A long time ago, I used to be friends with Veronica Mars, or at least, it certainly feels that way. I was the same age as her when the first season aired, and getting to check in with Veronica and friends at regular intervals — 2007’s college-set final season, 2014’s movie, and now, a streaming revival — has put her in a weird liminal space, like she’s actually an old pal from my salad days. Watching this premiere gave me the same uncomfortable anticipation of grabbing coffee with a friend you haven’t spoken to in years, and the same overwhelming relief that, despite a few surface alterations, she hasn’t changed a bit.
It’s hard to overstate how genuine Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell’s commitment to this property feels, or how determined they are to find new, relevant stories to tell about Neptune. Veronica Mars 3.0 could’ve easily been another nostalgia-driven cash grab. Instead, the premiere manages to loop in a half-dozen timely topics, from nimbyism to consent issues in spring-break culture to the failures of the American health-care system. Threaded through it all is the show’s central subject, wealth inequality, which has never felt more relevant. And it hasn’t lost an ounce of its sharp wit, outshining quite a few of the actual comedies airing right now.
Thomas and longtime collaborators Diane Ruggiero-Wright and Dan Etheridge have accomplished the near-impossible in terms of spinning out relevant new plots from the 2014 movie, which was made as a stand-alone. The car accident that nearly killed Enrico Colantoni’s Keith Mars had lasting repercussions, forcing him to walk with a cane and grapple with bouts of memory loss. Veronica’s decision in the movie to ditch her law degree and return to PI work has had significant financial consequences for her family, with Keith dropping not-so-subtle hints that she could rescue them both from a life of cheap digs and free clinics.
The revival has also stuck with Logan’s efforts to grow up (and glow-up — damn, Jason Dohring), which are showing increasingly stark against Veronica’s refusal to address the wounds of the past. Fans of the star-crossed couple won’t get much time to squee over Logan’s surprise proposal; Veronica is as hardened against marriage as she was since the series’s start. Yet the show doesn’t stoop to treating Veronica or her relationship as broken just because it’s not official, or because she has more interest in her case than in Wallace’s cute new baby. She has real reasons for skepticism about domesticity — her parents’ broken marriage, the ones she sees on the job every day — and they’re not treated as immaterial.
Thomas & Co. have been savvy about which dials to keep static and which to slide. The show has a more cinematic look, reflecting its move from network to streaming. Sex scenes are hotter and more explicit, and Veronica’s trusty stun gun has been swapped for a real one, befitting a protagonist who’s rounded the corner of 30. But a lack of bad language, cleverly framed as an ongoing bet between Veronica and Keith, keeps the UPN throwback vibe alive.
A fun cast of new teen additions (obviously intended to draw an audience that was in preschool when the show first aired) sits at the heart of the new season’s arc, which will follow the aftermath of a deadly bombing at Neptune’s preferred motel for spring-break debauchery. The show savvily spreads its casualties among a few different constituencies, from a sweet Latino nerd to the fiancée of a wealthy congressman’s kid brother to the middle-aged motel owner with a bereft teen daughter who inevitably tugs at Veronica’s heartstrings.
Throw in a few older newcomers like Bell’s Good Place castmate Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a rough-and-tumble party-bar owner, and there’s plenty of opportunity for interwoven story lines, honoring Veronica Mars’ eternal commitment to providing double the plot per minute of any other mystery show.
The only off note is the story line that draws in a Mexican drug lord and his family (relatives of the dead nerd), which plays like a mediocre Breaking Bad knockoff. Veronica Mars has always been good at fielding dark topics without being a “dark” show, particularly when it comes to gore. But going full Sicario, with decapitated heads tossed over walls and stoolies dumped from car trunks and shot, feels tonally off, and the show’s biting wit doesn’t translate well to subtitled Spanish. One of the original seasons’ best traits was having either Bell, Dohring, or Colantoni onscreen for nearly every scene; the reboot has a lot more scenes without them (perhaps driven by Bell’s availability), and when those scenes run more than a minute or so, they get draggy.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a reboot for Veronica and friends that could go off much better than this one. The dialogue still sparkles, the mystery has plenty of mileage, and Bell continues to make Veronica’s blend of spunk and sorrow both look as natural as breathing. We have to talk about that awful theme-song redo, though. Veronica and I may both be over-the-hill, but I guarantee you she agrees that the Dandy Warhols still slap.
• This is my first time recapping a mystery show, so to preserve a spoiler-free zone, I’ll be writing each recap before viewing the subsequent episode. Let’s be wrong about the eventual culprit together!
• I am awed that Veronica’s studded messenger bag from her college crime-fighting days is still in rotation. How many of those bags has the wardrobe department been squirreling away all these years?
• As good as this episode was, a Veronica Mars without Dick Casablancas is no Veronica Mars at all. I love that sad-clown frat bro with all my heart, and he’d sure as hell better show up soon.
• At least we got some quality Cliff time. His systematic working of everyone at the hospital was so well-choreographed and funny.
• The inevitable sotto voce Trump dig (at Dick’s dad, president of NUTT, or Neptune United for a Tidy Town) is the best one I’ve seen on any show: short, funny, and plot-relevant. “How the hell did we let a crooked real-estate tycoon come in and seduce us into longing for a bygone era?”
• Calling Caddyshack what it is — “a bible for douchebags” — only makes me love this show more.