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'Veronica Mars' Offers More Than Nostalgia; She's Always Been A Survivor

Kristen Bell is back as the wry title detective in Hulu's new season of <em>Veronica Mars.</em>
Kristen Bell is back as the wry title detective in Hulu's new season of Veronica Mars.

The original Veronica Mars premiered on television 15 years ago, which, in TV terms, was a whole different era. David Milch's HBO series Deadwood, which just reunited its cast for a fabulous TV movie, premiered that year. So did two major hits for ABC, Lostand Desperate Housewives. And 2004 also brought us the premiere of NBC's The Apprentice.

Kristen Bell hit the ground running that year as Veronica Mars, an outcast high school student in the fictional beach town of Neptune, Calif. She worked part-time as an investigator for her dad's private eye firm, like a modern-day Nancy Drew — with a little bit of Sam Spade mixed in.

A lot of time has passed since then, and a lot has happened to Veronica. By the end of the original series, she had gone from high school to college. In the 2014 movie, she abandoned law school. And now, as the new eight-episode Veronica Mars begins, she's on familiar ground. Back in her home town, she's again working for her dad's detective agency — and still providing her own wry narration as she comments on her life then and now.

This new season of Veronica Mars was supposed to arrive on July 26, but Hulu presented a Mars panel at the San Diego Comic-Con fan festival on July 19, which happened to be a day after Bell's 39th birthday. Hulu surprised the actress, and the fans — and TV critics — by unveiling the entire new season early, as a sort of birthday present. So viewers can now see all of Veronica Mars — the tele-movie is available on HBO, and the show's first three vintage seasons, and the new fourth one, are streaming on Hulu.

The new season borrows a bit from Jaws, with a series of deaths threatening to close down the beach town during the summer tourist season. Except it's not a shark doing the killing — it's a serial bomber, and there are plenty of suspects to go around. The new players this season all are very strong additions: Patton Oswaltplays a pizza deliverer and conspiracy theorist, J.K. Simmons plays an ex-con working for the town bigwig, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste plays a bar owner who's even tougher, and more independent, than Veronica. But the best element of this new Veronica Mars season, by far, is the returning cast.

Give Bell lots of credit. She's as good with the rapid dialogue and shifting emotions here as she is with the surrealistic sarcasm of NBC's The Good Place or her musical numbers as Anna in Disney's Frozen. And while she gets to play opposite many old, familiar characters and actors — to identify them would be to ruin part of the fun — the heart of this new season comes from Veronica's interactions with two key men in her life.

One is Jason Dohring as Logan, who was described in the original Veronica Mars pilot as the school's "obligatory psychotic jackass." Veronica's opinion of Logan has grown significantly, and so has the character. The other prominent person in Veronica's current life is her father Keith — portrayed, as always, by Enrico Colantoni, whose playful parental byplay with his daughter is as funny and as fast as anything ever heard on The Gilmore Girls.

There's a lot to enjoy here. The characters are drawn so deeply by creator Rob Thomas and his staff, that you truly care about them — the new ones as well as the returning favorites. And like the recent Deadwood TV reunion movie, there's a lot more going on in this new Veronica Mars season than mere nostalgia. The show's theme song is sung by a new artist this season, but still begins with the same telling, clear-eyed lyrics: "We used to be friends ..."

The character of Veronica Mars doesn't have it easy in this new batch of shows, but, like the show itself, she's a survivor. Veronica Mars, as a TV drama, has outlived UPN, been shown on the CW and HBO, and has found a new home on Hulu. And I'm betting this new, excellent season of Veronica Mars will not be the last we'll hear from her — or see of her.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.