10:00 am EDT, July 15, 2019

‘Veronica Mars’ season 4 spoiler-free review: Less fan service, more character service

A long time ago, we used to be friends, but I haven't thought of how a revival could be this good.

Twelve years, two books, and one Kickstarter-funded movie later, one of TV’s greatest shows has made its triumphant return. Veronica Mars season 4 is just what Marshmallows around the world have been waiting for.

Update: Surprise! At SDCC, Kristen Bell announced that the new season is available NOW on Hulu. Our spoiler-free review is below.

It’s hard to believe that a Veronica Mars season 4 exists, let alone that it has been 12 years since we all first thought we were saying goodbye forever to one of the wittiest, smartest, and most heartfelt shows to have ever been created. Who would have ever thought that a show which struggled to stay on the air as long as it did would have had such a well-deserved comeback?

I, for one, never imagined it. The hope of a small reunion, a one-off, was a glimmer on the horizon for the longest time. And then the announcement of the Veronica Mars movie came and it seemed like we hit peak-Veronica Mars revival culture. But then came the books. And the whispers of a new season.

But with every shiny new Veronica Mars property that came out, the question of “Could it possibly be as good as the original series?” always lingered in the background. Especially with this new season.

‘Veronica Mars’ season 4 review

Suffice it to say that Hulu’s Veronica Mars season 4 revival combines everything you love about the original run of the show with everything you enjoy about binge-worthy television. Updated to reflect the current world climate and to fit into the true crime era we’re now living in, this new season of Veronica Mars feels exactly like how you think a modern run of the show should.

Veronica Mars season 4 picks up not too long after the events of the movie, so a few years at most. Veronica and Keith Mars are working cases side by side, struggling as ever to keep business afloat. Though Veronica’s takedown of Bonnie DeVille’s murderer shone a bit of a light on Mars Investigations, business isn’t really booming. That is until a serial bomber threatens the lives of numerous young people and, even worse, the livelihood of Neptune: Spring Break.

Pooling their resources, connections, and keen instincts for detecting mischief and wrong-doing, Veronica and Keith set out to unmask the bomber before any more lives are lost and the 09ers achieve the return to the “idyllic” and clean (read “white” and “privileged”) Neptune they’ve been fighting so hard for.

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There’s quite a lot going on in Veronica Mars season 4. So much so that it doesn’t waste any time jumping in to the conflicts or adding in any gratuitous (Marshmallow) fluff. In fact, this is probably the property’s leanest bit of storytelling as practically every scene and encounter serves a purpose in driving characterization or one of the two main plots (the bombings and the excess gentrification). Though they were also focused on one or two main plots, as well as character development, the movie and the books didn’t feel nearly this streamlined.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Stake out

That could partially be due to the immense fan service those three bits of storytelling felt compelled to do. While the movie and the books trotted out fan-favorite character after fan-favorite character, there’s quite a bit less of that in this new season of Veronica Mars. While there are some beloved characters that make appearances from time to time, there are fewer of them and they’re not around as much as you’d expect.

In fact, there are perhaps more cameos that feel like they’ve come out of left field than there are appearances by some of the more well-known supporting cast. Without revealing anything, I’d say it’s important going into this season without high expectations of seeing a lot of your favorite supporting characters (if they even show up at all). Their absence is jarring at first, but, once the story gets going, it’s clear that they just don’t fit in well with the current story and shoehorning them in as fan-service just wouldn’t work.

Honestly, Veronica Mars season 4 is less about fan service and more focused on getting back into the groove of the show. Like the series’ original run, this new Hulu season is the perfect mix of darkness, laugh-out-loud comedy, and heartfelt moments. Veronica’s personal mantra that “the people you care about most will always inevitably let you down,” while not as prevalent, still very much lives in the shadows of every interaction she has and relationship she develops.

Related: Why you should catch up on Veronica Mars before the reboot

That being said, while it does work hard to return to the show’s roots, this season isn’t an exact return to its original form. Given just how much time has passed since the show went off the air and how different the world is today, there’s no way it could be. For all of the way it emulates and pays homage to what has come before, this revival season demonstrates just how much the show, as well as the characters, has evolved.

There’s no better example of this evolution than by tracking all of the different iterations of the show’s theme song, “We Used to Be Friends.” It first changed in the show’s third season, after Veronica Mars‘s move to The CW where the story arcs and overall season structure, not to mention the setting, shifted. The Veronica Mars movie then introduced a more stripped-down and slightly upbeat version which matched the film’s fan-service/reunion vibe.

