welcome (back) to neptune

Breaking Down Veronica Mars Season 4 With Showrunner Rob Thomas

Photo: Michael Desmond/Hulu

In the week since Hulu announced the surprise early release of Veronica Mars’s fourth season, reactions to the series’s revival have ranged from delighted to enraged. The season is in many ways the closest Veronica Mars has been to the show’s much-acclaimed first season, but the revival’s shell-shocker of a final episode has been upsetting for many viewers who loved the original series.

I spoke with Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas before the release of the new season, and although few people had seen it, Thomas was already anticipating the blowback he might be receiving after the season-ending death of one of the show’s major characters. We spoke about Thomas’s reasons for making that decision, how long he’d been planning it (years!), and why he felt it was necessary so Veronica could move forward. But we also talked about the season as a whole, the differences between making a fan-funded movie and a streaming TV series, casting Patton Oswalt, writing for Latinx characters, and about the show he wants to turn Veronica Mars into for future seasons.

Spoilers, obviously, for the fourth season of Veronica Mars.

What were your first ideas about what you wanted this revival season to be? 
Doing a fan-funded movie, I really thought in terms of giving the fans what they wanted. It was full of dessert — seeing all the old characters. And with this one, first of all, I wanted it to feel at home on a streaming platform. Fargo was a show that we talked about a lot, like, “Let’s do Fargo in the sun.” Even though Fargo was not on any streaming platform, it would fit well on a streaming platform. So we wanted to make this more adult. And as you can tell, if I were driven solely by fan service on this one, I probably would not have killed off a favorite character.

So yeah. I wanted these eight episodes to serve as a bit of a bridge from the show that we started out as, which was sort of a hybrid of a teen soap and a detective-noir mystery show, to take us from that world to a world where we could exist as something like Sherlock, a mystery series where we could come back and do a big mystery from time to time, and that would be our bread and butter. Because if we keep pinning the show to Veronica’s romance and relationships with her high-school buddies, it would just start feeling nostalgic. It would start showing its age. Whereas if we could make it a pure mystery show with this great detective at the center, we could survive and keep doing more.

One of my favorite things about the season is that it’s made a choice for Veronica to be stuck, to have stopped growing as she should. The fact that she is still hanging out with her high-school teen friends is partly the theme, partly the problem. How did that idea come about?
Part of it is that when I designed the show, the original show, I built all of the characters that we needed for that big season-one mystery into the show. Those characters all made sense because I knew how they were going to flow into the big murder mystery. And then when you do the season-two and season-three big murder mysteries and they’re all still involved, it starts to make you roll your eyes. It does become a little Murder, She Wrote.

One of the things that I feel like I need to do is take Veronica out of that world. So that was part of the thinking. The other part was, I feel like we often see stories about men with this sort of arrested development, men in their 30s, even men in their 40s, who are reluctant to commit — to get married, have kids, have a mortgage. I thought it’d be interesting to see Veronica as the lead of our show, somebody who, I think, needs the adrenaline of these cases, this girl who has spent most of her life taking pictures of infidelity, struggle with these sorts of decisions. How does someone who has made a career out of catching cheating spouses ever say yes to marriage herself?

I think in the original three seasons, you get this sense that she feels more adult than everyone around her because she’s dealt with all of this stuff, and all of these teen boys feel much more immature. It felt almost like a reversal in this season. Logan is the one who’s managed to move past her, and she’s still stuck in this old place. 
Yeah, I was really conscious of that. You know, I didn’t want to play that Logan had his shit totally resolved, but I wanted to play that he has worked very hard on changing who he is, fundamentally. I still like the moment where he puts his fist through a cabinet and says he struggles every day with keeping his rage in check. I like that it was a work in progress for Logan.

But you know, there were certain things we put in there for very intentional reasons. I wanted to show Wallace in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with this rock-solid marriage and a kid. Here’s her best friend who is doing the things normal people do. The reason Nicole is in there as a new friend is so that [Veronica] could look at somebody who is her own boss, and gets to sleep with who she wants and do what she wants, and for Veronica to sit there trying to figure out, “Which one of these lifestyles looks better to me?”

I wanted Leo in there to test her fidelity to a certain extent, and the big question there is, I have utter confidence that Veronica loves Logan, but would Veronica be willing to sabotage that relationship, even as an escape hatch? So all that was done just to try to highlight that story for Veronica. Is she ready to, for lack of a better term, settle down?

You also bring in Matty, this younger character who becomes a teen-Veronica stand-in. Is that part of the same calculus? Is she so Veronica can measure how much she has or has not grown?
The biggest reason Matty is in there is that we needed someone for Veronica to care about. These bombs were all happening to people she had no connection to. We needed to give a face to it so that there was some emotional connection to solving this case, but it did give us pretty great opportunities. Like, I love this moment where Veronica says to Matty sort of incredulously, “So, what, are you just gonna sneak in there and rattle some cages or whatever?” Veronica, you made a whole career doing exactly that! You know?

