Saturday, August 10, 2019

Veronica Mars (Season 4)

Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, Max Greenfield, Patton Oswalt, J.K. Simmons, Izabela Vidovic, Clifton Collins Jr., David Starzyk, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Dawnn Lewis, Ken Marino
Release Date: 2019

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Veronica Mars is dead. No, that's not a spoiler for Hulu's newly resurrected fourth season of the series, coming five years after the Kickstarter-funded film and a full fifteen after its first episode aired on UPN. But as a viable franchise, it's felt deceased for a while now. Most of creator Rob Thomas' attempts at following up his groundbreaking first season about a teen detective investigating her best friend's murder has seen him trying to recapture a magic and creative spark that's long gone.

High school provided the perfect setting and backdrop for the outsider story Thomas was trying to tell, its moral and social complications playing directly to the strengths of one of the medium's greatest protagonists. Despite far lower viewership than deserved, critics and audiences expecting another teen drama discovered something far deeper, and were rewarded with a single season of "Peak TV" that could compete with the Breaking Bads and Mad Mens any day of the week.

Veronica Mars Title Card
Since then, Thomas has seemingly done everything possible to undo that achievement while simultaneously (and painfully) reminding us what once. And therein lies the problem. In trying to replicate that magic, he stalled, delivering "fan service" before the term, or even Twitter itself, existed. The fans can share in this blame by eating it all up, merely satisfied by having their favorite characters come back for a reunion or victory lap, as the focus irrelevantly remained on whether Veronica and Logan will stay together. That helped destroy the show, which isn't to say the 2014 movie wasn't fine for what it was. But it didn't move anything forward and it was suddenly becoming harder to envision a future for the character or series. To survive in any incarnation, it was clear a complete overhaul was needed. And if seasons two, three and the feature film were any indication, there was real concern Thomas wouldn't be interested in rocking the boat.

Well, he's done it. In bringing the show into current times, Hulu's 2019 Veronica Mars lets go of its complicated past, adjusting its style and format to the extent that it really is a full-fledged reboot. And aside from the timeliness of its central storyline, it's also a reflection of where the main characters would be now, notwithstanding all those unnecessary detours over the years. In adapting wonderfully to the streaming model his storytelling helped initiate over a decade ago, it's far and away Thomas' best effort since the first season. Crafting a tight, sophisticated mystery that maximizes its setting, we're also treated to its two most indelible characters front and center, working together again as they should. In a way, it addresses all the issues plaguing its start-stop comebacks, all while providing an entryway for new viewers who won't feel left out of the loop.

Kristen Bell has stated in numerous interviews that if she could play Veronica for the rest of her career, she would. For the first time, we can now actually envision a scenario where that's possible, as the series moves forward rather than relying on its past. While these 8 darker-leaning episodes are likely to infuriate some of those aforementioned fans who helped put the series in this predicament, it's exactly the eleventh hour save this franchise needed. With enough time having passed, new characters, better writing and a new platform to play on, the worthy follow-up we've been waiting fifteen years for has finally arrived.

Kristen Bell returns as private investigator, Veronica Mars
Taking place five years after the events of the film, Veronica (Bell) is still residing in the seaside town of Neptune, California, running Mars Investigations with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), who's struggling with memory issues and walking with a cane due to injuries suffered from his accident. With business down, they're struggling to stay afloat as spring breakers descend upon Neptune with their wild beach parties. And many of them take place right outside the cramped one-bedroom boardwalk apartment Veronica shares with longtime boyfriend and Navy Inteligence officer, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who's temporarily back from active military duty.

With turmoil brewing between Neptune's elite and small-business owners reaping the financial benefits of spring break, the shocking Sea Sprite Motel bombing sends the town into a tailspin, and involves a number of key suspects and witnesses. They include hapless, murder and publicity obsessed pizza delivery guy Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), the motel owner's teen daughter Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic) and Alex Maloof (Paul Karmiryan), the wealthy nephew of up-and-coming Congressman Daniel Maloof (Mido Hamada).

When the congressman hires Veronica and Keith to investigate the case under Police Chief Langdon's (Dawnn Lewis) nose, the bombings continue, with all clues seeming to lead back to real estate magnate Richard "Big Dick" Casablancas (David Starzyk) and his old prison buddy and fixer, Clyde Pickett (J.K. Simmons). But the arrival of two mysterious Mexican Cartel hitmen (played by Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos) looking to take out the bomber could mean even bigger problems for Veronica.

Veronica and Logan
The most notable difference in this incarnation is how much grittier it feels and its higher production values, recalling the strongest aspects of its inaugural season on UPN. But that's where the comparisons end since the Neptune here not only looks and feels slightly different, but seems far seedier it has in the past. And the idea of Veronica, having never fulfilled what many (including her father and Logan) believed was her true potential, very much plays into the position she now finds herself. Living in a cramped boardwalk apartment, she's literally trapped in this town by her own choice, as closed in and cut off as ever, despite not losing any of her wickedly sarcastic sense of humor about it.

