Veronica Mars Has a Bitter New Edge

Hulu's Season 4 is moodier than the original series and less nostalgic than the film revival. But its darker sensibility yields a strangely cynical story.

Michael Desmond / Hulu

In the canon of 2000s teen TV protagonists, Kristen Bell’s plucky private eye Veronica Mars carved out a category all her own. She was “the patron saint of teenage misfits,” as Nolan Feeney once wrote for The Atlantic, a hero who stood up for the outsiders and who, despite her somewhat improbable side hustle, felt real. When the series began, she was at her lowest point, as a former member of the popular crowd whose life fell apart after the murder of her best friend. On the outside, she was confident and dryly witty; on the inside, she was insecure, traumatized, and angry. Her investigations tackled such issues as wealth inequality, sexual assault, and racism in Neptune, the fictional California town that formed the series’ noir-drenched setting.

For the three seasons it ran before low ratings led to its cancellation in 2007, Veronica Mars was always more mature than the typical teen drama, blending whip-smart dialogue, character-driven story, and socially conscious themes. Season 4, forthcoming from Hulu on July 26 (and the series’ second revival, after the Kickstarter-funded film in 2014), shares those genes, remixing the show’s trademark elements to produce its darkest iteration yet. Veronica Mars has gotten a warier, moodier makeover (just check out those True Detective–style opening credits), with higher stakes, a deeply cynical sensibility, and an ending that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

If the 2014 film revival was a nostalgic tour of Neptune, replete with cameos and heavy-handed callbacks, this second resurrection removes those rose-colored reunion glasses, picking up five years after the story left off. Veronica is still working as a P.I., barely making rent and keeping Mars Investigations afloat with her father, Keith (played by Enrico Colantoni). When she was a teenager, being a detective made Veronica a persnickety wild card, a troubled and talented outsider at Neptune High. Now she calls herself an “addict” to her toxic town. She’s just another alumna who failed to leave, someone who tasers a would-be mugger during her early-morning run with the ease and the boredom of accomplishing a chore.

Keith, who was injured in a car crash that figured in the plot of the film, limps and walks with a cane these days, and his memory is becoming worryingly spotty. Veronica’s boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring), gets abruptly called away on Navy duties every few months. As for Veronica’s friends, Weevil (Francis Capra) has backslid into crime, Wallace (Percy Daggs III) is a family man, and Mac (Tina Majorino) is out of town. No wonder, then, that Veronica bristles when her past gets brought up. “They did an article on you in Vanity Fair, right?” a new character asks her early in the season. “Eight column inches,” she responds sarcastically. “As you can see, it set me up for life.”

The season’s overarching mystery begins with the bombing of a local motel just as what Veronica calls the “month-long bacchanal” of spring break begins. Four people are killed, and the crime attracts the attention of several different groups in and around Neptune. A local gang wants to capitalize on the chaos. A Mexican cartel seeks revenge. A powerful political family tries to protect its reputation. And a group of true-crime-obsessed “murder heads” led by Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), a pizza-delivery guy hit with shrapnel from the blast, competes with the Marses to solve the crime.

Some of the resulting story lines are classic Veronica Mars: Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), whose motel-owner father died in the bombing, is a teenager seeking retribution. At the local nightclub, Nicole (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a woman with a keen business sense and a mean right hook, presides over good old-fashioned Neptune debauchery. The town’s wealthy set—embodied by the real-estate magnate Richard “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk) and his right-hand man, Clyde (an unnerving J. K. Simmons)—is up to its shady dealings. That’s a lot to juggle for one P.I.; luckily, it’s been a long time since Veronica did this as an after-school activity.

A grown-up Veronica Mars, in the hands of the showrunner Rob Thomas, also means a grittier, more violent Veronica Mars. The upgrade doesn’t always work. The eight new episodes feature decapitations, a shootout, and even a particularly gruesome collar bomb. One ongoing subplot focuses on a pair of bloodthirsty assassins hired by the cartel to find the bomber—and no spoilers here, but the season finale leans especially hard into the show’s newfound penchant for brutality. These developments feel outside of Veronica’s wheelhouse. While the show’s original run led to some jaw-dropping turns (a bus carrying high schoolers plummets off a cliff; a plane explodes in midair), it never lost sight of Veronica’s actual skill in planting trackers and outsmarting criminals. She’s not a female Rambo; she’s a careful sleuth, and her most engaging cases were always grounded in insightful character development.

Still, her new adventures make for an incredibly bingeable whodunit, and the biggest strength of the show continues to lie in Veronica and Keith’s relationship. Bell and Colantoni are as capable as ever, slipping easily back into their familiar father-daughter rhythms; their verbal sparring, with each other and with everyone around them, makes the show worth watching. And as Keith continues to show his age, their relationship changes, leading the season to probe thoughtful questions that the series could ask only an older Veronica: If Keith retires one day, will Mars Investigations be worth saving? Can Veronica continue to pursue such an isolating lifestyle? After all these years, is she truly a hero for unearthing people’s private pasts?

In its cynicism, the fourth season plumbs a hard truth: Just as Veronica can’t close every case, she can’t ensure that the life she’s building will be a fulfilling one. The original Veronica Mars was in some ways a teenage fantasy—a shunned young woman using her skills to empower herself and her peers. This season, even with its unusually far-fetched plot twists, brings Veronica down to the crushing reality of adulthood.