Not many TV shows get a second act after cancellation. Even fewer get a third.
But not every TV show is "Veronica Mars," the neo-noir high school series that ran on UPN from 2004-2006, and then on CW for a third season, before its cancellation devastated its loyal fans. In 2014 the series was revived into a feature film funded by fans in a Kickstarter campaign. But Neptune, California, private investigator Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) wasn't done yet.
"Veronica" is back, for an eight-episode revival on Hulu (streaming now, ★★★½ out of four), part of a trend of returning hit network sitcoms and cult dramas for belated sequel seasons, which has also resurfaced shows from "Roseanne" to "Gilmore Girls" with characters who are a decade (or two) older but perhaps no wiser.
Veronica isn't any wiser, either, but thankfully she doesn't feel like a high-school gumshoe in adult clothing. The fourth season is far superior to both the Kickstarter film (which was fun but slight) and the recent string of other revivals. With its themes of classism and systemic corruption, "Veronica" seamlessly translates into 2019. Unlike "Murphy Brown" or "Will & Grace," it isn't stuck in the past. Bell and series creator Rob Thomas also thankfully left the fan service behind and stuck to logical, smart storytelling.
One of the biggest strengths of the new season is its reckoning with the 2014 film, which leaned much further into nostalgia. In the movie, Veronica abandons her plans to seek employment at a high-profile New York City law firm – and her relationship with good-guy college sweetheart Piz (Chris Lowell) – and returns to Neptune to set up shop at her father Keith's (Enrico Colantoni) private-investigation agency. She also rekindles her relationship with sometime high-school boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring).
As wonderful as it was to see Veronica return to Neptune and the beloved characters – including sometimes criminal Weevil (Francis Capra), Veronica's best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and carefree party boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) – the casual way she threw away her New York life was jarring. But the new season doesn't shy away from the enormity of Veronica's choice to abandon her legal career (just think of the student loans!) to establish her as the kind of down-and-out detective who populates pulpy dime-store novels that inspired the series.
The new mystery revolves around a series of bombings during Neptune's lucrative spring-break season, which may be part of a conspiracy to kill the tourist industry and free up high-priced real estate. Mars Investigations is hired by a wealthy congressman, whose brother's fiancé dies in the first explosion, to investigate what happened.
It takes a couple episodes for the bombing mystery to really take off. As in her high-school years, it's full of twists, weird evidence and red herrings, but those take a backseat to the relationships. Considering the Kickstarter film had a scant two hours to deal with a couple as complicated as Veronica and Logan – with their breakups and traumas – the new episodes take their sweet, necessary time painting both as adults.
Logan – once the perennial screw-up with a snarky retort for every conversation – is now far more emotionally evolved than Veronica, attending therapy and excelling in a military career. Veronica, who was so mature in high school that she showed up many of Neptune's adults, has regressed, shying from commitment and responsibility. But they're trying to make it work, in their very damaged way. It's a perfect example of how stories about committed couples can still be engaging, long after the will-they-won't-they drama has ended.
The season adds new faces, including J.K. Simmons as a gleeful ex-con working for Dick's father and real-estate mogul Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk) and a hilarious Patton Oswalt as a sad-sack pizza guy who's injured in a bombing and tries his hand at an amateur investigation. Veronica also gets a harsh look in the mirror from teen Matty (Izabela Vidovic), who loses her father to a bomb and has more than a little Veronica Mars in her.
Writers' willingness to add new characters and leave old ones who've outlived their usefulness behind (sorry, Wallace), is another strength of the new season. "Veronica" doesn't pretend it's still 2004. She's a 30-something woman who still works her high-school job, and there's no pretending it's glamorous. And for this genre, and this character, the themes of wasted potential and existential angst fit perfectly. It's darker than the movie and even (sometimes) the original series, but Veronica was never going to sail off happily into the sunset, anyway.
Why not tell some good stories while she struggles?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Veronica Mars': Hulu's season is the best modern TV revival