Review: Veronica Mars Both Enraptures Viewers and Stirs Up Debate Once Again with Fantastical Storytelling Elements
No matter what you think of it, everyone can agree that Veronica Mars is a show that truly cannot be kept down. Following a fan-funded movie in 2014, Veronica Mars has found a revival in 2019 after jumping from the now-defunct UPN to The CW to its current home, Hulu. Marshmallows, as fans call themselves, have followed this show through thick and thin, and not without reason. When it first premiered in 2004, creator Rob Thomas captured audiences with a teen drama/mystery that didn’t rely on easy cliches and pandering character types to draw in watchers. Instead, it made itself stand out from the crowd of assembly-line young adult TV shows with its witty writing, relatable characters, and interesting stories surrounding the young private detective. But this fourth season is premiering in a different world than the one that the series left in 2007, and though it has a cult following, it also must remember that a whole new generation has grown into the target demographic range in these past 12 years. How do Rob Thomas and his beloved cast and crew deal with this? With much of the same style, grace, and intellect that fans have come to love, at least for the most part.
Veronica Mars was given the difficult task of pleasing an extremely devoted older fanbase on top of needing to make itself interesting and connected to a new audience on a new platform (streaming now instead of cable). And the show mostly succeeds at this transition through time and platform, structuring the season with its new streaming accessibility in mind and writing around themes that appeal to today’s audience by being topical. The show doesn’t hesitate to tackle subjects like racism, classism, police corruption, consent, immigration, the greedy American healthcare system, and more, just as the original seasons did years ago. In a way it feels like a return to form for Veronica Mars since it does at times encapsulate the tone of the first season, and at others times it feels like a departure from what the show is known for. This departure isn’t unwelcome, as it does make sense for things to change as the characters grow up, but it can set up difficult expectations for future seasons if they keep raising the stakes and getting edgier with every single episode. With the revival of the dark noir mood comes an engaging plot that immediately communicates what Veronica and we the audience are getting ourselves into.
After abandoning her career in law and becoming a private investigator again in the movie five years ago, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is back in Neptune and ready to solve some crimes. It’s so nice to see Kristen Bell in this role on television again, it really was her early defining role and she still falls right back into it (not to mention how she somehow looks almost exactly the same as she did when the show premiered, except now her style doesn’t look like it was pulled directly from an early 2000’s trendy magazine). We see the return of many familiar faces that fans will be delighted to see, such as Veronica’s bad boy lover (who apparently went through a major glow-up) Logan (Jason Dohring), her humorous dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni), her best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III), her tense frenemy Weevil (Francis Capra), her flirty old romantic interest/FBI agent Leo (Max Greenfield), fan favorite jerk Dick (Ryan Hansen), and Dick’s sleazy capitalist dad Big Dick (David Starzyk). We also get to meet some new characters, such as pizza deliveryman/true crime fan Penn Epner (Patton Oswald), nightclub owner Nicole Malloy (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), newly-fatherless young girl Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), new sheriff Marcia Langdon (Donna Lewis), Dick’s father’s new shady friend Clyde Prickett (J.K. Simmons), and Mexican cartel hitman Alonzo Lozano (Clifton Collins Jr.), to name a few standout additions to the cast. Fans of returning characters are lucky to get a few extra surprise cameos too, but may be sad to learn that the old cast’s importance to the story has been lowered, aside from the series’ emotional anchors Veronica and Logan, who seem to have reversed roles after all these years with Logan becoming more sensible to help troubled Veronica decide what she wants out of life. Also, original cast member Mac (Tina Majorino) does not return as the actress’ schedule was reportedly too busy at the time of filming to come back. But at least fans do have quite a few new favorites to gain from this season, especially Matty being a driven and spunky little Veronica 2.0. The villains are also despicably well-written this season, but we’ll talk more on them later.
This time around, it looks like spring breakers vacationing in Neptune are getting murdered in a series of bombings, which threaten the town’s entire tourism economy and working class. This is balanced by a key subplot between Veronica and Logan, who are now adults in a relationship that need to decide where their lives will go from here. However, the interesting thing is that this thread is more focused on Veronica, since Rob Thomas remarked in interviews that stories about coming to a crossroads in life are usually reserved for male characters. Considering that Logan has been going to therapy to learn and heal, he has a better idea of what he wants and it’s up to Veronica to choose whether she wants the freedom of living wild without commitments or to settle down and start a family. This is especially difficult considering that she’s barely addressed her own personal baggage while Logan has and she seems to almost resent him for it, leading the audience to often side with him over her. She also has to continue caring for her dad Keith, whose life and health is still being impacted by the major car accident he was in five years ago. Even with all of her personal struggles, Veronica gets to do some major professional sleuthing to uncover this killer, through corruption and mind games and thoughts of people that she must protect.
