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“Veronica Mars” Season 4: Part of Our Dark Summertime Binge

Veronica Mars!

Are you there, God? It’s me, the annoying tiny blonde one.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: 2014 saw the release of the Veronica Mars movie, an unexpected follow-up to the acid-tongued detective show that undiscerning Nielsen families treated as persona non grata during its three-season run on UPN and The CW. The movie was made possible through a Kickstarter campaign made wildly successful by a fan base eager to see more, more, more. Honestly, every second of VM beyond the first season has been a sort of gift. Back in the day, shows with its kind of shaky ratings were often stood before a firing squad in five episodes or less. Fans appreciated the film as a Happily Ever After that we needed after season 3’s funereal cliffhanger, but we also assumed it was The End. We moved on, so sure that life in the complicated oceanside town of Neptune, CA, would remain copacetic forever as long as we all agreed never to look back again.

Apparently like Orpheus, someone must have peeked. Thanks to the magic of Hulu and a reunion of principals — creator Rob Thomas and some of the original writing staff, as well as stars Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, and quite a few more — the titular teen detective and her equally-detective dad Keith Mars are back with an eight-episode fourth season that, of course, once again has Neptune in chaos, death at hand, and Happily Ever After wrested away from more than one beloved cast member. Though Hulu had announced a release date of July 26th, they uploaded it a week early amid the fun and busyness of San Diego Comic Con. It was either a pleasant surprise or a shocking downer, depending on whether or not you actually watched it this weekend.

With several weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife and I sped through all eight episodes on Saturday, because free time abounded for some of us who’ll never get to attend SDCC. Over the past few weeks we’d been bingeing a few other shows, each of which had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. We set all those aside for one day and, by the end of said day, realized Veronica fit right in with all that bleakness.

Courtesy warning: spoilers ahead for thoughts after some 400+ minutes of viewing. Not everything is revealed here, but several tidbits yearn to be explored. The spoiler-free capsule-review version is: season 4 is far better than season 3, possibly better than season 2 (I need more time to evaluate this), and definitely not here to deliver more of the movie’s too-eager-to-please fan service.

Episode one wastes no time asserting much has changed in Neptune since 2004. Signpost one: that theme song. The Dandy Warhols’ “We Used to Be Friends”, one of my all-time top-10 TV themes — which was ruined for season 3 when someone dunked it in a vat of melted Joy Division tapes — gets a cover treatment courtesy of the legendary Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders. Her version is fine and she’s still got it, but her somber take is a reminder that years have passed, the show and its ensemble are older, and some reunions are muted affairs where nostalgia and regret trudge hand-in-hand through the underlit ballroom’s double doors.

Episode one also really, excitedly wants you to know the writers no longer have to answer to network censors. By Hulu’s standards season 4 is TV-14. I’m not handing out free samples, but their ratings system is…um, pretty different from network TV’s of even AMC’s. They do stop short of F-bombs, for all that’s worth…which in turn is the subject of a running gag between Veronica and Keith, who have a bet riding on who lets one slip first. Both resort to frequent use of “cuss” as their cussword of choice, as though this were a spin-off of The Good Place. Beyond that, very nearly every word on George Carlin’s famous list is fair game, zealously used and overused and sounding at times like naughty seventh-graders amusing themselves whenever teacher sneaks out for a smoke break. As I already griped in my entry about the movie in my crotchety-old-man voice, “Whenever longtime TV characters begin swearing like sailors, the dialogue never sounds right to my ears. Imagine if you watched a Humphrey Bogart film and he began using words like ‘whatevs’ and ‘ell-oh-ell’. It’s a disorienting distraction.”

It’s not just the externals that have changed. Some of Neptune’s most beloved citizens aren’t the same anymore. Veronica’s former best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) is now a teacher, husband, and doting father — a put-upon gofer no more. Veronica’s longtime boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is a naval intelligence officer who channels his rage through a diligent combination of therapy, productive redirection, visibly maturing, and, judging by his musculature, spending twenty hours a day at L.A. Fitness. His best pal Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) is still a dimwitted horndog, but he’s also an actor in middling films who thinks a Lifetime Christmas movie would be a sweet gig, especially if it involved one or more hot babes. But at least someone thinks he’s employable.

Keith Mars, ex-sheriff turned PI, has also changed, but not in the best of ways. At 56 years not-old, he’s struggling with random memory lapses. Sometimes it’s as simple as forgetting a question he asked two minutes ago. Sometimes it’s neglecting to load a gun before a possible firefight. Either way his line of work and his survival thereof require top mental form. It may be side effects of the car crash he endured a few years ago, or it may be something far worse.