Now, in this revival season on Hulu, the theme shifts again, this time to a more haunting, ethereal, and noir-ish rendition by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. It takes an episode or so to get acclimated to it (after all, the original theme is a classic), but it perfectly conveys just how much Veronica and the show have grown in the past 15(!) years. It’s sophisticated and dark yet still playful, just like this season. And it matches the stunning new opening credits perfectly.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Fun times with Veronica and Keith

Another example of the show’s evolution, as well as its return to form, is Keith and Veronica’s relationship in this new season. They may not have seen eye to eye on Veronica’s decision to stay in Neptune and officially join the family business, that storm cloud that hovered over their relationship in the movie has since dissipated. It’s clear that Keith still doesn’t agree with Veronica giving up her fast-paced lawyer life in New York, but he respects her decision. He makes one remark to his daughter about joining a law firm but ultimately drops the argument.

The show is all the better for this. The moments between Keith and Veronica are some of the best of the season, if not the entire series. They’re just as witty and sharp when interacting with each other, and yet there’s a more mature tenderness that has developed between them since we last visited Neptune, thanks in large part to the fact that they’re now equal business partners. Their relationship isn’t too mature, however, to not have at least one “Who’s your daddy?” quip!

Oh, and there’s a hilarious “cuss war” between Keith and Veronica that’s introduced in the first episode and runs throughout the duration of the season. Presumably, it’s a direct reference to Kristen Bell’s role as Eleanor on The Good Place, but, while it’s an allusion to the NBC show, it fits perfectly here. It’ll seriously have you laughing out loud every time it comes up.

For all of its similarities and callbacks to the previous seasons and stories, there are some pretty drastic differences between Veronica Mars season 4 and its predecessors.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Veronica at work

Perhaps the most notable difference this season is the lack of “cases of the week.” Personally, I’m a huge fan of the “case of the week” structure because it’s a fun way to test our characters and reveal different facets about their personalities and relationships with one another. The cases also usually give the overarching mysteries and storylines space to breathe so that when those reveals do come, there’s no emphasis lost.

Additionally, these mostly self-contained mysteries provide a helpful background in distinguishing between episodes. As is so often the case with shows that are meant to be binge-watched, the episodes in Veronica Mars season 4 all run together and don’t have all that much to distinguish themselves from one another. It’s honestly hard to recall which episodes I enjoyed the most out of this season because the entire thing is a blur.

Though I do think there’s a bit of the Veronica Mars charm and cleverness that’s lost without the inclusion of smaller cases, there just wouldn’t be any room for them here with the way the season is plotted out. After all, it’s doubtful that Veronica or Keith would even dream about taking on additional cases after fully entrenching themselves in the case of the spring break bomber.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot packed into every episode of Veronica Mars season 4. Each episode is at least 50 minutes long, which means that, even though this Hulu revival season has a total of eight episodes, it’s almost like we’re getting nine and a half episodes worth of classic Veronica Mars (or about four movies).

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Keith and Veronica at Mars Investigations

It’s hard to determine whether or not the amount of episodes we get this season is optimal. On the one hand, there’s just the right balance between effective character moments and plot. But on the other, this season’s plotlines don’t land quite as hard as past ones, at least on first watch.

The most drastic difference between Veronica Mars season 4 and the rest of the series is the fact that Veronica has less of a personal connection to the overarching mystery this time. Sure, she puts herself in the middle of everything and the bombings impact her daily life. But she takes the case because it’s the right thing to do, not because she or someone she cares about has been directly affected by the bombings.

Her lack of attachment slightly lowers the stakes for the season, which is kind of disappointing that the season focuses solely on the one mystery. Yes, people are being murdered by explosive devices. My observation here isn’t meant to make light of that. But, because Veronica’s personal stakes are generally lower throughout the season, the impact of the mystery is lessened considerably and the “whodunnit” just feels less pressing than usual.

Veronica Mars season 4 also deviates from the norm in its commentary on class and privilege. The plotline about the 09ers working to re-gentrify Neptune and drive out the “riff-raff” (including the yearly spring breakers) is an underlying current, but it focuses more on how selfish the “haves” are rather than the impact all of this has on the “have nots.”

Though the movie indicated that a pretty big class war was on the horizon, that tense atmosphere seemingly evaporated in the time since Deputy Sacks was murdered in that “car accident,” most likely due to the sheriff’s department actually being not that corrupt this time around (which is a pretty big shocker).

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Big Dick Casablancas and the 09ers

It’s a small difference that perhaps I’m being too picky about, but after the movie did a great job discussing the racial inequality in Neptune and setting up the town itself as a bomb that was about to explode, the discussions in this new revival season are anti-climatic at best.

And then there are two side plotlines, one involving a senator and the other a Mexican cartel, that just don’t mesh well with the rest of the season at all. They’re directly connected the bomb and 09er plots, but really serve as nothing more than a distraction from everything else going on. Yes, they (sort of) play their part in the season’s climax but are otherwise equal parts pointless and frustrating.