(Warning: major spoilers will be discussed in the rest of this review.) Veronica has her work cut out for her and plenty of sketchy suspects, such as the creepy Mexican cartel-hired murderer Alonzo, who takes a frightening joy in all of his kills. Clyde is also a scary villain, mostly stemming from J.K. Simmons’ fantastic performance as the sadistic but calm and collected criminal. At first he doesn’t seem that bad, just an old man who landed in a bad spot but is genuinely good, seeing as he becomes friends with and helps Keith…that is, until he orchestrates the gory death of Big Dick with a straight face. Eventually, Veronica learns that the bombings are actually a few separate plans in motion, the first being between Big Dick and a prison associate Perry as a real estate sabotage to get more land from working class business owners. It wasn’t meant to kill anyone, but accidentally did after a mistake. The second one was by Clyde and Big Dick to keep Perry from the first bombing quiet and frame his death as a suicide so he could be framed posthumously. But what about the rest of the bombings? Blame for everything else rests squarely on the shoulders of Penn Epner, who ends up being a well-played, well-written, and surprisingly scary villain. He begins the series obsessed with serial killers and their crimes, and after being physically and mentally affected by the first bombing, begins sharing wild theories about who did it and why on his true crime podcast, drawing him closer into madness. After facing scorn and becoming desperate for attention, he takes up the mantle of mass murderer himself. It turns out that he idolized the serial killers and ends up imitating them, which holds frightening precedence in the real world and makes Penn all the more menacing. So often it seems as if there’s no way to beat characters (and real people) like him because even negative attention and Internet infamy is viewed as a success. Even when Veronica stops his supposed last bomb from exploding and he is arrested, Penn is happy because he’s become a piece of his own mythos, and he must know that some future aspiring serial killer will likely look to him for inspiration later, which is enough to satisfy him. Plus, he left one more big surprise for Veronica, one that stirred up a heap of controversy. After the mystery seems solved, Veronica finally agrees to marry Logan, and not even a hour after they walk down the aisle, Logan is killed by a car bomb, Penn Epson’s true final crime, and Veronica is left alone again with even more trauma to deal with.
When loyal Marshmallows finished the show, many made their voices heard on the Internet when it came to their opinions on this ending. Personally, as someone who wasn’t a diehard Veronica Mars fan, I didn’t see it as a dealbreaker and really enjoyed the new season as a whole, but I can see why some fans were outraged. Logan and Veronica have been locked in a torturous will-they-won’t-they quasi-romance since the very beginning, and only at the end of the 2014 movie did it seem like they had finally both chosen to stay together. And throughout season four, Logan seemed to be maturing and forming a new dynamic with Veronica as she became more paranoid. He had to work hard at becoming a better person and managing his anger issues, and he wanted that for Veronica too, even being willing to help guide her in that direction. Rob Thomas wanted more of a dark SoCal noir detective story closer to season one, but even a darker show should have its happier elements (lest it fall into DC’s Batman v Superman overly-edgy grimdark method). Especially if the series will continue to become more dark from here on out, Veronica needed some form of light to make sense in the worsening world of Neptune’s crime. While a character dying can sometimes be the most tragically logical conclusion for their story arc when handled properly (see: Tony Stark), killing off popular characters for shock value is a trend that seems to be dying off more and more with every use (see: the entire ending to Game of Thrones). Once again, Rob Thomas said in interviews that he believes Veronica works best as a lonely underdog, and in his words, “I think there’s a reason you don’t see many hard-boiled detective shows where the lead detective has a boyfriend or a girlfriend; it kind of limits your options. It was like we were cutting off a limb to save a life…I feel as though we are going to have a better shot of doing more and more Veronica Mars if our heroine does not have a boyfriend or a husband back home.” In reality, the reason that we don’t see many leading characters in media at all portrayed as being in a happy, healthy, and stable romantic relationship is more far-reaching than just Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars. It seems as though Hollywood writers have an extremely difficult time writing normal relationships. In too many movies and TV series to count, the main character flirts with their love interest but doesn’t have the big kiss/confession until the very end. Often, if there’s a sequel, so it goes that the protagonist and the love interest have broken up, or perhaps the love interest has been completely sidelined altogether and practically forgotten about. Rarely does the couple get together earlier or get any screen time at all after they’ve successfully established the relationship, which really is too bad as it leaves a myriad of potential stories mostly unexplored in mainstream entertainment. So while Logan’s death specifically didn’t bother my perception of this season too badly, the underlying problem behind it was much more troubling.
But even with all of this, there does lie hope at the end of the tunnel for our dear Marshmallows. With the show getting darker and needing a beacon of light for Veronica, since Logan can no longer fill it, maybe we’ve been left with others that can. Specifically, in the form of Matty, who I earlier described as something of a Veronica 2.0. She is a young girl who was already touched by trauma when she lost her father in the first bombing and then, instead of mourning, immediately set off to uncover the murderer. She has the same resourcefulness, wit, and lack of caution that Veronica became famous for. To see her mentoring Matty and protecting her from the very impulses and that Veronica recognizes from herself would be great. It could help her see how detrimental her own self-destructive behaviors have been, give her a reason to want to learn how to become a better person (both to teach Matty and be an example herself), and give her a person to care about and love. Now that Logan is dead and the series seems to have a very real chance of getting a fifth season and beyond, many irritated fans would probably soften their opinion if the show followed a plot line like this through. Regardless of your personal opinion on the last-minute twist, season four of Veronica Mars has proven to be definitely worth a watch, both for diehard fans and newbies to the show. The mystery, through all of its twists and turns, will suck you in and leave your head spinning. The wit, charm, and intrigue that fans loved all the way back in 2004 is still present all of these years later, which is a feat in of itself. So go take a look at Veronica Mars, whether you’re a Marshmallow for life or have never seen a single episode. Either way, it’ll take you on a wild ride through a dark detective thriller that’s sure to keep you thinking long after the TV’s been turned off.
4 STARS (OUT OF FIVE)