The show's content, no longer restricted by the confines of broadcast TV standards, has officially caught up to Veronica's more adult sensibilities, allowing the writers some slack to have characters actually swear and include more graphic depictions of violence and sex when necessary. And none of it seems gratuitous, mostly due to the fact that it's expertly incorporated to fit the demands and tone of the plot rather than as a transparent attempt to seem "grown up" or be taken more seriously. Try as they did to market it as such, VM was never a teen show, or at least its first season wasn't. It was a great drama that happened to revolve around them. Now with the shackles off, it can finally be marketed and shown for the gripping character-driven mystery it always was, minus that stigma. It's only fitting that what's on screen reflects that evolution, as we now get to see Veronica and Keith in an actual shootout. With guns. There are decapitations, drug use, and a bunch of other nefarious goings on you woudn't expect on Veronica Mars. And none of it's for shock value, but rather the needs of the central mystery.

What might be most impressive is how well this revival performs and adapts to its new limited episode format, as if cashing in on expectations of what could have always been. Even a Breaking Bad-like subplot involving two Mexican cartel hitmen works better than anyone could predict, mostly because those involved are committed enough to the show's dark, noir-ish tone this time around that it doesn't feel like a tease. That's evident in the spectacular opening title sequence that feels like a trippy, hallucinatory mash of Neon Demon and True Detective, backed by Chrissie Hynde's slowed-down, synth cover of the show's theme, The Dandy Warhols' "We Used To Be Friends." I'd even go as far as to say the opening titles surpass the first season's, which energetically undersold the show as something lighter and less substantial than it actually was.

The Sea Sprite Motel bombing
That the titles only features Bell, Colantoni and Dohring is revealing in how it conveys just how tightly focused the season is. It's all about answering a single question: Who's the bomber? There's so much going on during the actual Sea Sprite bombing scene in the premiere, "Spring Breakers," you'd be forgiven for not being able to track it. We're introduced to a lot of characters all at once, but almost immediately, the writers expertly deconstruct that information, leaving us with who and what's important as the investigation forges forward with its many twists and turns.

When old favorite characters do show up, their presence is entirely contingent on whether it makes sense. This isn't a reunion. Veronica pal Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), PCH gang leader Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra), Veronica ex and current FBI agent Leo D'Amato (Max Greenfield), obnoxious B-movie actor Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen), sleazy P.I.Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino) and even ambulance-chasing lawyer Cliff McCormack (Daran Norris) all appear, but in different, if not entirely unfamiliar capacities from when we last saw them. Most of the focus is on the newer characters, as it should be.

While it's a genuine thrill to see each of those returnees used really well, Weevil and Leo are  the two biggest beneficiaries. Both their relationships with Veronica are more complicated than before, as Thomas follows through with the film's promise of having Weevil return to the wrong side of the tracks, testing whatever loyalty they have left to each other. Leo, however, picks up almost exactly where he left off with Veronica, this time as a visiting FBI agent assisting with the case, and perhaps a pointed reminder of the career path she could have continued to follow. He's also presented as a potential thorn for a jealous Logan who's not entirely privy to their history. Bell and Greenfield don't miss a beat, employing the same easygoing chemistry and back-and-forth banter as in season's past, only now with a more serious backdrop.

Patton Oswalt as pizza delivery guy, Penn Epner
Most of the season's action is driven by the Emmy-worthy performances of Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deliver big in very different, but equally complex parts. The best thing Thomas did was get the two of them onboard, as it's almost surreal seeing already established actors of their caliber dropped into this universe he's created to shake things up. And do they ever.

As pizza delivery guy and true crime superfan Penn, Oswalt paints a portrait of this pitiable man seemingly thrust into the middle of a media whirlwind he willingly encourages. As the founder of a "Murder Head" web group, his behavior wildly fluctuates between hilarious, endearing, tasteless and even flat-out offensive depending upon the situation. Victim, liar or hero? We're never quite sure, but Oswalt (paying tribute to his late wife's true crime investigating with this character) makes it impossible not to care.

Simmons' ex-con, Clyde, is a little smoother with his manipulation, but no less confounding, as we spend most of the eight episodes wondering what angle he's working. We know he can't stay in the background for long as Big Dick's cleaner but there's also considerable intrigue in the bromance he strikes up with a now physically ailing Keith. Yes, they're working each other the whole time since he and his boss are key suspects, but there's also a real bond there between two tired older guys looking for someone to shoot the breeze with. He may be a criminal, but he's an honest one operating within his own code of ethics, and Simmons, legendarily capable of flipping between cold-blooded and kind-hearted in an instant, has us nervously stirring over which side Clyde will eventually end up on.

Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as ex-con Clyde Pickett
With Veronica's long-standing abandonment and trust issues now carrying into her mid-thirties, friends aren't easy to come by or keep, especially in a line of work where mistrust is a prerequisite. Her relationships with Wallace and Weevil are strained and she even starts things off on the wrong foot with a returning Logan. While our beloved Veronica sure ain't easy to deal with, some relief comes in the genuine friendship she strikes up with local bar owner, Nicole Malloy (The Good Place's Kirby Howell-Baptiste). But when her cynicism and guilty conscience takes over, it isn't long before she manages to potentially sabatage that as well.

