Veronica Mars and the Case of the Angry Fandom
All episodes of season 4 of Veronica Mars premiered a week early at San Diego Comic-Con on July 19, much to the delight of fans who had been waiting five years for a return to Neptune, California. And for the most part, this return to the world of Veronica Mars is a welcome trip. At its best, season four reminds Veronica Mars fans, who call themselves Marshmallows (a reference to the angry exterior, yet kind interior, of the show’s heroine) why they fell in love with the show in the first place. At its worst, the new season indulges in some of its laziest writing ever and betrays the goodwill of its fans.
Rob Thomas’ neo-noir about Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), a high school outcast who helped her ex-sheriff father solve mysteries at his private investigation business, never got strong ratings, but was a critical darling and amassed a cult following in its short time on the CW network. It found new life after its cancellation, first on DVD box sets, then with a 2014 Kickstarter-backed movie (which many would argue was 100 minutes of fan service), then with two books set in the show’s fictional town of Neptune, California. When Hulu announced a limited series revival announced last year, Marshmallows rejoiced.
This season of “Veronica Mars” announces itself as a streaming show right off the bat. The opening title sequence is now a “True Detective”-style melange. While characters don’t drop F-bombs, the reasoning being a funny competition between Veronica and her father for who can go the longest without saying the word, they do say every other of George Carlin’s esteemed seven words. The show depicts beheadings and explosions in graphic detail. The sex scenes are much more sexy than you’d find on prime time. And that’s just in the first episode. The CW, this ain’t.
Forget It, Veronica, It’s Neptune
Season 4 finds our hero sleuth in Neptune after moving back full-time at the end of the 2014 movie to help her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) with their PI business. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is very much on-again, when he’s not running intelligence missions with the Navy. And Veronica? She’s grown older but not up, and still refuses to deal with the decades of trauma her job has dealt her. Her refusal to handle her emotional baggage is in contrast to former bad boy Logan, who now attends therapy.
When a bomb goes off at a Spring Break hotspot in Neptune, kills four people, and injures a senator’s brother, Veronica is on the case. She uncovers a conspiracy fit for Chinatown, with corruption that goes all the way to the top.
On her way to solving the case, she runs into Neptune residents both old (almost every prominent character from the show’s original run makes an appearance) and new. Those new residents include Patton Oswalt as a murder mystery conspiracy theorist/pizza delivery guy; J.K. Simmons as a former prisoner/current frenemy to Keith; Clifton Collins Jr. as a cartel enforcer; Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the owner of a Spring Break bar; Izabela Vidovic as a teen looking for the bomber and a protege to Veronica; and Mido Hamada as the aforementioned senator. All of these characters are welcome additions to the Neptune company repertoire, and Thomas gives each character ample screen time. Oswalt especially shines with a layered performance, and Howell-Baptiste, who co-stars with Bell on NBC’s “The Good Place,” steals nearly every scene in which she appers.
As for the mystery, your mileage may vary on its effectiveness. There’s plenty of red herrings to keep couch sleuths guessing. Creator Rob Thomas has said the bombings plot this season began to take root as he reflected on his emotional response to the horrific Austin bombings of spring 2018. As a journalist who was working at the Austin American-Statesman at the time of the bombings, this plot affected me more than I thought it would, with each new bomb going off in Neptune reminding me of the chaos and uncertainty of those 19 days in Austin.
An Unlikeable Female Lead
But it also felt too disconnected for a Veronica Mars mystery. Every other big case Veronica solves throughout the show, movie, and book matters to her personally. There’s not much to tie Veronica to this case, aside from its location and the big payday that awaits her for solving it.
While watching, I found myself longing for the mysteries of the week of the show’s youth, and not just because it gave Veronica a chance to interact with more cases. Those cases of the week often reflected Veronica’s inner life back to her and helped her realize opportunities for her own growth.
Here in season 4, there’s little growth for Veronica, as Thomas has written her as an unlikeable heroine. God (and Don Draper) knows we’ve seen too many Unlikeable Male Leads in the last 15 years, so allowing a woman to take on those traits is a welcome change. But the characterization seems off, and it’s never clear if Veronica makes her self-destructive choices because of her past or because the writers saw this season as an opportunity to make everything gritty for gritty’s sake.
That being said, the character moments here—especially between Veronica and Logan and Veronica and Keith—are oftentimes more suspenseful than anything related to the Spring Break Bombings. That’s a testament to how long these actors have lived with these characters, and how much time the show’s Marshmallows have spent watching them.
In the end, this season was a mixed bag, but a mixed bag of Veronica Mars is better than most shows at their best.
Now, back to the fans for a bit. This next part will go into heavy spoilers for the ending of this season and some of season one, so if you haven’t seen all of the season, do not read past this line.
S’More Heartbreak For The Marshmallows
At the end of the season, Logan dies from a car bomb shortly after he and Veronica get married. Thomas has said that he made this decision because “there are not many shows about kickass detectives and their boyfriend at home” and because more seasons of the show, if they happen at all, will be more mystery-focused and set away from Neptune:
“I feel like these eight episodes were a step in the direction of what it’s going to be. It is going to be pulling in a new cast of characters for each mystery. These mysteries are going to feel a lot more standalone. Mystery is going to be the focus of the show.”
Thomas has also floated the idea of making a Veronica Mars franchise in which the show could be recast and remade, making her the next Nancy Drew.
As a creator, that’s Thomas’ prerogative. And the debate over whether creators owe fans anything is a tale that stretches back further than a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
An anthology show set in Neptune with different mysteries and different characters each season sounds like a lot of fun, to be honest. The more I hear about whatever a potential season five might be, the more on board I am.
But this show’s legacy is so intertwined with its fan base that gambling on the death of a major character in a twist ending can understandably be seen as a slap in the face to those 91,585 fans who essentially are responsible for this season. If there had been no Kickstarter movie, the argument goes, there might not have been a season 4.
The angry fan’s disdain at the ending goes like this: Logan’s character growth, from “obligatory psychotic jackass” whose father murdered his girlfriend to Navy intel officer who dealt with his past, disappeared with a plot twist designed to move the show away from its roots.
Many fans have complained about what franchises and series “owe” them, and their arguments are usually invalid because they didn’t help make the thing they are consuming. In this case, it’s not that clear-cut, much like ethics in Neptune. Veronica Mars fans helped pay for this show’s revival on film. And in this age of shocking character deaths and Twitter outrage, especially in a post-Game of Thrones world, the Marshmallows aren’t taking the Logan news lightly.
Whatever’s next in store for Veronica Mars, I’ll still watch. And I’ll look forward to it. But I’ll be a little guarded from now on. And I’m sure the show’s fans will keep Veronica’s words in mind: “Sooner or later, the people you love let you down.”