season one, season two investigated a horrific bus crash, and after graduating, Veronica caught a serial rapist and a murderer at college. After fleeing her hometown of Neptune, California, Veronica returned to solve the death of a former classmate in the movie, and never left. As the new series opens, Veronica is coming to believe that she made the wrong decision.
One of the reasons why the new season of Veronica Mars works so well is that it is not trying to replicate the exact atmosphere of the early series. The cast has always aged in real time, so now Veronica and their friends are in their early thirties, and each character has gained the experience and scars that come with life. Outside of high school and college, the characters are all wrestling with the challenges of adulthood, some more successfully than others. Though Veronica herself initially seems to be in a solid, if not ideal place, with a stable long-term relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), and steady if not incredibly lucrative P.I. work with her beloved father, the cracks in the façade are more obvious with every episode. In the early seasons, the traumatic aspects of high school were front and center, but as the years have passed, it’s clear that all of the problems that made high school rough for Veronica are still causing trouble in the so-called “real world.”
It’s not certain whether or not Veronica is a happy woman, but what’s is clear is that she’s starting lose her moral compass. Veronica frequently straddled the boundary line between heroine and anti-heroine throughout the original series, constantly breaking rules, laws, and friendships during the course of her investigations. Sometimes these violations were in search of the truth behind a heinous crime, but often her transgressions were less defensible. If Veronica never bothered to address her own hypocrisy in her the early series, the alert viewer– and her father– were conscious of her shortcomings, though no one has ever stepped in to challenge her.
All too often, Veronica has lived by a code that allows her to commit violations that she would condemn in others. Keith, a caring dad, often gently points this out to her, but Veronica has never been forced to take a really intense look at herself and her conscience and ask herself if she’s really the sort of person she ought to be. Throughout the fourth season, Veronica looks down at others, often the rich and arrogant, with a curled lip of distain. As long as the viewers have known her, Veronica has simply assumed the role of the moral superiority, but does she still hold that position? Late in season four, as much as a devoted fan still cares about Veronica, it’s increasingly clear that she’s headed down the wrong path. We see her numbing herself with drugs on two occasions, we see the snap judgements flying, we see her disrespecting her closest ally’s home behind his back, and we see her shattering a friendship with her own suspicious actions.
Bell’s other show, the remarkable The Good Place, centers around her character trying to figure out what it means to be a good person and what she has to do to become one. It’s that sort of character arc that Veronica so desperately needs now. To be clear, Bell is as excellent as she ever was in the role, and she’s stellar at showing how thirty-something Veronica is in a time of crisis, even if Veronica herself won’t admit it. But the fourth season builds to an increasingly obvious realization that Veronica has to force herself to ask herself one brutal question: what makes her the good guy? Since the movie, Logan has worked hard at self-improvement and has transformed himself into a fairly solid and decent fellow, though he’s still haunted by the psychological scars from his past, and it’s not clear if he’s really made up for all of his past sins, or if he’s just trying to move past them. His gentle attempts to get Veronica to engage in a similar form of improvement are rebuffed, and it’s indicative of just how unwilling Veronica is to address her shortcomings.
With only eight episodes, the narrative is more focused and the subplots are more closely fused to the broader storyline than ever. The story begins at the start of spring break in Neptune, a time when residents loathe the mayhem caused by drunken, hard-partying college students, but working-class businesses depend upon the influx of cash the revelers bring to town. With Neptune gentrifying and the class divide widening over plans for the town’s future, the situation soon gets explosive– in all senses of the word. A series of bombings take the lives of several spring breakers, but the motives for the attacks, and even the intended targets of the bombs are unclear. A political subplot, a grieving new character, and a pizza man with a passion for true crime (Patton Oswalt in a remarkably effective bit of casting) round out the streamlined narrative.
This is not for newcomers. Not only are the first three seasons and the movie required viewing, but the two novels set immediately after the movie are mandatory reading. Otherwise, people just discovering the show will be confused by many scenes and lines of dialogue, and major mysteries from earlier seasons will be spoiled.
As always, the heart of the show is the stellar cast. As Veronica, Kristen Bell has consistently delivered one of the greatest performances on television, and her consistent exclusion from the awards circuit reflects badly on the prizes. Enrico Colantoni continues to be equally brilliant and deserving of awards as her loving father, and their familial relationship has long been the beating heart of the show. Colantoni’s performance is never flashy, but it dazzles. He’s trying to be a good man in a seedy world, driven by his twin loves for justice and his daughter. The subplot about Keith’s continuing health problems connected to injuries he sustained in the movie has deep and unsettling resonance, and Colantoni’s performance is probably the most moving of the fourth season.
One point I disliked about the series is that only Bell, Colantoni, and Dohring are listed in the opening credits, and the other former supporting cast members are relegated to the end credits. This is particularly egregious in the case of Percy Daggs III, whose role as Wallace, Veronica’s loyal best friend, has been relegated to a handful of brief appearances. Daggs deserves better, and if future seasons are produced, I would suggest that Daggs’ role in upcoming narratives allow him to play the role of Veronica’s conscience, a purpose that is underlined by his disapproving appearance in a dream sequence. Veronica’s now-estranged former ally Weevil (Francis Capra), a biker who left his criminal past only to return to it, is also on the periphery, though Daggs and Capra make the most of what they’re given.
Many friends and foes from earlier seasons make cameos, a couple of which are merely for the sake of an entertaining appearance, but most of which either connect to the plot in some way or develop characterization. Most of the new characters are well-written and acted, but the standouts are Oswalt and J.K. Simmons as an ex-con turned fixer who may or may not become Keith’s friend. As always, the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” is frequently vague, even though the distinctions between right and wrong are always clear.
By the end of the fourth series, I was convinced that Veronica Mars was not being propelled by nostalgia for a glorious past, but rather was heading forward in a new direction for the series and characters. Though the future of the series in doubt, past experience convinces me that the show cannot be sidelined for long, and though the final controversial plot twist may alienate certain fans, I hope that creator Rob Thomas and the cast get a chance to continue the Veronica Mars saga in the near future, and that it starts attracting more new fans and brings back those who were alienated by the fourth season’s ending, as well as making full use of the ensemble cast and sending its titular character on a redemption arc.