In ‘Veronica Mars,’ a Gumshoe Grows Up07/11/2019
When we last saw Veronica Mars, the greatest private investigator Southern California has ever birthed and tanned — shut it, Philip Marlowe — she had ducked a corporate law job and returned to Neptune, her beachside hometown, resolved to defend the weak, defy the powerful, wisecrack with the best of them. Happily ever after, on her terms.
But why be happy when you can be hard-boiled? As Veronica’s inventor Rob Thomas said, “Happy and noir don’t go well together.”
“Veronica Mars,” a snappy, sophisticated crime drama about a high school P.I., debuted in 2004 and ran for three critically celebrated but lightly watched seasons, first on UPN and then on CW, returning in 2014 for a fan-funded movie.
That seemed to be the end of it. Its star, Kristen Bell, continued a successful film and TV career. Thomas went on to create and run “iZOMBIE.” But you know the noir trope where a character thinks she has outrun her past and then the past comes on at a sprint? It applies.
In a genre-appropriate twist, the show is back, revamped for the streaming age. An eight-episode fourth season will drop on July 26 at Hulu, where the first three seasons are already available.
Reboots and revivals are as thick on the ground as Neptune beachgoers. A long-gone show that returns after so many years with its original cast, led by Bell’s Veronica, and its distinguishing style (think Dashiell Hammett after a few blender drinks) mostly intact? That’s rarer, and not without its dangers.
Continuing a beloved series after so many years risks tarnishing its legacy. (If we’re being honest, the uneven third season was risk enough.) Besides, how do you make a show about a child prodigy when that child prodigy can apply for a fixed-rate mortgage?
The season’s big mystery, according to Thomas: Is a 30-something Veronica Mars “an interesting enough character on her own to continue to attract fans?”
A few weeks ago, I met Bell on a gloomy June afternoon in her trailer on the Universal lot, an overheated box befrilled in demoralizing beige. She was in the middle of a shoot for her other show, “The Good Place,” and had two caffeinated drinks going, which partly explained the pep. (The messianic zeal she feels for Veronica explained the rest.) In her costume, a lilac sweater over an embroidered blouse and green chinos, she looked about as noir as an Easter basket.
And yet “Veronica Mars,” she said, is the show that launched her, that shaped her, that taught her comedy and responsibility and a commitment to social justice. She will quit it, she said, when everyone in Neptune is dead.
“That’s when I’ll do it,” she said, pushing her cane-sugar soprano into a lower register. “That’s when I will let her go: When the last body is buried.”
“Veronica Mars,” which The Times described, on a list of the 20 best TV dramas since “The Sopranos,” as “a peerless blend of neo-noir mystery and teenage romantic drama,” was always a show ahead of its time. Its heroine, 17 when the show began, looked like a Barbie and scrapped like a G.I. Joe. She was as quick with a comeback as with the Taser she called Mr. Sparky, but still vulnerable to problems personal and systemic.
More politically minded than your average teen soap, “Veronica Mars” had love triangles and cliffhangers and, from its first episode, a sustained interest in wealth inequality. In its depiction of gendered violence, it anticipated much of the #MeToo conversation.
“It continually kept questions about gender inequality in view,” said Susan Berridge, a lecturer in media at the University of Stirling who has written about the series. “There were so many story lines involving sexual violence and other forms of gendered abuse that it became impossible to see these issues as one-off aberrations.”
If you don’t identify as a Marshmallow, the name ride-or-die “Veronica Mars” fans adopted, here’s the back story: A onetime popular girl, Veronica became an outcast when her best friend Lilly was murdered and Veronica’s father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), then Neptune’s sheriff, mistakenly accused the town’s most powerful man. Keith lost his job and his home. Veronica’s mother deserted the family. Her former friends ostracized her. During a party, she was drugged and raped by persons unknown. At some point she gave herself a terrible haircut.
“It was an adult show about a teenage girl,” Mr. Colantoni said, speaking by telephone. “This wasn’t ‘Saved by the Bell.’”
During the first two seasons, Veronica would solve episodic mysteries while also seeking justice for Lilly and for herself. The third season, which brought Veronica to college, dispensed with the case-of-the-week in favor of longer arcs. It also assigned Veronica a nice-guy boyfriend, Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), though most fans shipped her and the poor-little-rich-boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring).
Facing cancellation, Thomas tried to interest networks in a revival that saw Veronica working for the F.B.I. No one bought it. Presumed dead, “Veronica Mars” was briefly resurrected when Thomas decided to try crowdfunding a movie. He raised $2 million in less than five hours, drawing the highest number of donors for any film or video project in Kickstarter history.