Or when Keith can see Matty doing the same things Veronica does and Veronica seems oblivious to it. Those were moments we very much enjoyed writing. But yeah, it was fun letting Veronica observe Matty and kind of coach her through her grief.

Because on the one hand, who could be better at understanding what she’s going through than Veronica? And on the other hand, Veronica has not been great at doing that for herself.
Right, right.

One of the other major additions to the cast in this season is Patton Oswalt. Could you talk a little bit about how you cast him in this role?
One of the things you do when you go pitch a show is, you make a giant cardboard poster and you put all the characters on it so that if you’re pitching the show, the network executives can see who’s who. For each character you put the dream casting up, like, if you could have your choice of anyone in the world, you put that person’s picture there to represent that character as you tell the story so they can imagine it. You never get those people. I mean, that’s just who you would like, in a perfect world. However, with both J.K. [Simmons] and with Patton, we got the person who was on our poster board.

When you’re writing the show, it helps to have a face in your head, so I was picturing Patton in that role kind of before we started writing it even. Then luckily, and I mean really luckily, Patton was a Veronica Mars fan. And it was lucky because he was doing A.P. Bio the same time he was doing our show, so we were reliant on the goodwill of A.P. Bio for us to schedule him into our show. It often made for difficult scheduling, but at the end of the day, it was well worth it.

You know, so much of writing a mystery is the misdirect, and the audience is always thinking, Why does this person exist in this show? I wanted people to think of him almost like Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon. Like, he’s the comedy-relief tagalong. He’s the hangdog, wrong-side-of-40 pizza delivery guy there for comedy. So that felt like the right kind of misdirect for that character. If you put in somebody who just played sleazy, people would be onto you too quickly.

Being a true-crime investigator is pretty close to home for him. Was that something that you thought about or you talked about at all as you were working on the role?
Yes, I wrote him a lengthy letter. I sat down before we asked him [to take the part] and wrote him a letter saying, “Look, I read your wife’s book and I know she had some good relationships with these online murder-mystery-solving people. We’re going to make some comic light of them, but there are also going to be people in the group who do a good job. I was not doing this in a way that makes fun of the people your wife worked with,” and he wrote me a note back saying, “Hey, it was really kind of you to point this out, but I feel all right about it as long as they don’t all look like loons.”

I love the moment when the Murderheads can’t help themselves and start looping back to discuss Lilly Kane’s murder. It feels so much like something online true-crime investigators wouldn’t be able to help themselves from doing in this circumstance.
We are constantly trying to attract new fans to the show. We want new people to be comfortable, to come in and watch the show and not feel like they’re missing a ton. And I think if we get to do more of these, the next one will be even cleaner, because the next one, I think, will just be a straight mystery and will rely less on any kind of knowledge of Neptune.

But we always struggle in those moments. Is it worth it for the fans to have this little Lilly Kane discussion, or will it be off-putting for people who have never seen Veronica Mars? Will they sit there and say, Oh, I’m missing something; this show isn’t for me? So we battle with those all the time, and sometimes we veto all of them, sometimes we move forward with them. That was a time where we said, “What the hell?”

There are a few other moments in this season where you’re obviously pulling on some of the threads from the original seasons, as with Leo’s or Veronica’s visit to the prison. 
Very much so.

Those returning roles feel different than the nostalgia of the movie, though. 
Yes. Absolutely. [The movie] was fan-funded and we thought there was a chance we would never see Veronica again, so we wanted to see Veronica punch Madison Sinclair, you know? I wanted to end that with Veronica sitting down at the desk in Mars Investigations, so that if we never saw her again, I thought, Yeah, that’s where she should be. This one, we are angling to make Veronica Mars into a detective franchise, and I’m certainly not saying we will never see, you know, Wallace again, or anything like that. I’m just saying, from here on out, if we exist, it’s going to be as a detective-noir mystery show.

Watching it, the season felt like you were actively trying to blow up all of the nostalgic impulses of the movie. “Here’s Neptune, here’s the town you love, poof, giant bomb.” How much was that intentional? How much did you worry about fans feeling like, They’re blowing up the things that I love
I’m terrified about it. I’m terrified seeing the reaction. I feel like, yes, we’re cutting off an arm to save the body, and that I’m placing this bet that the fans will follow us into the next thing. I think it needs to be this detective show moving forward, because I think the longer I play these high-school relationships, the more it will feel like nostalgia. I almost feel like it will grow sad, in a way. Like, it will be a process of diminishing returns to keep being the thing we always were. But I could be wrong. You know, I could be wrong, and I know that. I know there’s a shot that Veronica Mars fans hate me for killing Logan, and what they loved about the show was not the mystery, it was her friends and romantic relationships. If that’s the case, then I placed the wrong bet. But the truth is, for the show I would like to do moving forward, I would’ve been reluctant to keep doing …

This version of it.
Yeah, yeah.

