TV on DVD Review: Veronica Mars (2019) - Season 1 (aka Season 4)

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(FTC Notice: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

Returning to the small screen once again after releasing a fan-funded feature film of the cult favorite series back in 2014 (along with two spin-off novels), upon first glance, the 2019 incarnation of Veronica Mars looks a lot like the original CW series which ran for three seasons in the early aughts. But the further we get into creator Rob Thomas' new eight episode trip to Mars on Hulu, the more we realize that although Veronica might be set once again in the perpetually sunny fictional southern California town of Neptune, the tone of this update is leaner, meaner, and certainly far more noir than it ever was before.

Reflected in the new cover of the theme song, "We Used to Be Friends," sung this time around not by The Dandy Warhols but rather Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, the tune we used to know is achier, harder, darker, and lonelier than the tongue-in-cheek original. And played once again by the one and only Kristen Bell, those are all words you could use to describe her titular character Veronica Mars this season as well. At one point asked in earnest if she had been mad after losing her best friend Lilly Kane to murder as a teen, Veronica matter-of-factly replies that she is still mad in a way that says more about her outlook on life than an entire season could.

Most at home in the apartment she shares with Logan (Jason Dorhing), when the Naval intelligence officer isn't off saving the world that is, Veronica's second happy place is the office she shares with her beloved father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). A sardonic twenty-first century So-Cal noir version of Nancy and Carson Drew, Veronica might have earned a law degree after high school but she pushed that off to the side to instead pick up a license to work alongside her dad at Mars Investigations as a private eye.

Done moonlighting as a detective the way she did when she was back in high school on the UPN turned CW series, now ten years later, she's made it legal as well as official. And it turns out it's just in time for more chaos as —  early into what she calls the month long bacchanalia that is Spring Break in Neptune — a mad bomber has decided to join in the fun while taking out four people at the spectacularly busy Sea Sprite motel in the process.

With Daniel Maloof (Mido Hamada), an up-and-coming congressman hiring Veronica and Keith Mars to figure out who's behind the bombings that maimed his younger brother and murdered his fiance, Veronica finds herself at the center of an incredibly complex case which encompasses all eight episodes of the new season.

Not the only person trying to ID the perpetrator, it seems that bombing survivor and true crime obsessive pizza deliveryman Penn Epner (outstandingly played by Patton Oswalt) is trying to do the exact same thing, as are two hitmen from a Mexican cartel (Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos) who've come to take out the person who murdered the nephew of their boss' ex-wife.

Taking a cue from True Grit, complete with a precocious protagonist who shares the same name as the young western heroine from the novel and subsequent film adaptations, as well as her tragic origin story that sets her on her dangerous quest, we meet Matty Ross (nicely brought to life by Izabela Vidovic). Having lost her father in the Sea Sprite bombing, the teenager teams up with Penn — whose online true crime group of "Murderheads" see conspiracy everywhere — along with Veronica and Keith.

A clever way to payoff on the original conceit of the series back in its 2004 launch as a whipsmart teen who — having faced overwhelming misfortune — tries to take control of her life and right some wrongs, Matty's character reminds us of teenage Veronica's strength as a rape survivor longing to find her best friend's killer. As such, the introduction of Matty would itself make for a cool cyclical callback if this was indeed the final season of the series. However, with the advent of so much male dominated TV noir in the 2010s, I cannot stress how refreshing it is to have the feminist Mars back and I certainly hope that it continues.

Rounding out the series' emphasis on badass heroines, small screen MVP Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve and Barry, among others, reunites with her co-star from The Good Place, Kristen Bell in a triumphant turn as Nicole, the owner of popular spring bar and/or meat market Comrade Quacks, who befriends Veronica while trying to stave off the push to gentrify Neptune.

Leading the fight on the opposing side is the father of Logan's best friend, Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk), who has returned home from jail with a new right hand man in Clyde (the always phenomenal J.K. Simmons) and a mission to buy up properties from struggling Neptune business owners in order to make a future killing.

With no shortage of new characters to investigate, many of our original favorites — including most of the male supporting players, such as Percy Daggs III's Wallace Fennel — find themselves shortchanged by comparison. Yet, although this season is primarily concerned with the plights of both father and daughter Mars, even those two protagonists take a backseat to the main mystery which connects them all and leads Veronica down a twisty, unpredictable path of red herrings and potential leads, including some with links to people from her past.

While humorous bit players like Ken Marino's Vinnie Van Lowe make appearances, the series also welcomes back two of my favorite charismatic supporting characters in the form of PCH biker gang member Eli "Weevil" Navarro (played by Francis Capra) as well as Veronica's former love interest Leo D'Amato (Max Greenfield), who's now working for the FBI.

