tv review

Veronica Mars Returns to Neptune, Seedy and Seductive As Ever

Photo: Michael Desmond/Hulu

The task of reviving a long-dead show requires negotiating between two opposing tensions. Nostalgia pulls in one direction — a show’s fans often want revivals to feel as they always did, to bring the thing they once loved back to life in perfect familiar form. At the same time, revivals have to grow up to meet the current moment so they don’t feel dated or as if they’re trying to regain their lost youth. The revival season of Veronica Mars on Hulu carefully balances these forces, and its success in doing so is why this season is also the best Veronica has been since its 2004 debut.

In many ways, that’s because it’s the closest the show has come to just re-creating the first season. Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars is back in Neptune, back at work with her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), back trying to scrounge together enough money to get by while casting a gimlet eye on the increasingly wealthy one-percenters who are taking over the town. Veronica has a love interest from season one (Logan Echolls, played by Jason Dohring). She carries a messenger bag and hops over security fences and cracks wise. The first episode of the revival finds Veronica and Keith taking small-scale jobs to pay the bills while introducing a major mystery to drive the season, deliberately evoking the structure of the show’s first season. The new Veronica Mars is a careful re-creation of its past greatest hits.

That may sound great on paper, but in practice it could easily be excruciating — gloopy and false and tragic, more time capsule than living thing. But Hulu’s Veronica Mars avoids the cringeworthy sense of being a zombie series. The revival tries to return to the things that made Veronica Mars great, but it’s simultaneously aware that, for Veronica, being back in the place where she was in high school is a really bad place to be. She’s still working with her father, still skimming the scum off Neptune’s rotten surface, fighting the same battles, and incapable of moving on. As much as the new Veronica Mars is about re-creating the past, it’s also about acknowledging that it would’ve been so much healthier for Veronica to grow up and move on.

There is also a mystery, of course. The first episode introduces a bomber and a messy, interwoven cast of potential baddies and motives that at times feels unnecessarily byzantine. And the series has lost its network-show backbone, the drumbeat framework of episode-length stories that distract Veronica while she tries to chip away at the main case. Instead, there are a bevy of red herrings, some more successful than others.

Some elements of the original season have been brought back that perhaps shouldn’t have, at least without some more dramatic rethinking. Weevil (Francis Capra) and his gang of criminal-class bikers are joined by two Mexican-cartel flunkies (Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos), who mostly lurk around the corners of the story, beheading people. They seem intended as a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-type addition, but the show never figures out how to characterize them outside of their Bad Cartel Dude boxes. For a revival series that mostly dodges feeling dated, “funny but violent Mexican baddies” is the one major misstep.

Where the Veronica Mars revival shines most brightly is in the character of Veronica herself, in her relationships with her father and her boyfriend, and in the season’s beach-noir vibe. That mood was one of the most striking things about the show when it first debuted, the sunny, laid-back surfer look intercut with images of sleazy neon strip-club signs and teen Veronica, hunched in a car late at night, taking sordid surveillance photos of cheating husbands. That vibe has always been key to the show’s most stinging moments; the shiny-on-the-outside, decaying-at-the-core aesthetic mirrors the stories Veronica Mars explores most meaningfully. Happy-looking, clean-cut teens who hide trauma and pain and anger under their ironed-polo-shirt exteriors. Gorgeous beachfront property and wholesome surfer scenes that mask a yawning income gap and endemic corruption. The success of the original show was in large part due to how thoroughly it established the contradictions of its sunshine-noir world.

The revival reanimates that foundation much more successfully than the show’s second and third seasons ever managed to do. Veronica’s cynicism fits the mood even better now that she’s grown, and the gap between Neptune’s wealthy and its poor has only widened in the intervening years. The mystery of this season sometimes feels wobbly, but its grounding in those basic ideas — Neptune’s precarious future, the unfairness of wealth disparity — helps make things feel cohesive even when a few plot points seem out of place or look like distracting, inexplicable coincidences. And that noir framework, almost entirely absent from the underwhelming Veronica Mars movie, also helps to undercut any seductive pressure to wallow in nostalgia. You may want to go home again, and you may want to feel as though you, like Veronica, are returning to a beloved moment from your youth. But the revival series doesn’t let you forget: You may have loved it as a viewer, and Veronica may have loved it too, in her own way, but this place always sucked.

Mysteries like this one, stories that pull on many subplots and suspects and reversals and twists and clues, create the reasonable expectation that the end will make good on the opening promises. While Veronica Mars mostly delivers on those promises, it’s worth noting that some of the season’s concluding events will make some viewers, very, very, very mad. Really, incandescently mad. There’s little point in saying more about it before audiences have a chance to watch it, but suffice to say that the central premise holds firm to the last minute: Neptune has never been good to its good people, and the new season of Veronica Mars will not hesitate to wipe out your nostalgic good feelings in pursuit of that point.

Despite its gutting final swerve and its missteps big (cartel baddies) and small (minor plot holes), the new season works. And even if the takeaway of the season is that anyone you love should run from Neptune as quickly as they possibly can … it still feels good to be back.

Veronica Mars Returns, Seedy and Seductive As Ever