Most drastically changed: Veronica’s cute ol’ doggie Backup, because the show is fifteen years old and, barring a science fiction solution, he’s dead. That realization was grimmer than anything this season gave us. Quick research confirms, per Rob Thomas himself, in terms of VM canon Backup passed away offscreen before the movie, a victim of doggo life-expectancy math.

Odd thing: though many things and people have changed, Veronica hasn’t. She’s still acerbic, still reflexively skeptical, and still attached to Logan. She flinches hard when her main man, in a better frame of mind in every way imaginable, tries to upgrade their relationship status. Even though she has degrees from two prestigious universities, she’s still working as a PI with her dad in the same old office in the same old town. An old season-3 foe notes with no small amount of amusement she’s still working the same job she had in high school. He may be behind bars and displaying little remorse, but even he moved on with his life and studied to become de facto legal aid for fellow inmates.

In some ways her status quo feels like a parody of countless TV shows where the showrunner and writers are allowed to shuffle some of the supporting players around, tweak them here and there, give the actors some space to try occasional different things instead of reprising the same shticks for seven to ten seasons. Veronica by contrast finds herself centralized as the one fixed point in their solar system. Their orbital positions may revolve around her, but by fiat from above — network? producers? fans? — she must ever remain the motionless core lest the gravitational pulls of either low ratings or online fan rage tear their entire galaxy apart. She’s comfy that way, but as the season wears on, more than a few citizens of Neptune need her to be better than that.

Keith Mars!

“Mind if I solve some cases too, or should I stop ignoring those offers for a Just Shoot Me reunion?”

Speaking of which: Neptune, the beach resort that walks like a town, grapples with change in the middle of spring break, a.k.a. their busiest holiday season. With the middle class driven to extinction and/or too boring for the writers to contemplate, Neptune has devolved into a civil war of sorts, the filthy rich versus the working-class downtrodden. As the punchable face of the easily caricatured 1%, Dick’s dad Dick Senior (David Starzyk), released from his season-two prison sentence, leads the movement to gentrify the beachfront, erase the poor, and get rich pretending to make Neptune safe from blue-collar crime. Anyone who’s not Big Dick and who has lines of dialogue is against the plan, including the local grocery owner (Francois Chau from The Expanse) who believes his store is the last refuge for needy families who can’t afford to shop at any of Neptune’s other groceries. This is the exact opposite of real-life America, where big-box stores continue to exterminate mom-‘n’-pop grocers by severely undercutting prices, but presumably Neptune’s moneyed paradise welcomes Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods overpricing their upscale wares on every other street corner. It’s only a food desert for those who can’t afford ticket prices to get past the organic velvet rope.

Everyone calls time-out on class warfare for a few minutes when a bomber strikes at the local motel, ruining the spring-break party vibe and killing four unrelated people: the motel owner, a Mexican college student, a buff dudebro nobody misses, and a young lady from a trailer-park family in a Romeo-and-Juliet coupling with a senator’s brother. The rest of the season follows the ensuing ripples across the victims’ lives. Matty Ross, the motel owner’s teen daughter (Izabela Vidovic, an occasional flashback-Kara on Supergirl), vows to solve the case and becomes Veronica’s protege. The student’s mom beseeches her ex-husband, an all-powerful cartel leader, to send assassins for revenge (including the great Clifton Collins, Jr., from Capote and Babel). The fiancée’s death sparks a powder keg of conflict between the Arab-American senator who would’ve been her brother-in-law and the Jerry Springer guests who represent for her own bloodline. As for the dead dudebro…well, no one mourns, really. I can’t even remember his name. Chad Hunksteak or whatever.

A plethora of subplots, each spawning their own tangents, means a long list of suspects with an array of potential motives…which in turn invites the question of which casualty was the intended victim. The case gets further obscured when more explosions follow,. seemingly without pattern. Once again for Team Mars, the game is afoot.

Other familiar faces come and go to varying degrees. Veronica’s ex-friend Weevil (Francis Capra) tries to be the leader his gang needs, but — much like Veronica, whether she’ll admit it or not — his life is a series of compromises leading to ends that are more rationalized than justified. Ex-deputy Leo (New Girl‘s Max Greenfield) is now an FBI agent who fondly recalls the days when Veronica traded him food for police secrets. Daran Norris (Cosmo from Fairly OddParents) once again embodies one of TV’s greatest ambulance chasers as Cliff McCormack, the Mars family’s favorite affordable defense attorney. And you can feel waves of sleaze sloshing at your ankles when Ken Marino oozes back into town as scuzzy rival PI Vinnie Van Lowe.

Numerous other standbys cameo here and there for inadequate screen time with varying degrees of familiarity. (Anne and I took turns digging into our fading memories. I remembered Max’s face. She remembered Liam Fitzpatrick’s last name.) Absentees are remembered, some more fondly than others. Most of the Kane family is MIA, including Lily’s ghost (she haunts instead via multiple mentions). Mac the hacker gets a one-sentence explanation of why she’s on another continent, either still enjoying her old Grey’s Anatomy paychecks or recovering from the last season of Scorpion. Nice-guy ex-boyfriend Piz is the butt of a single throwaway joke and never regarded again.

