Have we always been this nostalgic about our pop culture? It seems that we live in a golden age of TV revivals, from David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks to David Milch finally having been allowed to finish the story of Deadwood. How much longer until David Simon is allowed to revisit the streets of Baltimore? And does Joss Whedon have to change his first name to David for us to get a continuation of Firefly?
Note: The following doesn’t provide outright spoilers, but it touches the line with more than one toe. If you’re majorly spoiler-averse, you may want to avoid this.
I too am wary of nostalgia porn, in particular when it ends up as more of the same, just with more wrinkles and less of the original fire. As much as I hate to say it, I didn’t think that Deadwood: The Movie told a story that was essential to the whole saga. Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks series was very much an exception in that it subverted its own fan service, giving us coffee-loving Agent Dale Cooper only to take him away and replace him by a half-witted doppelgänger. Many revivals of beloved TV series tend towards the complacent, though. I, too, pledged to bring back Veronica Mars five years ago, but the movie we got of that Kickstarter campaign was disappointing. Our TV comfort food had gone stale.
Nonetheless, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited when I saw that first teaser of a new series of Veronica Mars, because I liked the series a lot. It wasn’t perfect, but when it was good it fired on all cylinders. With a series that’s focused on character and plot, there’s no reason why a revival shouldn’t work – as long as the makers have a story to tell and know how to use their characters to tell it. The crowdfunded movie got the characters right, but it didn’t have much of a plot, and it definitely didn’t use what plot there was to develop its characters or, heavens forbid, its themes. It felt like Veronica Mars doing a few rounds in the microwave. It felt stagnant.
The Hulu-produced new series doesn’t have that problem. It succeeds exactly where the movie failed: it has an exciting, engaging plot, with meaningful twists and turns, and it uses the plot to tell us more about Veronica and the cast of characters. It is willing to make changes, even when it gives us that good, old Mars feeling. It still features what may just be the best father-daughter relationship in all of TV, but it also takes a long, hard look at its main character and calls her out on her flaws.
It’s too easy to write a Veronica Mars who’s everything we want her to be: cute, sassy, smart, always at the ready with a quip. Undoubtedly, Veronica (as always, played to perfection by Kristen Bell), is cute, sassy and smart, but for the new series, Rob Thomas has remembered that Veronica Mars is equally grounded in the noir tradition as it is in SoCal teen dramedy, and that there is a self-destructive aspect to his cute-as-a-button sleuth. Veronica has learnt, albeit understandably, not to trust anyone other than her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), not even her friends and definitely not her boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), who has come a long way since his bad-boy teenage years. She is also all too ready to use the people in her life when it serves her in in her single-minded pursuit of Veronica’s idea of justice, which more often than not looks pretty damn close to revenge. Kristen Bell proves yet again that she really is the perfect casting choice; her Veronica looks cute and harmless, which makes her darker facets all the more effective.
The Hulu series also shows quite clearly that Veronica Mars (and, indeed, Veronica Mars) belongs on TV and that the series format suits her much better than a one-off movie, even if the new series is highly serialised and focuses on one single case. It benefits from having half a dozen hours to develop its tangled tale, to draw us in with red herrings, surprise revelations and cliffhangers. The eight episodes bring back a surprising number of characters from the original series – not to tick off fan-service boxes, but as a way of bringing us back into Veronica’s world. These guest appearances serve the material, as do the new characters, in particular a local bar owner that Veronica befriends (an eminently badass Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a shady ex-con (J.K. Simmons, excellent as always) and a sharply written duo of Mexican hitmen (played by Frank Gallegos and Clifton Collins Jr with charm and menace). While we lose the blend of noir and high school drama that the original series had, the juxtaposition of hedonistic spring break California and its criminal-to-psychopathic underbelly is still as compelling as it was in the mid-’00s – although it could be argued that Thomas takes a few missteps in blending the gaudy and the dark. (It didn’t bother me, but I can definitely see how some of the series’ developments suggest too much of a kinship with Joss Whedon at his best and worst.)
In many ways, bringing back Veronica Mars was a different proposition from bringing back Twin Peaks or Deadwood. The genre lends itself to serialization: one case follows another. The series was never without thematic ambition, but formally it was happy to be well-crafted, fun, moreish genre fare. The movie didn’t fail because it did too much of the same, it failed because it gave the impression that the creative team launched the Kickstarter because of their affection for the cast of characters, not because they already had a story they wanted to tell. The new series’ writing shows Thomas and his collaborators at their best most of the time: the dialogues scripts are witty and snappy and the story is exciting, apart from very few side stories that feel like padding. The new Veronica Mars knows what it wants to be and manages to be exactly this. If anything, it errs by having a different idea than many Marshmallows (which is what the series’ fans call themselves) of what the plot requires. If you’re a fan, you’ve most likely already checked this out and are either pleased as punch or cussing mad at Rob Thomas; if you haven’t, be aware that Thomas seems to be a big believer in writing not what his fans want but what he thinks his story needs. A fair few Marshmallows have ended up disagreeing considerably. As Veronica says, “I like to think I would have walked away if we didn’t need the money. Knowing what I know now I wish I had.” That’s the lot of the fan, though, isn’t it? As Alvy Singer once said, I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.