Veronica Mars S4
Hulu.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is the most badass private eye in Neptune, California. She’s a survivor. She’s a marshmallow. And thanks to Hulu, she’s back for eight brand new episodes, 12 years after the series was canceled during the CW‘s fledgling year. It’s hard to talk about Veronica Mars season four without talking about spoilers, but it’s worth noting that this season brings the show back to its roots, without sacrificing character growth or development, even as it moves into decidedly more adult territory than ever before.

When a serial bomber threatens the lives and livelihoods of beachfront business owners and spring breakers who flock to Neptune every year for a week of debauchery with their friends, Veronica and her dad Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) take on the case. What follows is a twisting, turning mystery that chews viewers up and spits them out — which is what series creator Rob Thomas has always excelled at, ever since Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was murdered in season one. And just like those first two seasons, which featured season-long mysteries that were painful to solve, season four is so, so good.

In many ways, Veronica Mars is steeped in nostalgia. Season three was cut short in 2007, after CW executives reportedly asked Thomas to change the show’s format so its season-long mysteries were replaced with shorter, tighter arcs that spanned across three to five episodes. This was supposed to draw in more new viewers, but the plan ultimately failed. However, fans weren’t willing to let the show die out quite so soon. Repeated calls for a reunion, a movie, or a new series were put out, and eventually Thomas, Bell, Colantoni and the rest of the cast crowdfunded a movie on Kickstarter, breaking all kinds of records.

Thanks to this fervor, the series has never really been allowed to die — and it’s obvious, from the core cast’s performances in season four, that they are happy to be embodying these characters again. Bell, in particular, delivers an incredibly nuanced performance as Veronica copes with her dad’s health problems, her relationship drama with Logan (Jason Dohring), and her ever-present desire to solve big, complicated cases.

Colantoni balances this performance beautifully as Keith attempts to do what’s right by his daughter, without sacrificing his own wants and needs. And then there’s Dohring, who brings a more emotionally stable, more committed, more determined Logan to the table, outshining his performance in the original series and in the 2013 film.

Surrounding these three are several newcomers, including Patton OswaltJ.K. Simmons, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who manage to imbue their characters with years of history, despite the fact that they are brand new to returning viewers. Then there are returning faces, several of whom guest-starred on Veronica Mars more than a decade ago and have since gone on to form substantial careers of their own: Max Greenfield, Ryan Hansen, Ken Marino and Darran Norris make appearances, among others. The nostalgia is real, but it doesn’t hold the season back from standing on its own two feet, thanks to the caliber of the storytelling and performances.

Hulu.

As mentioned above, Veronica Mars season four saunters into decidedly more adult territory than the previous three seasons. This is, in part, due to the fact that the show is now on Hulu, which allows the characters to curse and show skin in sex scenes. The inherent violence of the bomber plot is also more explicit, though there’s no unnecessary gore — each shot is calculated, crafted to make an impact as Veronica and Keith race to find the bomber before more people are killed.

Simultaneously, Thomas and his cast maintain similar tonality to the show’s origins. These characters have grown up; Wallace (Percy Daggs III) has a family, Veronica and Logan actually talk about things, and Keith is considering retirement. But that doesn’t mean they’ve changed completely; season four feels like an organic extension, a time jump that actually happened rather than one that was forced. It works beautifully, for both old fans and new. There are callbacks to what happened 12 years ago, often by characters who weren’t present for the traumatic events that shaped Veronica’s high school years — but nothing feels as if it’s included exclusively for the nostalgia, which is a hard balance to strike.

This new season still has its flaws. Though it attempts to address the stereotyping and racism of its Latinx characters, namely through Weevil (Francis Capra) calling Veronica out, those factors are still present in the story arc. Capra is deeply underserved by the story this season, much like he was in the film — his performance triumphs over the writing at almost every turn, but it’s still frustrating to constantly see his character sidelined even as some of the most interesting opportunities for growth exist within the framework of his arc.

Certain elements of the finale feel rushed, while others fall on tropes that could and should be avoided, after years of showrunners and other creatives trotting them out and being praised for feminist writing.

That said, this season is still an enjoyable watch. It’s well-paced, hits solid emotional beats, and gives viewers enough red herrings to make the pay-off worth it. Veronica Mars is known for its genuinely terrifying finales; soaked in sunlight, everything seems fine until it isn’t, and there’s always a question of whether these characters will live to see another day. That’s certainly true of season four, which packs a huge, unexpectedly emotional punch.

Veronica Mars returns for eight new episodes on Hulu starting Friday, July 26.

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