New faces? of course there are! Some producer saved up enough cash to lure in J.K. Simmons, improver of any and every scene he touches, as Big Dick’s former prison pal turned valuable personal assistant, the Dark Alfred to his Evil Idiot Bruce Wayne. (Simmons has come a long, long way from Oz‘s Vern Schillinger, but has mastered new, subtler forms of entertaining intimidation.) Internet jester-sage Patton Oswalt is priceless as a bitter pizza guy who moonlights as a grade-A satire of amateur internet detectives (whose cadre includes Clark Duke from The Office). Former teen star Dawnn Lewis (A Different World) is the new sheriff in town, perpetuating the grand tradition of Neptune law enforcement with no respect or use for a Mars. Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Killing Eve) is the series’ latest underutilized black female, following in the storied footsteps of Sidney Poitier’s daughter and Tessa Thompson. Though she brings some much-needed brass tacks to the proceedings, her final scene with Veronica all but doubles as an exit interview, and it’s entirely Veronica’s fault.

JK Simmons!

He ain’t here for more pictures of Spider-Man.

With so much going on and so many names to track, weaknesses are inevitable as the writers once again get ambitious with their plate-spinning. The case of the grocery’s mysterious rat problem is wrapped up offscreen with a single line of dialogue. Keith’s medical problem, a source of intense gravitas for 7½ episodes (culminating in its most heartbreaking moment in front of a vending machine), leads up to a resolution that’s arguably realistic but dashed off so speedily that it’s about as satisfying as “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.” For lack of an actual denouement, the Mexican cartel arc simply excuses itself when it decides it’s done with viewers. The road-tripping assassins have their scary moments, but mostly they’re reduced to cheap comic relief, which is a curious role to assign to two characters prone to occasional decapitation. (But it’s TV-14 decapitation, like Lord of the Rings, so it’s cool if they turn into Laurel and Hardy when they’re off the clock, I guess.)

The central mystery of the bombings, while littered with red herrings, works out a bit more satisfyingly than some past cases, though it was a bit telling and annoying that the bomb forensics were withheld for as many episodes as possible so we wouldn’t hear the word “nails” too many times in a row and start piecing disparate things together. To her credit and my incredulity, Anne managed to guess 60% of the solution by the end of the first episode. Watching all those basic-cable true-crime shows really paid off for her here.

For me, the show’s new format took some of the pleasure out of its trademark whodunit aspect. It’s cool that Hulu was game to revive the show after all these years, but dropping all eight episodes at once left viewers with no time to dwell on each episode’s new developments, no time to form our own fan theories, no time to argue with friends over whose killer theory was brightest or dumbest, and very little space for really feeling that tense emotional state of not knowing whether our guesses are right or wrong. I mean, you could space your viewings farther apart at your discretion, but then you run the risk of running afoul of other fans’ post-season, spoiler-filled nattering, not unlike this very entry.

Overall, though, Veronica Mars season 4 was the closest return-to-form adventure we’ve enjoyed in Neptune since season 2. All my old favorites remained as much, and I stopped hating Logan after all these years. His snarky high-school banter was among the show’s best dialogue, but I had no patience for his increasingly short-fused temper and no reason to regard it a positive feature. His efforts to acknowledge his sins and work on his flaws in mature ways very nearly counted as inspirational, which is not a thing that happens in Neptune too often.

By contrast, Veronica aggravated me at first as she relapsed into her old destructive patterns and wallowed in her stubborn, defiant behavioral rut. It was nice to see her slowly work through her inborn status as yet another TV main character who resisted change on principle unless it was change that suited her old habits. Eventually she’s exposed to enough change — and enough fears realized — that she has no choice but to deal with it and become someone more than a breezy Harriet the Spy using her espionage and surveillance skills to make a living and to spite unlikable classmates.

The season finale is not necessarily shaped like a satisfying series finale, but we could see its final shocking surprises coming a few minutes before they arrived and probably made other fans cry. Anyone who’s watched too many Joss Whedon shows knows that when things are getting too happy, heartbreak is obviously right around the corner, waiting to crush hopes, dreams, and happy endings. We extend our sincerest condolences to other gravely wounded binge-watchers still reeling out there after that final, fatal, unfair explosion.

We can take comfort in at least one potential side effect: maybe we’ll get to see J.K. Simmons again. If he can return to plague Spider-Man, surely he and Keith can spar again. And maybe next time around, Veronica will roll with the changes a little more nimbly instead of waiting for her darkest fears to push her off the bench.

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