TV revivals have too high a burden placed on them to succeed with any kind of consistency. In bringing back a beloved show, the updated version must pay tribute to its predecessor while theoretically telling a story of its own. To up the degree of difficulty even further, this double responsibility is often squeezed into a fraction of the original’s run time: seven seasons of Gilmore Girls become just four episodes of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life; three seasons of Deadwood are condensed into one movie. With such limited real estate, it’s little wonder most revivals tend to go for nostalgia over innovation. Justifying one’s existence can go two ways: giving the people what they want so they come away satisfied, or diverging enough from the template to surpass pale imitation. Give or take a Twin Peaks: The Return, the former tends to win out.
The new season of Veronica Mars, though, is fortunate enough not to face this dilemma in the first place. After originally airing for three seasons on UPN and the CW, from 2004 to 2007, the teen-drama-cum-detective-noir has already received the crowd-pleasing treatment: a 2014 feature film, funded with Kickstarter and checking fan-wishlist boxes accordingly. If creator Rob Thomas had waited only a few years, he wouldn’t have needed the internet for funds. In 2019, our return trip to the blighted beach town of Neptune is fully funded by Hulu, the latest streaming service to crib from the Netflix playbook of enticing subscribers with resurrections of prematurely cancelled favorites. (Ironically, Netflix pioneered this approach with Arrested Development, another tale of crime by the Southern California coast.)
But even though the Veronica Mars movie was arguably just a few years ahead of its time, that premature encore turns out to be something of a blessing. In retrospect, Thomas characterizes the project as “like looking at my Twitter feed and seeing what everyone wanted to see and making that more important than the detective case.” This is an accurate description of a movie that accommodates virtually every member of a sizable ensemble cast at the expense of its own plot. It also doubles as an overview of our current moment in pop culture, where everything from The Lion King to Fuller House inverts the typical promise of entertainment: Instead of showing you something you’ve never seen before, it shows you exactly what you’ve seen before to the point of excising anything you haven’t.
Five years later, Veronica Mars has learned from its mistakes—or rather, Veronica Mars’ mistakes have freed it to do something new. The fans have long since been serviced. Thomas and his writers can now dedicate themselves to a case that exists as something more than a pretext. The result is, paradoxically, a truer reprise of the first series’ appeal than many revivals that strain much more visibly to channel their inspiration. Instead of reflecting the highlight reel that time and memory have turned Veronica Mars into, this eight-episode fourth season can go back to being Veronica Mars as it actually is.
Not that Veronica Mars now is, or can be, the same as Veronica Mars then. Part of the contrast that hooked viewers on the original premise was that Kristen Bell’s title character was a teenage girl plunged into a very adult world. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, Veronica Mars challenged the archetype of the hero by handing the role to someone—young, blonde, female, petite—who’d more typically get cast as the victim. Now a full-grown adult, it’s less remarkable that Veronica would spend her time hunting down criminals as a professional private eye. Still, the “blonde, female, petite” part of her profile remains unchanged, as does the novelty those features give her in the macho underworld Veronica navigates. “I didn’t know PIs looked like you,” one character snottily observes. That’s more or less the point.
In addition to fan service, the movie also did the narrative heavy lifting of getting Veronica back to Neptune. (After graduating from Columbia Law, she’d spent a few years in New York.) Partnered with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) on Mars Investigations, in the new season she’s primed to dig into a mysterious bombing spree targeting the many spring break destinations of the Neptune boardwalk. This being a crime yarn, there’s a bounty of suspects and interested parties for such a small community: the ex-con real estate tycoon looking to make a mint off gentrification; the progressive congressman hiding some skeletons beneath his squeaky-clean image; the group of amateur true crime enthusiasts volunteering their services, now a staple of the post-Serial mystery—though the lighthearted parody feels more at home here than it did on True Detective Season 3.
The new episodes still make sure to hit familiar beats. Lip service is paid to the love triangle between Veronica, sentient action figure Logan (Jason Dohring), and now-FBI agent Leo (Max Greenfield); accommodation is made for Veronica’s old pal Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and frenemy Weevil (Francis Capra), even though the former is now a married schoolteacher without much use for stakeouts and intrigue. But with eight hours to fill instead of 90 minutes, Veronica Mars has room for cameos and old-fashioned detective work alike. As the body count keeps rising and Veronica’s theories keep evolving, Veronica Mars settles into the rhythm of a classic California noir, juxtaposing Neptune’s sunny climes and spiritual rot with a practiced hand that would make Raymond Chandler proud. “Neptune didn’t need another private eye. It needed an enema,” Veronica growls in a jaded opening voice-over. That’s the stuff!
It’s unlikely a crime series starting from scratch would attract a writing credit from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or performances from Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons as a pizza guy and hired muscle, respectively. But to newcomers, these faces will be one of the only signs Veronica Mars is playing to longtime devotees (since they themselves are longtime devotees). The story still has its flaws; with so many balls to juggle, it’s not a surprise that some story lines slip through the fingers and hit the floor without much of a satisfying conclusion. Yet this is a pitfall of densely plotted thrillers in general, not reboots of cherished ones in particular.
The new season’s dedication to updated genre pleasures over fan satisfaction is embodied by its ending. Without spoilers, a major character death pushes Veronica even closer to the haunted, closed-off antihero at the center of so many noir classics before her. It’s this barbed quality that drives the witty banter suffusing the show’s scripts, and fuels the class-based resentment that undergirds its portrait of Neptune. A straightforward happy ending wouldn’t be conducive to setting Veronica Mars up for future seasons, or even preserving it in the eyes of viewers drawn to its bittersweet appeal. Maybe the best way to satisfy fans is not to try so hard to satisfy them.