That all being said, the bombing storyline is definitely captivating from start to finish (and then some). The threat this season is no joke as the explosions come without warning and in crowded areas. The bomb that detonates in 4×04 is particularly gruesome and hard to watch, especially in the immediate aftermath. Not only that, but they’re hard to track. Many times, mysteries can be pretty easy to figure out, but true to form and thanks to a few pretty big twists, this Veronica Mars mystery will keep you guessing and feel like you’re missing something until the very end.

New to this season, Patton Oswalt’s pizza delivery guy character introduces a “true crime” element into the Veronica Mars universe which, honestly, I can’t believe we haven’t seen before. He follows all of the bombings going on, as well as the other cases Mars Investigations has taken on in the past, and adds a layer of skepticism. Not only that, but he also serves as a way of legitimizing just how intelligent Veronica is and how perfect she is in the role of a private eye, rather than a lawyer.

In this era of true crime that we’re all living in, it’s easy to forget that there are real people involved in the crimes and real lives at stake. While it’s not an official plotline for the season, one of the effective underlying currents is the slow takedown of true crime enthusiasts and just how much harder it is to solve crimes in real time and in the field rather than from a couch or a cell phone.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Veronica and Logan cuddling

Speaking of characters with notable storylines, what would an article about Veronica Mars be without fangirling a bit over Logan Echolls and LoVe? After everything he has experienced in his life (especially the last few years), it makes sense that the Logan we meet in Veronica Mars season 4 is quite different from the Logans we knew in previous seasons. Still a United States Naval Aviator, this Logan is regimented and reserved. He’s still witty and charming, but in a more subtle way.

However, Jason Dohring and Kristen Bell’s chemistry is still as sizzling as ever. Each scene they share is incredibly nuanced and emotional. Logan and Veronica may say one thing or act one way to each other, but their body language and facial expressions many times tell completely different stories. And yet, there’s still a sense that these two are not only completely meant for each other, but also that they’ll figure out some way to make it work.

This season takes extra care with Logan’s character, fleshing him out and bringing us all up to speed with just who he is at this point in his life. No longer surrounded in controversy, we’re able to see Logan the man rather than the Logan who’s almost always at the center of a storm. Not only that, but this season gives us a better understanding of who Logan is outside of his relationship with Veronica (or really, any other regular characters from the show). We get to see Logan for Logan. Jason Dohring gives his best performance as Logan in this season and, honestly, he’s a joy to watch.

And then there’s Veronica.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- Veronica and Pony

Veronica Mars is no longer the brooding teen and town pariah she once was. She’s all grown up now. Of course, Veronica still has her flaws (mainly her penchant for distrusting just about everyone, not to mention her unyielding pride), but she knows who she is and accepts all of the aspects of herself, for better or worse. This Veronica is self-aware enough to know when she’s in the wrong and she’s getting better about owning up and apologizing for it.

Also, although she tries to put up the same sharp, prickly front, it becomes increasingly apparent through the season that Veronica has softened considerably. Sure, she’s still just as witty and clever as she always was, but her second chance at love with Logan as well as her father’s brush with death has made her more of a marshmallow than she was before. Veronica wears more of her emotions on her sleeve and isn’t as quick to dismiss others as she has been in the past. In fact, dare I say, she’s more trusting and lets people in a lot more than she used to.

Veronica’s character development from the movie to now and all throughout this season is incredibly gratifying to watch. Following her trajectory has been a bit of a frustrating struggle sometimes, but this season makes it all worth it.

Veronica Mars season 4 has been a long time coming and, now that it’s finally here, it’s hard not to love it. This season is by no means perfect, but it feels like a proper return to Neptune and all of the characters we Marshmallows care so much about. Plus, it’s quite an enjoyable and emotional ride from start to finish with some pretty big twists and major events along the way (two in particular that will most likely set the internet ablaze).

Fans of Veronica Mars as a whole won’t be able to get enough of this fresh take on the show and will surely be clamoring for more as the final episode’s credits roll.

'Veronica Mars' season 4 -- The gang's night out

Random spoiler-free notes from watching ‘Veronica Mars’ season 4

  • The first episode makes it feel like truly no time has passed since the show went off the air. It sets up all of the season’s conflicts and storylines as effectively as its 1×01 and 2×01 predecessors.
  • I’ve never been more turned on by a Frank Sinatra song since 10 Things I Hate About You.
  • Wait, is this show actually introducing capable semi-capable local law enforcement with a sheriff that isn’t completely self-involved?
  • So, Logan is effectively Veronica Mars‘ version of the Bruce Banner?
  • This season is very Jessica Jones-like in its story-telling. There are no “cases of the week,” but there is a lot of sardonic commentary to go around.
  • Is this show introducing a “new generation” here or something? Could you ever have Veronica Mars without Veronica Mars?
‘Veronica Mars’ season 4 is currently streaming on Hulu.

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