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Hulu’s terrific Veronica Mars revival is a moody repudiation of nostalgia

Season four of Veronica Mars recaptures just enough of the original.

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars.
Veronica Mars is a) back and b) still smarter than me.
Hulu

At the end of the show’s San Diego Comic-Con panel on July 19, Hulu announced that it was pulling a Beyoncé and dropping all eight episodes of its new Veronica Mars revival one full week early. That means you can watch them all on Hulu right now — and experience one of the greatest shows of the 2000s arguing bitterly with itself over whether a revival should even exist at all.

The new season of Veronica Mars hinges on a conversation about nostalgia, and about its fans’ nostalgic desire for the old show, the one that ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2007 on the UPN and the CW. It’s thinking about the longing for the past that has powered our current slew of modern-day TV revivals and that nearly destroyed the legacies of shows as brilliant as Gilmore Girls.

We all want to go back to the shows that we’ve loved before. We all want to watch Lorelai and Rory Gilmore quip their way through Stars Hollow or Will and Grace be codependent best friends. And we want to watch Veronica Mars take down criminals who are bigger and badder and scarier than she is and then make them say, “Veronica Mars is smarter than me.”

But time has moved on. Those characters are all older now. Does it really make sense for them to still be in the same place they used to be, the place where we want to see them? And if they are still there, if they’re stuck — isn’t that a little bit sad?

So then, how does a show balance that sadness with our desire to see our favorite characters doing the things that made them our favorites in the first place?

Hulu’s new fourth season of Veronica Mars does not handle its own nostalgia for its past self perfectly. It occasionally indulges in cutesiness in its efforts to idealize the past; it’s still trying to work out how to reinvent its old storytelling tropes while it wants to reach toward the future.

But over the course of its eight-episode run, the new Veronica Mars does make a strong argument that it is better equipped to handle the nostalgia problem than nearly any other revival we’ve seen so far. And the result is a sharp, wistful, melancholy season of television that is also a terrifically entertaining murder mystery.

This new season of Veronica Mars is so, so much better than the show’s feature film reboot

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars and Enrico Colantoni as Keith Mars stand in front of a crime scene tape that reads “Police line do not cross.” A Neptune police crime scene unit van is in the background.
These two cussers, back at it again.
Hulu

To a certain extent, Veronica Mars has always been about the wistfulness of nostalgia, which comes with the knowledge that you can’t go back to the past. When the series premiered in 2004, Veronica (Kristen Bell) was 17 and still mourning for the life she used to live, before her best friend was murdered, before her sheriff dad was fired in disgrace for investigating the wrong man and all of Veronica’s rich and popular friends turned against her, before Veronica joined her dad in becoming a PI and started spending her nights on seedy motel stakeouts.

But Veronica also knew that her old life was dead. She might have wanted to go back to it, but she never, ever could. “A long time ago, we used to be friends,” the theme song went, “but I haven’t thought of you lately at all.” Veronica, in turn, mostly tried not think about her old life, and the push and pull between her rosy memories and her growing cynicism is part of what gave the show its distinctive melancholy glamour.

The lack of that tension was also what made the fan-funded 2014 movie revival of Veronica Mars a disappointment. The movie was an exercise in pure fan service — perhaps unsurprising, considering its reliance on crowdfunding — and it got nearly all of its emotional power just from saying, “Hey! It’s that character you liked 10 years ago! Exciting, right?”

Season four is not above getting a little showy itself when it reintroduces beloved characters. (One fan favorite gets a full 30-second, one-shot entrance with choreography so complex it might as well be a dance sequence, scored to “Mr. Finish Line,” and reader, I clapped with glee.) But unlike the movie, season four recognizes that Veronica Mars has always been at its best when its main characters are all central to the mystery, and it parcels out screen time accordingly.

Veronica and her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) are, of course, in every episode. And Veronica’s boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) joins them, although it quickly becomes clear that he’s mostly there to advance theme rather than plot. But the rest of the characters come and go according to how they can help Veronica solve her case.

The big mystery this season is a string of bombs going off in major spring break party locations all across Veronica’s home town of Neptune, California. Veronica’s sweet best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) can’t shed much light on it, so his part is reduced to a few quick scenes — but Veronica’s old ally Weevil (Francis Capra), the troubled gang leader who almost made good and then didn’t? Weevil’s plugged into Neptune’s underbelly, and he knows things he isn’t telling Veronica. His screen time is amped up accordingly.

