Review: ‘Veronica Mars’ and the One-Great-Season Debate

“Veronica Mars,” which ran for three seasons on UPN and CW from 2004 to 2007, has become the zombie of entertainment franchises: revived using Kickstarter for a 2014 feature film, and now revived again for an eight-episode fourth season on Hulu.

Season 4 was shock-released on Friday, a week ahead of schedule, and like the film (also called “Veronica Mars”), it reunites the central cast, which has stuck with the story across 15 years. Kristen Bell is Veronica, the cynical daddy’s girl and tough California beach-town private eye, a cocktail of Nancy Drew and Sam Spade. Enrico Colantoni is Keith Mars, her wry father and mentor, banged up and fearing dementia after the brutal conclusion of the film. And Jason Dohring is back as Logan Echolls, her bad-boy boyfriend, now a naval intelligence officer whose absences on secret missions supply the relationship angst formerly fueled by teenage moodiness and violence.

These three and a number of regular supporting players, including the friends portrayed by Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra and Ryan Hansen, solve a mystery — who’s setting off bombs targeting spring breakers in the seedier sections of Neptune, the home base of Mars Investigations — while enacting the show’s familiar, and still entertaining, lightly comic spin on hard-boiled noir.

We’re not in high school anymore, though, and as Veronica agonizes over her future with Logan, frets about Keith’s health and bemoans the continuing gentrification of Neptune, her nostalgia for a simpler time may be paralleled by the viewer’s nostalgia for the immediate pleasures of the show’s splendid first season. Do we need more “Veronica Mars,” even if it continues to arrive in polished and pleasing packages?

[Kristen Bell talks about growing up with Veronica Mars.]

Opening during Veronica’s junior year at Neptune High, the series originally stood out for its clever and literate writing and the superior performances of Bell, Colantoni and Dohring. (Rob Thomas, the show’s creator, still oversees it and wrote the new season’s first and last episodes.) It was perhaps even more unusual for the way it presented a teenage world, and a story hinging on teenage melodrama, from a wised-up, adult point of view and with a fully adult emotional sensibility.

The adult intelligence is still there, and Bell and Colantoni are still wonderful together, consistently nailing the old-Hollywood, tough-and-tender style the show demands and demonstrating seemingly effortless comic grace. But Thomas hasn’t found a really satisfactory replacement for the show’s loss of teen spirit; and the grown-up romantic travails of Veronica and Logan, a significant subplot in the new season, aren’t as compelling as their tempestuous high school amours.

It’s also a problem that the streaming-season model entails stretching a single mystery over close to eight hours. That’s new for “Veronica Mars” — the network seasons had long-arc mysteries, but they were broken up by lighter stand-alone cases over their 22 episodes. Thomas has put together a complicated caper in Season 4, with the bombings simultaneously investigated by Veronica and Keith, the hapless Neptune police, a group of true-crime nerds, a pair of Mexican cartel hit men and Matty, a young woman who evolves into Veronica’s protégée. (Played by Izabela Vidovic, Matty fills the vacuum left by Tina Majorino’s pugnacious Mac, the one central character who doesn’t return.) Some of the twists are clever, but in the eight-episode format the story’s implausibilities are more distracting. The seams show in a way that didn’t used to matter.

(There’s another more directly annoying consequence of the move to streaming: several obtrusive product placements for Hulu itself, including a scene in which Veronica and Keith settle in to binge the last show you can imagine them watching, the British costume drama “Harlots.”)

Still, whenever the love story starts to drag or the mystery gets irritatingly convoluted, and despite an abrupt (and seemingly convenient) late detour into tragedy, “Veronica Mars” finds ways to charm you. Bell’s sparkle — no one does pluckiness better, or funnier — and Colantoni’s utterly relaxed, jazzlike timing are givens. Old favorites like Daran Norris, Duane Daniels and especially Max Greenfield make their usual solid comic contributions. (The chemistry between Bell and Greenfield puts a spotlight on the show’s failure to grow Dohring’s character into an interesting adult.) The show has fun with its own history, as in a touching scene when Daggs’s Wallace, now a teacher, watches Matty extract information from a love-struck mark just like Veronica used to when he was her high-school accomplice.

The season also benefits from the addition of a pair of performers whose contrasting styles speak to the show’s blend of genres: Patton Oswalt, bringing his nervous screwball energy to the role of a pizza deliveryman and amateur sleuth, and J.K. Simmons, supplying noirish menace and cool as an aging ex-con and fixer who sees a soulmate in Keith. (Simmons and Colantoni’s scenes together constitute the season’s most satisfying romance.) Whether we needed another installment of “Veronica Mars” or not, there are more than enough reasons not to miss it now that it’s here.

Veronica Mars

Streaming on Hulu

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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