The new season might begin slowly by reveling too much in the hedonism of spring break but thankfully, by the time we reach the far more noirish second episode, Veronica Mars completely sucks us in. At its best when it devotes itself to the increasingly complicated mystery rather than the comically idiotic beach scene, Thomas struggles to combine the dueling approaches early on. And this narrative unease definitely shows as we weave our way from predatory guys at Comrade Quacks to various groups of spring breakers at the Sea Sprite before the bomb goes off in depictions that feel less suited to a late twenty-something Veronica Mars mystery and more befitting of the character in her high school years.

Testing viewer patience while simultaneously introducing us to individuals who might become more important as the story moves on, while it doesn't do much to help in Rob Thomas' stated goal of moving the series away from its roots as a teen soap opera in order to become a full blown detective show, thankfully, Mars evolves into something closer to the latter as it moves on. Still not forgetting the human side, the series deftly balances out Veronica's inner struggle to put her anger and fear aside to perhaps marry the man she loves, while also worrying about her aging father who's begun to struggle with serious memory loss that he fears might put their lives on the line.

Anchored by strong performances by its cast — especially Bell whose Veronica seems to be even more hardened than she was before — 2019's Veronica Mars is a different and more contemplative spin on the original wisecracking teen detective series. Enhanced by its more cinematic approach, from a sexier reunion of Logan and Veronica (or "LoVe") as the two make love in the first episode followed by a tense, film-worthy shootout in the woods between Veronica and Keith versus the cartel several installments later, when Veronica leans into both its more mature handling as well as its terrain, we are eager as ever to follow.

Ending with an admitted deus ex machina for one character that — thanks to the devastating fate of another — is easier to forgive by comparison, Thomas and company's risky decisions go a long way in helping to propel Veronica Mars down a new path that you can foresee paying off in a potential new season.

Growing far more compelling as the season continues — while still indulging in gallows humor — this grittier incarnation of Mars underwhelmed me at first with its frat party atmosphere before soon becoming so engrossing that I found myself needing to binge watch the final three episodes back-to-back-to-back.

Though best known for its dialogue, Veronica Mars Season 4 (as it was originally billed and/or Season 1 as the DVD dubs it) has as much fun reintroducing us to old supporting players as it does setting the stage for epic action. From meeting our cartel hitman as they listen to Elvis and discuss philosophy as someone bangs for help in their trunk to a Pulp Fiction reminiscent sequence where one character reaches for and considers one weapon after another before opting for a final selection, it makes for one intensely nerve-wracking trip to Mars. With quite the knotty case to unravel over the course of eight hours, although it takes awhile to get going, Veronica Mars season 4 (or 1, depending upon your preference) marks an overall thrilling return to the small screen for one of my favorite television detectives.

As flawed as she is heroic, admittedly it's hard to see Veronica tune out Wallace or be turned on by some of Logan's most self-destructive characteristics in the first half of the new episodes when she's frustrated and/or preoccupied by a case. At the same time, however, it fits our protagonist to a T because of all the trauma that Veronica went through as a teen (and with that version of Logan before he channeled his hypermasculine behavior towards the military). Veronica gets her strength from everything she's endured, after all, which is what makes her the first in line to put everything on the line to seek out the truth and do what's right. And while this season adds a harrowing new tragedy to her life, which has predictably divided fans — including some of whom say they might not watch the series again — Thomas and his co-writers have to be applauded for their commitment to story over solely giving in to what's expected.

While I was initially unprepared for the shock to come until the seventh episode, when it started to telegraph the tragedy a little more openly, watching the season a second time in order to review it, I began to see just how smartly series writers began to drop clues as to where it was ultimately headed as early as the very first episode. Appreciating the way they foreshadowed the jaw-dropping turn of events while also pushing Veronica throughout the season to contemplate her role in Neptune as well as her overall future, it became easier to see what the writers had in store this time around and evaluate it from a narrative perspective . . . while still being heartbroken about "____," of course. Forcing her and us to consider whether or not she's just coasting and undervaluing her talents in Neptune as opposed to taking a cue from Logan and exploring the world beyond her surroundings, this season gives us a lot to think about.

Yet as daring as it might appear to be for Thomas to take such a massive risk, upon closer reflection, this move is completely on par with the shocks of Mars' first two stellar seasons. In spite of our easily nostalgic view of the series while looking back on it with rose colored glasses, Veronica Mars was never the TV equivalent of Gilmore Girls style comfort food. No, instead, just as it was in its 2004 debut, the recently relaunched Mars remains a tough series about an underdog heroine who's made stopping misogynistic rapists, killers, and villains her special mission for life. Rather than just punch them out with a sap glove a la Nicole or tase them as she does a mugger she winds up mugging in return, Veronica puts in the diligent, dangerous work so that eventually, the truth will out. As the song says, "a long time ago, we used to be friends," and it's so good to watch her continue this fight once again. Gifting longtime "marshmallows" with a compelling work of feminist small screen California noir, needless to say, with a season like this to springboard from, I look forward to seeing where in the world Mars will take Neptune's finest private eye next.

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