The idea of giving Veronica a sidekick of sorts in the form of 16-year-old Matty is a great one, and probably could have been executed in any of the show's seasons if the situation warranted it. But it makes the most sense now, as she'd want to latch onto someone she sees as a reflection of herself at that age, and has just suffered a similarly immeasurable loss where she needs to get at the truth. Like Penn, Matty also works as a conduit to show how Veronica's history with the Lilly Kane case continues to informs her every decision as an investigator and person.

While Izabela Vidovic more than holds her own as the rebellious teen absorbing Veronica's knowledge and making scary missteps along the way, her presence never comes off as the transparent spin-off audition it easily could have. Dawnn Lewis also makes a strong supporting contribution as Neptune's newest no-nonsense police chief Marcia Langdon, who proves to be the latest bureaucratic roadblock for the Mars' to overcome, albeit a fairly likable one.

Keith and Veronica on the job
A creative zenith is reached in the depiction of Veronica and Keith's relationship, a bond that was always at the heart of the show, but fell by the wayside in the two subsequent seasons and film, the latter of which hardly saw them working together at all. This is a welcome return to top first season form, with the two joking, bickering and watching each others backs like no time has passed at all. The Mars Investigations office also looks exactly as it should after being given a somewhat shoddy treatment production-wise in the movie. But the kicker is that the dynamic between these two has evolved considerably, with Keith struggling with physical limitations and memory loss, giving Colantoni a chance to bring a vulnerability to the character he hasn't been afforded since the show's peak.

Roles are now reversed, with Veronica having to protect her own father just as he protected her as a teen. Both from himself and others. There's a memorable moment that comes about three quarters through the season that signifies that massive shift while confirming the series is back firing on all cylinders. It's when Veronica has to pause midway through one of their elaborate ruses to check on her dad. He's supposed to be faking a heart attack, but she stops, and the look on her face speaks volumes. Given his current condition, she can't be sure it's not real and abandons her cover to check on him. Juxtapose that with the show's first season finale, where super sleuth Veronica, unharmed through twenty-plus episodes investigating a murder, finds herself in actual physical danger. A suddenly helpless teen in need of dad's help. The same terrified feeling we all had watching that returns, only this time our fears are for Keith.

Kristen Bell slides back into this like it's nothing, and with even more experience as an actress under her belt and better, more engaging material to work with, the results far exceed anything she's been handed after the first season. While we always knew she'd be a successful enough actress to never need the show again, she's still taken for granted in how she carried it, especially during its rougher creative patches. Here, she gets more help from the writers and supporting cast in her entirely believable portrayal of an older, more jaded and bitter Veronica who's over a decade removed from Lilly Kane's murder, and with some life already behind her. And we the impression much of it wasn't what she wanted. At no point during the series' run did Bell ever seem to be going through the motions but the show sure did, so it's nice having the content catch up to her talent again

Jason Dohring returns as Logan Echolls
Veronica's carrying a lot of baggage, most of it in the form of her relationship with Logan, which always felt like it was holding the series back, before eventually becoming the very reason it flew off the rails. This time, it rarely takes center stage and supplements rather than overwhelms the crime proceedings. The problems they deal with feel like real adult issues stemming from Veronica's past trauma and Logan's anger issues. To Jason Dohring's credit, this is probably his best work to date, as he internally struggles to decipher his current role in Veronica's life. And because he also now more closely resembles an Jack Ryan-like action hero than the Logan we remember, the show's able to exploit that by cleverly making him one.

The controversial season finale,"Years, Continents, Bloodshed," feels like the point where everything we always thought the show was, and what it should be now, converge. While it's not news that creators and showrunners often have to make incredibly difficult decisions, what's talked about less is how frequently they opt out of making them. Whether it's to please the fans or network, they take the easy way out, often to the show's creative detriment.

With a final, brutal twist, Rob Thomas tuned all of that noise out and made the decision that was right for the story and its characters. The one that would most insure the series' future viability, while putting an exclamation point on the darker ride these 8 episodes have taken us on.  Having previously written for the fans and and seeing it get the the series nowhere, he's now given the characters and audience what they NEED instead of want, recreating that same mixture of tragedy, triumph and uncertainty that defined show's initial run.

Season 4's shocking finale, "Years, Continents, Bloodshed"
It's entirely possible this was too big a risk and Veronica Mars ends up losing the decade-plus loyal following it has. If that does happen, which it won't, this was still entirely worth it, if only to experience the series performing at its peak for the first time since 2004. But if early indicators can be trusted, it's likely viewers who appreciate great TV have noticed these strides and we'll get more where this came from.

Not only does is it complete vindication for seasons two and three, but an invitation for anyone who hasn't seen them to just skip straight to this, which feels like the first season's true successor. With a tight, self-contained thrill-ride on a new platform, and unencumbered by the pressure to fill over twenty hours of story, the series feels creatively reborn, giving us something more to contemplate afterwards. It's the darkest hole yet for the resilient Veronica to claw out of, with the possibility of even bigger obstacles ahead. But it's great having her back.   

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