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REVIEW: Veronica Mars Returns, With Humor & Intrigue

Veronica Mars Season 4

Before the current flood of reboots and continuations of older TV series, from classics to obscurities, Veronica Mars was ahead of its time, with a crowd-funded 2014 feature film continuing the 2004-2007 cult series. The creative team behind the series had to turn to Kickstarter to get that movie funded directly by fans, but five years later, TV networks and streaming services are scrambling to pick up pretty much any show with a devoted following, and no campaign was needed to produce the long-awaited fourth season of Veronica Mars at Hulu.

Unlike some dubious recent revivals, Veronica Mars still has plenty of life left in it, and the new season brings back the key players, led by creator and showrunner Rob Thomas. Star Kristen Bell is back as Veronica, along with nearly all of the main cast and plenty of recurring characters and guest stars (perhaps even too many). Veronica Mars has always been about intricate references and callbacks, and the 2014 movie proved the show's audience was eager for Veronica's world to remain complex and interconnected.

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At the same time, the new season, set five years after the events of the movie, is a bit more accessible for those who may not have caught up on the previous three seasons, now on Hulu (the movie is only streaming on HBO). Veronica's opening narration provides some basic background about her life in fictional Neptune, California, and her work as a private detective alongside her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). For anyone new to the show, those basics are probably enough to follow the season's main storyline, about a serial bomber targeting Neptune's tourist district, a popular spring break destination.

Veronica Mars Season 4

With its multiple fatalities and gruesome, if generally off-screen, violence (one victim wakes up with a bomb locked around his neck, like he's in a Saw movie), the central mystery is a little more intense and grim than what Veronica has faced before, and also less personal than those in past stories. Veronica has a love-hate relationship with Neptune, where she returned after leaving to get her law degree, but making the town itself the primary victim doesn't resonate as much as when Veronica's best friend was murdered in the first season, or when her on-again, off-again boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) was a prime murder suspect in the movie.

Logan may not be a suspect, but he has a prominent presence in this season, as one of only three series regulars in the opening credits (along with Veronica and Keith). Veronica and Logan's relationship is a fan-favorite pairing, and Thomas and the writers commit to their commitment this season, with the two in a stable relationship (or as stable as possible) and living together in Neptune, at least while Logan is on leave from his work as a Naval Intelligence officer.

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More than the cameos from lesser-known characters, however, the relationship between Veronica and Logan feels like a vestige of the past, something that both the show and the characters are holding onto for the sake of what used to work. When Max Greenfield shows up as Veronica's cop ex Leo D'Amato (now an FBI agent), he and Bell have more chemistry in a handful of scenes than Veronica and Logan have in the multiple preceding episodes.

Both the writers and the characters are aware of the stagnation, though, and Thomas and company don't shy away from interrogating Veronica's life choices. As always, the banter between Veronica and Keith is the show's biggest strength, and the writing is as sharp as ever, full of references, puns and sarcastic rejoinders. Bell remains fantastic as Veronica, bringing a world-weary resignation to a character who started out as a fresh-faced (if already cynical) high-schooler.

There's melancholy behind every one of Veronica's quips, and a sort of wistful torch-passing to 16-year-old budding sleuth Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), whose motel-owner father is killed in the first bombing. It's Matty, not Veronica, who has the personal connection to the case that drives her to seek justice, even at great risk to her own safety.

J.K. Simmons brings a perfect mix of menace and charm as an ex-con working for shady real estate developer "Big Dick" Casablancas (David Starzyk), and Patton Oswalt is amusingly weasely as pizza delivery guy and amateur "murderhead" Penn Epner. Other new additions, including a congressman and a pair of Mexican drug cartel hitmen, all with ties to the bombings, are less effective, and while the case has plenty of well-crafted twists and turns, it's a little disappointing to lose the quirky episodic cases that Veronica always solved alongside the main mysteries in previous seasons.

With only eight episodes, this season may not have room for too many detours, but focusing the entire plot on the bombing doesn't allow for much of the entertaining downtime that helped to make these characters so endearing in the first place. Some veteran characters (including Veronica's hacker best pal Mac, played by Tina Majorino, and Veronica's ex-boyfriend Piz, played by Chris Lowell) merit only passing references, while others (especially Veronica's onetime best friend Wallace, played by Percy Daggs III) fade into the background even when they're onscreen.

The original series had its inconsistencies, too, and the most important thing is that the new season captures the wit and genuine emotion that made Veronica so satisfying to watch. Plenty of revived series can't make a case for why they've returned, but Thomas and Bell and their collaborators make this new season of Veronica Mars something welcome and vibrant, with hope for the future. Even if it takes another five years, Veronica's story deserves to continue.

All eight episodes of the fourth season of Veronica Mars, starring Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni and Jason Dohring, are now streaming on Hulu. 

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