“Veronica Mars” the movie may not have been a masterpiece — The Times called it “a likable, unmemorable, feature-length footnote” — but it melted the gooey hearts of most Marshmallows. Thomas and Bell could have let their gumshoe-made-good ride into the sunset in her secondhand car, placating the fans with the occasional tie-in novels Thomas co-writes. (“‘Co-writer’ is being generous to me,” he clarified.)
But last year, Thomas called Bell and asked her if she would consider playing Veronica again. It was a big ask: Bell had already committed to a final season of “The Good Place” and a “Frozen” sequel. Also, noir involves night shoots and Bell has two young daughters, which means a lot of missed bedtime.
Weighing the commitment, Bell recalled asking herself, “Do I want a world where my daughters know she exists? Or do I think there’s enough out there for them to look to?”
“I didn’t,” she said. “And I thought, yeah, I have to do it.”
And — “this is going to sound so corny,” Bell added — she still needs “Veronica Mars” in her life, even after all this time and all her success. The show gives her a place to put both her anger at a world that is still unequal and unjust, and her faith that individuals and communities can make it better.
“Just knowing Veronica exists has allowed me to pull strength in certain situations,” she said.
This installment picks up five years after the film ended, with Veronica sleuthing alongside her dad at Mars Investigations and living, reward check to reward check, in the oceanside apartment she sometimes shares with Logan, now an active-duty naval intelligence officer. There are a few B- and C-plots, but mostly Veronica works just one case involving a series of bombings threatening Neptune’s spring breakers.
Thomas and Bell, an executive producer, chose the eight-episode format partly because that’s all Bell’s “Good Place” schedule allowed, but also because they were impressed by what shows like “Fargo” and “Sherlock” were able to do in short seasons. They sold the show to Hulu, which was also able to acquire the past seasons. Craig Erwich, Hulu’s senior vice president of originals, described the revival as “an opportunity to see a beloved character grow up.”
Unlike the movie, this new season doesn’t pander — a few Marshmallows may feel scorched. The emphasis on wealth inequality and structural bias is, if anything, starker. The moral palette is grayscale, and the tone (Thomas described it on Twitter as “Hardcore So-Cal noir”) is dark, though maybe not that dark. “There are a lot of jokes,” Thomas said. “I don’t think we can go full ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’”
Though the earlier seasons of “Veronica Mars” shot in San Diego, the show relocated its exteriors to Huntington Beach, nearer to Los Angeles, where Bell lives. Certain sets, like the Mars Investigations office, have been faithfully re-created and shouldn’t upset continuity hard-liners, though Thomas is wary of checking his Twitter feed once the episodes drop.
The dialogue has stayed slangy. “What’s with the fakeloo, our mark’s no Jasper,” Keith scolds Veronica in the fourth episode. (Among this season’s writers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “It never got normal,” Thomas, a basketball fan, said worshipfully.) And Veronica can swear now, though not much. The sex scenes are a little more explicit, the relationships a little more complicated and the emotions real, just like they used to be. “Even when we were teenagers, we all meant it,” Dohring said.
Here’s the big change: A former child prodigy who could out detect men decades older, Veronica has become age appropriate, maybe even immature when it comes to her personal life. (If the series followed real time, Veronica would now be about 32, but these episodes edge her into her mid-30s, closer to Bell’s age.) Thomas wondered if her superpowers — her bravery, her righteous anger, her lack of interest in what others think of her — would seem as impressive on an adult woman. (Speaking as an adult woman: Yes.)
I spoke to Thomas on the telephone a few hours before I met with Bell. Before we hung up, I asked him what he thought I should ask her.
“Ask for her window of availability in 2020,” he said. “That’s what I want to know.”
So I did. Bell told me she had set aside a few months next spring to shoot a follow-up. “As long as people want to watch it, I will do it,” she said. (Hulu is “definitely open to the discussion” about making more of the show, Erwich said.)
But here is what I wanted to know. As a viewer, I’d grown up with Veronica, too. And I’d looked to her as a character who had survived trauma and had accepted how that trauma had changed her, without ever having to sacrifice her humor or her mean-street smarts or her self-confidence. “Veronica Mars was this girl that other girls and boys could look to as an option of what to do with pain, and how not to let it sink you,” Bell said.
So would she ever get that pony? Would we ever see her happy?
“I don’t think we want to,” she said, speaking as Marshmallow in chief. “We want to see her match lit. We want to keep her fight in her. When she’s truly content, the story will be over.”
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