A snarky high schooler moonlighting as a private investigator sounds like the basis for laugh-out-loud bad television, and Veronica Mars’ three seasons had the low ratings to prove it. But Kristen Bell’s pint-sized PI was among the richest characters ever to grace the small screen, and her miraculous, Kickstarter-funded resurrection plays as equal parts fan service and stand-alone triumph.
Nine years on from the series’ downbeat end, the formerly obsessive and law-bending Veronica has “gone legit”, swapping the dangers of detective work for a blossoming legal career in Manhattan much to her father’s (Enrico Colantoni) relief. But she’s pulled irresistibly back to her California hometown by a murder mystery involving several former classmates and her ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring), for whom she still harbours strong feelings.
Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero are plainly conscious of the literal debt they owe their fans (the first shot of series heartthrob Logan borders on meta) but newbies won’t be alienated.
Dialogue this sharp and plotting this shrewd require no introduction, and while the chemistry between actors – notably Bell and Dohring – is palpable there’s no gratuitous sense of getting the band back together. Some familiar faces are inevitably short-changed by the lean running time; Tina Majorino’s savvy hacker Mac and Ryan Hansen’s perennial frat boy Dick are stand-outs, while Chris Lowell’s nice-but-dull Piz feels superfluous.
The series’ gumshoe tropes are present and correct – Veronica’s hardboiled narration and knack for disguises, the corrupt cops standing in her way – and while the case is essentially generic it unfolds with a poignancy that demonstrates Thomas’ affinity for the darker side of young social dynamics.
Neptune is still a town run by class warfare and celebrity worship, and the latter inspires a gloriously self-parodying cameo from James Franco. The great pleasure here is watching Bell re-inhabit an older, wiser but still scrappy Veronica, whose blend of steely resolve, sharp-as-a-tack instincts and emotional vulnerability remains enthralling.
Never mind the Kickstarter success story – a character-driven crime mystery that relies on investigation rather than action is a rare, delightful thing in itself.
An emotionally rewarding reunion tour for established fans and a taut, sharp-tongued, character-driven thriller for all, Veronica Mars makes a compelling case for its heroine’s continued existence.