Stories don’t really end anymore. As long as there’s earning potential in them, they get revived or rebooted or upgraded to multiplatform universes. Yet for every hundred unnecessary sequels and comebacks, we get one that transcends the whole cynical business: Black Panther. Mad Max: Fury Road. Twin Peaks: The Return. And now the fourth season of Veronica Mars, which just dropped a week early on Hulu.
Canceled after just three seasons on the CW and its predecessor UPN, creator Rob Thomas’ (Party Down, iZombie) smart teen drama about a high school girl who moonlights as a private investigator had a limited audience during its original mid-’00s run. But it was precisely the kind of brilliant-but-canceled show whose legacy flourished in the age of streaming—a critical darling and cult favorite whose star, Kristen Bell, just kept rising. By 2013, Thomas had a fan base enthusiastic enough to raise $5.7 million for a crowdfunded Veronica Mars movie—one that turned out to be fun but disappointingly slight in comparison with the series.
If Hulu’s revival is everything the movie should have been, that’s surely in part because it’s so timely. The turbulent Trump era makes it tempting to stamp relevant on any story that’s sufficiently dark, but Bell’s tough, sarcastic pessimist has deep roots in current controversies around gender and class. Set in Neptune, Calif., a fictional beach town with a sharp divide between rich and poor, the show’s first season opens after the murder of Veronica’s best friend. Her dad, Sheriff Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), has bungled the investigation, losing his job, his wife and his good name. Now an outcast, Veronica digs into both the homicide and her own drugging and rape at a party thrown by her old friends, the wealthy, popular “09er” clique.
Even for someone so resilient, wounds like these never fully heal. “When you’re raped and your best friend is murdered, all before your 17th birthday,” Veronica notes midway through the new season, “you don’t develop a keen sense of mercy.” You might also have problems with intimacy and commitment. Still in Neptune after blowing up her old life as a New York City lawyer in the movie, season 4’s Veronica is cohabiting with—but going to great lengths to convince herself she can’t marry—her soulmate Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) and shouldering the burden of keeping Mars Investigations afloat as Keith approaches retirement age.
Like the final CW season, but with much more success, a single investigation consumes all eight episodes of the revival. Neptune has become a spring break destination, in a boon to small-business owners, a nuisance to the town’s elite and a perfect backdrop for Veronica’s bitter jokes about toxic machismo. Tensions peak when a bomb explodes at a beachfront motel during the yearly bacchanal, killing a handful of staff and tourists, each with a messy backstory for Veronica and Keith to probe. Combined with lots of familiar faces (Max Greenfield, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, Ken Marino), the influx of new characters (including Patton Oswalt’s pizza-delivery nerd and an ex-con played by J.K. Simmons) makes for an overwhelming premiere. Yet subsequent episodes settle into a mystery suspenseful enough to be absorbing, but never so complex that it detracts from the characters.
Veronica, with her unique mix of light humor and dark perspective, remains a wholly unique creation. Her relationships with Logan and Keith evolve in ways that reflect both the characters’ ages and the trauma they’ve survived; all three performances are vulnerable and humane. More than the identity of the bomber, the pertinent question that propels the season is: Can someone who’s been through what Veronica has been through ever find happiness? So many teen dramas have struggled to grow up along with their audiences, but Veronica Mars never sugarcoated or condescended when tackling the adult themes that made it so prescient. It makes for an elegant transition.