“Veronica Mars” is a show built by and for the underdogs in this world. Starring Kristen Bell (“The Good Place”) at the very beginning of her career in the early aughts, the show’s original three seasons were a testament to the strength of a teenage girl. For those of us that haven’t seen the show, Bell plays the teenage Veronica Mars, a private investigator solving mysteries and kicking ass in her California hometown of Neptune. The town is home to a host of characters that only California could offer, including several tortured love interests and a few bonafide murderers amid a thick sense of mystery that is often uncomfortably eerie, but ends up being fodder for great television.
“Mars” has been a cult favorite since its inception, and the series’ quiet success is largely due to its realness ― though it largely starred teenagers, the plot never shied away from the reality of life as it is, offering viewers the chance to see characters deal with complex issues like sexual assault, pedophilia, police corruption and overarching sexism. It’s a look at what it’s really like to be a young person in this world, a sort of “Euphoria”/film noir/”The O.C.” hybrid that you have to watch to fully understand. But it’s this complexity that draws an audience in, and has prompted them to support not only a Kickstarter-funded movie in 2014, but a new, fourth season, released on Hulu last week. “Veronica Mars” has some committed fans; every time they fear the series is gone for good, they rally to bring it back again.
The first iteration of the show, which began in 2004, starred Bell as the fiesty popular-girl-turned-outcast reeling from the murder of her best friend, Lily (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia”). The mystery of her death started a season-long story arc that ended in the revelation of a killer closer to Mars than one would think, and the second season followed the same format, beginning with a bus crash and ending with a similarly poignant reveal, tinged with personal meaning for Mars herself. The third season was the kiss of death for the series, with the CW choosing to nix its long-form plotlines for a mystery-of-the-week style format. That choice watered down the power of the show, as the eponymous character took on college with an angle that never felt as urgent as her time in Neptune. After mixed reviews, the original series was cancelled in 2007, and we all know what happened for Bell afterwards.
But “Veronica Mars,” which Bell calls “the most committed long-term relationship (she’s) ever been in,” did not really end there. Fans were elated to hear that the show was back with much of its original cast, including Jason Dohring (“iZombie”) as bad boy love interest turned naval intelligence officer Logan Echolls, Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) as deputy-turned-FBI agent Leo D’Amato, Enrico Colantoni (“Person of Interest”) as Veronica’s dad Keith Mars and several more returning characters. Seeing all of those familiar faces in Neptune again is comforting to avid viewers of the past, but nostalgia and time can only take the fourth season so far. Though it’s painful to say, the newest version of “Mars” feels slightly half-baked, like a ghost of its former self that keeps tricking people it’s the real thing.
This distance between the show’s original run and the reboot is hard to ignore, as much as viewers may want to settle into the excitement of a new mystery in Neptune. The fourth season focuses around another trademark story arc, following the case of a bomber during the chaos of Spring Break on a California beach. As the story moves on, the plot seems to become increasingly complex, even more so than is typical of “Mars”’s winding path towards solutions.
A Congressman, a Mexican drug lord, a British club owner and several former inmates at the Chino prison make their contributions to the bombing mystery across eight episodes, keeping an audience engaged but muddling the direction of Mars and her father in their investigations. If one misleading clue serves as a red herring, this season’s overarching case runs into a school of them. And that isn’t even mentioning the finale, which comes with a major character death that will change the direction of the show forever, should it continue into the future.
Beyond this, the show’s move to Hulu and the constraints of an eight-episode season are glaringly obvious throughout the reboot. While Netflix and Amazon have figured out how to avoid distracting product placement, it’s impossible to ignore in Hulu’s original content. There’s a pretty intense nod to podcast-friendly shoe company Allbirds, and every show Mars and Echolls watch is shown on the Hulu interface — inside the show. It’s weirder than anything else in the reboot, like viewers have entered the world of Neptune only to be faced with disingenuous spokespeople pretending to be characters.
That is by no means to say that this season isn’t satisfying for those of us who have watched the show from the beginning. It’s nice to see that all of the characters we know and love have grown up, made adult decisions and ended up where they did. But this season’s refusal to acknowledge that separation is what makes it more disappointing than triumphant. Screenwriter and creator Rob Thomas (“iZombie”) consistently throws in information about what has happened since we last saw Veronica, sliding in the fact that she went to law school, had a Vanity Fair article written about her and more, but never fully runs with these hints at the past. Oh, and now she has a gun, too, a direct tangent away from the underdog reputation she used to have.
Though Mars has returned to Neptune, the fifteen years that have passed never get their glory, and in turn, neither does she. Instead, the season falls flat in building a world that makes sense for the present day, holding onto the tropes of its previous iterations in hopes that the audience won’t notice the holes in between.