No marshmallows here: Veronica Mars season 4 pulls no punches

’s fourth season—the first time the once-teen private investigator has appeared on screen since 2014, and the first new season for the TV series since 2007—pulls no punches, and it’s brutally honest about its characters.

No, it wouldn’t make sense if contemporary Veronica Mars was full of that classic, youthful energy and potential after spending her late 20s and early 30s in a dead-end PI job in a dead-end town surrounded the proverbial ghosts of dead friends.

So she’s not. It makes for good, modern, prestige television. It’s gripping, emotionally powerful, and poignant. But it’s not any fun at all; it’s not even trying to be.

is—and there is no hyperbole whatsoever here—my personal favorite TV series of all time. I have a poster signed by the entire cast in my home office. I can’t overstate my level anticipation for the return of this series on Hulu, and I’m not alone.

So does Hulu’s season four relaunch satisfy longtime series fans like me, and maybe you? It depends on what those fans liked about seasons one through three, because this run zeroes in on the darkest aspects of the show and its central character above all else. It’s excellent and worth a watch for fans new and old, but it’s not filling the same shoes that the first three seasons did.

Goodbye youthful optimism, hello new-style storytelling

Hulu’s isn’t interested in being a fun-quip-filled retread, an escapist fantasy, or an inspirational, feel-good bout of fan service—that’s what the fan-backed 2014 movie was for. Instead, it extrapolates the themes and characters of the original series with piercing honesty into a later phase of life and a wholly different world, often to heartbreaking effect.

If you’re coming in looking for upbeat ’00s nostalgia, you’re not getting it here. But what you get instead is an excellent and authentically written exploration of one of TV’s best characters—Veronica herself.

In the course of the 2014 movie, Veronica left behind almost-guaranteed success at a big New York City law firm to take up a private investigator practice in her troubled hometown of Neptune. Part of that was driven by her rekindled relationship with old flame Logan Echolls, and part of it was because it’s simply in her nature to fixate on the pains of the past.

And fixate on those season four does. Veronica has reached a point where she’s not growing as a person, she’s not happy, and she’s kind of just over everything. She is often emotionally shooting herself in the foot with the people who are trying to love and care for her.

As much as it is a murder mystery, season four is a character study of a Veronica Mars who has entered her 30s without any interest in dreaming of a better future. That makes for a different show than what we watched in the ’00s. Part of the appeal of Veronica’s character was always her indomitable courage and moxie in the face of horrible circumstances. As a hero, her super power wasn’t just her sleuthing skills—it was her ability to stay focused on what matters in the midst of a mess.

season four teaser trailer—spoiler-free!

That’s not the Veronica we see here. Rather than try to replicate that youthful energy in the first run of the show, this relaunch is honest about how a character with the kind of history and personality Veronica has would end up after the choices we’ve seen her make. It’s hard to watch, but I admire the show’s no-BS commitment to the character. The new season is gripping from one episode to the next. You find yourself desperately rooting for her to rediscover her old self.

Maybe this season hit me particularly hard because it was so relatable. When I was in my 20s—when I watched and loved the first run of —I predicted my 30s would be the best years of my life. I’d have established myself, I’d have nothing left to prove, and I’d finally feel comfortable in my skin.

It turns out that, like Veronica, I’ve instead accumulated enough damage to spend half of my 30s struggling not to despair as I’ve tried and often failed to muster the courage to address what I don’t love about myself or the choices I’ve made. The parallels are uncomfortably strong. Chances aren’t too bad that if you enjoyed the original series during its first run, you’re at just the right age now to have a similar experience. It’s a powerful one, if so, and one worth having. My favorite shows are those that manage to feel personal like that. This is one of them.

This season has an even more profound an effect on me than the first run did. It has already embedded itself into my psyche, like those rare other works of art that became contextual keystones for understanding one’s own life. By fiercely challenging the characters I love like friends, it has forced me to challenge myself.

Season 4 is exquisitely written, directed, and performed. It’s extremely good. I didn’t enjoy it exactly like I did the original run; I enjoyed it in a different way. But maybe TV isn’t something we should expect to always enjoy in the same way as we used to.

Turning pre-prestige TV into prestige TV

There have been no shortage of TV reboots and relaunches lately, but I don’t think many of them take as hard a turn into new territory as does here. The formula of popular, critically acclaimed television has changed since season three aired back in 2007, though it was among the shows hinting at what was to come.

In many cases, gone today are the mystery-of-the-week shows, at least where cable and streaming networks are concerned. Series are serial sagas, with resolution in any individual episode other than a mid-season, season, or series finale uncommon.

Whereas most TV dramas in the ’80s and ’90s sought to comfort audiences with static characters who felt like home, today’s TV often looks to challenge and shock. Heroes are rarer than before; anti-heroes are the norm. Shows revel in the pain endemic in their characters’ personal flaws—that is, if they don’t kill them off first.

Some TV relaunches are developed on the assumption that viewers want the comfort food of the earlier era. But others, like this one, throw out the old formula in favor of what’s trendy in TV today. Audiences have evolved, the argument goes, and so too must the shows.

To that end, the teen-oriented, mystery-of-the-week B-stories from of yore are gone. It’s all about the big bad now. And as mentioned, Veronica is different, too. She’s not so much inspiring anymore as she is relatable to anyone else who has ever felt short on hope.

Kristen Bell (who plays Veronica across the series) gave an interview not long before the new season premiered claiming that the world needs heroes like Veronica, who we can root for as we sit in the shadow of a real world that feels more grim and less optimistic than it has been in recent memory.

I felt that interview set up me up for a surprise, because that is not how I would describe this new season. And there’s one major shocker in the final episode that, while profoundly effective today, might not have been well-received in that lost era of comfort TV.

The route showrunner Rob Thomas and Hulu take with this season is undoubtedly the truest to the characters, though. It might have felt insincere to try and recapture the feeling of the original run, which was in more ways than one from another age.

And for a show that so smartly covered issues like gentrification, America’s deep racism problems, class warfare, sexual assault, tech and privacy, and so many more problems that are even more critical now than they were then, it makes sense to tackle those issues directly with a modern voice in the new season. For example, the new season develops villains who feel disturbingly similar to the toxic people we grapple with every day in 2019. , I lament, even as I nod with emotional and intellectual resonance with everything that happens on screen.

I used to believe in the theory that, when the world around us gets grimmer, uplifting escapism (like, say, classic ) is called for and rises in popularity. When things around us appear to be going relatively well (at least for those of us in the viewing audience), we have more emotional energy for dark, emotionally draining tales like .

So far, the past couple of years have proven that theory wrong. The world has gotten darker, and TV has just kept on getting darker with it. I miss the mystery of the week. I miss the youthful moxie. And I think Veronica’s character was most compelling with the juxtaposition between the direness of her circumstances and the humor and spark she had in her younger years.

Season four is just as successful as its predecessors in other ways. But it’s so different it doesn’t feel like the same show, despite numerous allusions to its past peppered across its eight episodes. But—and I’m not just talking about this show alone—this is TV now. I like modern TV, but I also don’t, because I wish there was more room for both modes at the Netflixes and Hulus of the world.

season four is  good. Its final moments left me in stunned, emotional silence for nearly an hour—a sign of a well-executed and powerful work of art, to be sure. It’s entirely worthy of its legacy. But like 30-something Veronica, it’s not messing around. She grew up—so viewers have to, too.

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