We spend most of the season, however, with a string of new characters, those who can provide clues and red herrings and answers about the spring break bombings and also manage to be compelling in their own right. And the best of those new characters are played by a murderer’s row of scene-stealing actors.

The fantastic Kirby Howell-Baptiste wins Veronica’s heart and mine at once as Nicole, who owns the club most of the bombing victims have passed through and also punches date rapists in the face. Patton Oswalt makes the most of his likably prickly nerd persona as Penn, a pizza guy who’s obsessed with solving cold cases. And J.K. Simmons manages to be at once completely affable and also deeply sinister as Clyde, the right-hand man to seedy real estate mogul Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk). (Imagine naming your son Dick in the hopes that everyone will then have to call you Big Dick, and then it works! A choice!)

Even with the cast freshly organized around the bombing mystery, the season occasionally struggles to find a way to give itself stakes. Veronica Mars has never been able to fully live up to the one-two punch of Veronica having to solve her best friend’s murder and her own rape in the first season, and the bombing at times feels like an intellectual puzzle for her to solve rather than an emotional one. She doesn’t know or care about any of the victims. She’s mostly invested in this mystery because she likes to be right.

But the bombing case is still structured with the elegance that elevates Veronica Mars above its mystery-show peers. Every time I became convinced that a certain character absolutely had to be the bomber and was on the verge of getting angry with Veronica for failing to see it, by the end of the episode, that character became Veronica’s main suspect too. And when I rewatched the season, all the big reveals held up and were seeded in the background so discreetly that I never even noticed they were there.

Veronica has to be in the same place for the show to work. That’s a tragedy.

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars and Jason Dohring as Logan cuddle on a couch.
Lives ruined, blood shed.
Hulu

At its heart, though, this new season of Veronica Mars isn’t really about the bombing. It’s about watching Veronica still working at her dad’s PI firm, the way she did when she was 17, still solving seedy mysteries, still furious at the world, and still refusing to let anyone ever get close to her.

That’s the Veronica we know and the Veronica we want to spend time with — but, the show asks, should that Veronica really still exist? Veronica’s in her 30s now, and she’s still stuck in the place she was when she was 17, emotionally, professionally, and geographically. She’s stagnated.

“So you’re still a private investigator in Neptune,” says one of Veronica’s old nemeses when she goes to interrogate him in prison. “A PI. That was your job in high school, right?”

“When your friend was murdered, were you angry?” another character asks Veronica.

“I’m still angry,” Veronica says.

Veronica is still fundamentally the same person she was in high school, and every time she’s given the opportunity to change, she pushes it away with both hands. Veronica resents the idea of change. That’s what makes her a tragic character. And the fact that if she changes there will be no story, and that the revival needs her to be in the same place in order to exist, makes this revival a tragedy.

Not all of the tragedy lands. There’s a plucky new teen character named Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) who symbolizes Veronica’s teen self so heavy-handedly that she might as well have entered carrying an enormous sign that said, “Hello! I am a symbol!” (Vidovic also looks so much like Katie Holmes circa 1998 that I kept having confused Dawson’s Creek flashbacks and getting my nostalgias mixed up.) Logan, the formerly troubled bad boy, now represents the possibility of an emotionally mature future for Veronica, but in the process he’s lost all of the sense of humor and theatrical energy that made him a fun foil for her in the first place.

Moreover, while Veronica herself hasn’t changed, the world around her has — and that means that Veronica Mars can no longer mine its tension from contrasting its noir mysteries with its high school soap opera. It now has to function as a purely noir PI show, and it’s pretty good at that, but the shift in genre means that it’s lost some of the alchemical magic that made the original run of the show so exceptional.

Even the colors feel a little bit more subdued than they used to. Instead of the hyper-saturated yellows and greens of the high school era, this new version of Neptune is built out of cool blues and grays. (Oh, stained glass windows of Mars Investigations, where did you go?) It’s a more restrained, more adult world than it used to be, and it’s hard not to mourn the vibrant electricity of Veronica Mars’ high school years.

But if this new season is certain of anything, it’s that trying to stay in high school forever isn’t healthy. If we’re going to look back, we have to do it with the knowledge that longing for the past and refusing to move forward and evolve over time will slowly destroy us.

Veronica Mars season four is now available to stream on Hulu.