Okay, so talk to me about killing Logan. When did you know you wanted that to happen? 
I probably figured this out years ago.

Really? How many years ago?
Well, when we pitched the show to all these networks, Logan’s death was always a part of that. Kristen and I have talked about our desire to keep doing more versions of Veronica since the movie, and we really liked the idea of doing these miniseries Veronica Mars adventures. It’s always percolating in my head, like one of the things that flashed into my head is, Logan must die. Because it’s hard to write “badass private detective and her boyfriend.” The way we struggled to get Logan involved in this adventure strained credulity a little bit, and the happy pairing off of the leads of a show usually marks the ending. Badass private eye and her husband back in Neptune didn’t feel like the show that could sustain itself moving forward. So it was in my head probably as far back as 2014.

Did you always know it was going to be right at the end of the last episode? Did you play with timing at all?
The timing was really tricky. Would I have liked a few more pages to do that? Possibly, but you can’t play another episode after the mystery is solved in a murder mystery. I felt like I could have the last ten pages to deal with it.

You’re gonna kill a beloved character. You want it to have as much emotional punch as possible, so there’s a little mislead about whether Logan will or will not show up. The voice-over for the whole season is filled with a sense of dread. It’s telling the audience something bad is gonna happen. Oh, she’s gonna cheat. She’s gonna self-sabotage and cheat on Logan with Leo. That’s the bad thing I’m worried about. Oh no, Keith is going to die in this bomb. That’s the thing I’m worried about. And then, Oh no, Logan isn’t gonna show up for the wedding. That’s the thing I’m gonna worry about, and then they get married, and it’s this, and I hope that they’re feeling this sense of relief that then allows for this really big gut punch. That is what we are trying to do, you know, we want as much emotional kick as possible.

But at the same time you have to think, Okay, did I give them the right amount of emotional kick or is it too much and they’re gonna be too mad at me now? 
Trust me, for these next couple weeks, that is what I am most concerned about. Truly, I won’t know for a while.

Many writers think differently about writing characters of color now than they did 10 to 15 years ago, and both in the original series and now, Veronica Mars has several Latinx characters who are cast extremely or at least vaguely criminal. Has your thinking evolved at all on how to write for a character like Weevil, or this season’s Mexican-cartel baddies? 
Here’s the thing: I created this town where I wanted a largely white, wealthy class. I wanted to create a hotbed of both class and race issues. Weevil was in a biker gang. I didn’t consider changing that, and I don’t know why I point this out, but there were white guys in that gang. Few and far between, but there were some.

I guess when I think of gangs in Southern California, I feel like there’s a racial construct to them. I guess I didn’t give it that much thought; it was a thing that existed in the show, it was a thing that existed in the movie, and it would’ve been a weird thing to change for these new eight episodes, I believe.

Sure. I know some showrunners now, as they are looking at Latinx characters, they’re thinking about whether they want to make sure they have a writers’ room that will reflect those voices or bring a different nuance to those characters. Was that at all part of your thinking about the new season?
When I write characters like the cartel guys, the thing that I push for is, let’s write them as a hit man who believes in determinism, and let’s give him something interesting to say that doesn’t come straight from that hit-man playbook, you know? That was the goal there. Make it a good, interesting part with interesting dialogue. What I wanted was like Fargo, some guy who’s capable of violence sort of traipsing haphazardly through our adventure. So there’s always a hint of violence, and there’s always the possibility that you don’t know where it’s gonna come from next. I think I would feel bad about it if I just gave them trope-y dialogue.

Veronica Mars has always been a show about wealth and class disparities, but this revival season feels even more pointed on those issues. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that it’s tilted that way, especially now that much of the national political discussion is about wealth and poverty and who deserves to live somewhere. How much of that was intentional? 
The case is launched by gentrification. The reason I wanted it to be set at spring break was, if you’re gonna do a story about gentrification, we needed a spoonful of sugar for that. We weren’t going to do the … what was the David Simon show about the northeastern town? [Editor’s note: Show Me a Hero, Simon’s miniseries about the battle for low-income subsidized housing in Yonkers.] Every time we were in city council meetings, I thought, Why am I here? This is not what we do! David Simon would handle this scene very well, though.

But one of the very first lines from Veronica in the original series was, “Welcome to Neptune, California, the town without a middle class.” That was written in 2004, and it feels like we were way ahead of our time. So now, times have caught up with us with a vengeance.

Breaking Down Veronica Mars With Showrunner Rob Thomas