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The essential Veronica Mars case files

Kristen Bell in the fourth season of Veronica Mars
Photo: Michael Desmond (Hulu)

After a short time in streaming limbo—thanks for nothing, go90Veronica Mars arrives on Hulu Monday, July 1. Running for three seasons on UPN and The CW, the series followed the scholastic and investigative exploits of the titular Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), who used to be a member of the Neptune High elite—until her best friend, Lilly Kane (played in flashbacks by Amanda Seyfried) was murdered, and her sheriff dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), fingered the wrong man for the crime. The TV breakthrough for future Party Down and iZombie co-creator Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars garnered praise for its quippy dialogue, cunningly plotted mystery arcs, and deft handling of topical stories, and its cult following has twice brought it back from the dead: as a Kickstarted movie sequel in 2014, and as an eight-episode fourth season, which debuts Friday, July 26 on Hulu. Whether you’re a devoted Marshmallow revisiting the series or combing through Veronica’s high school and collegiate case files for the first time, the following episodes are the “welcome to Neptune” package you need ahead of season four.

Pilot (season one, episode one)

The Veronica Mars pilot, like all pilots, had a lengthy to-do list: Introduce the players and the setting, put the wheels of the story in motion, and start the process of doling out exposition. Being a mystery and all, Rob Thomas and company also have to launch some mysteries: “Who killed Lilly Kane?” “Who assaulted Veronica?” “What’s going on with Duncan?” “What’s up with Veronica’s mom?” That it accomplishes all those things is impressive; that Kristen Bell so instantly makes Veronica a vibrant, compelling character equally so. But it’s the establishing of the tone of this series—centered on an incredibly clever young woman whose use of language adds a sense of playfulness and surprise to even its darkest chapters—that’s most key. Veronica’s patter is contagious. Those who speak with her reflect it back to her, though she’s rarely matched. Veronica Mars is not a comedy, but sometimes it sure sounds like one, and right from the start. [Allison Shoemaker]


The Wrath Of Con” (season one, episode four)

Veronica Mars didn’t get into the PI game because she wanted to, and while this fact gives the show that bears her name a lot of thematic depth, there’s nothing obligatory about the investigations on Veronica Mars. Sometimes, they can be rip-roaring fun, like the kicky little mystery at the center of this early episode, which involves a purported prank show, an undercover mission that seemingly winks toward Alias, and a couple of dipshit brogrammers who set the standard for the type of suspects who’ll continually underestimate our heroine—to their own peril. “The Wrath Of Con” is also heavy on the flashbacks, filling out the episode with some prime material for Amanda Seyfried and beginning the work of rehabilitating Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), asshole with a heart of gold, that’ll pick up in earnest in the next episode. [Erik Adams]


Return Of The Kane” (season one, episode six)

What’s apparent about Veronica Mars from the jump is how its episodes are often busy, but never feel busy. Consider everything that “Return Of The Kane” must pay attention to, as it launches plots for Veronica and Duncan from the tried-and-true high-school drama of student elections, all the while using those plots to underline the divisions, double standards, and corruption (and how they go hand in hand) at Neptune High. And yet there’s also room for a full Logan story, his dabbling in illegal-boxing promotion and exploitation of the homeless threatening the career of his hot-shot action-star father, Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin). The Echolls family’s troubles could be an episode in of themselves, but they’re the model of economic storytelling here, shedding new light on Veronica Mars’ poor little rich boy in just a few scenes and showing how much a TV show can achieve with some well-placed FM gold and a pan to a liquor-slurping Lisa Rinna. There’s additional perspective on the show’s protagonist, too: The client of the week, pep-squad-member-turned-people’s-candidate Wanda (Rachel Roth) gradually shows herself to be a vision of all the ways Veronica’s fall from social grace could’ve gone, but didn’t. It’s a lesson taught early and often: In Neptune, appearances can (and almost always will) be deceiving. [Erik Adams]


An Echolls Family Christmas” (season one, episode 10)

What begins as one of the more lighthearted episodes of Veronica Mars (and the holiday installment, to boot!) ends with a gut-punch reminder of the life-and-death stakes of the series, the kind of expertly executed heel turn that would become one of the show’s signature moves. Veronica is hired to figure out who stole the money at Logan’s poker game—quite literally a low-stakes mystery, albeit with a high cost to ante in—while Keith is enlisted by Logan’s mother Lynn to look into a possible stalker of her husband, Aaron. The dueling cases then come to a head in the same location, as the Echolls’ annual Christmas party becomes the scene of not just both investigations being resolved (one in startlingly bloody fashion), but Veronica getting another emotionally resonant clue in the puzzle of the Lilly Kane murder. Smart, witty, and ready to pull the rug out from under its viewers—in other words, the show at its finest. [Alex McLevy]


Clash Of The Tritons” (season one, episode 12)

When people talk about the all-time great Veronica Mars episodes, “Clash Of The Tritons” doesn’t come up often. Coming after the one-two punch of “An Echolls Family Christmas” and “Silence Of The Lamb” (and right before the relatively underwhelming “Lord Of The Bling”), this episode gets lost in the shuffle, mostly remembered for moments like Veronica singing “One Way Or Another” at karaoke or the entire concept of the Tritons secret society, a plot point that is really unimportant until it’s important again. But it’s actually impressive just how integral “Clash Of The Tritons” is to the first season, and there’s something about the first time Veronica Mars, teen detective and all-around firecracker, is bested by a peer—even temporarily—that you just can’t forget. “Clash Of The Tritons” isn’t just an episode where Veronica has to get inventive with investigating a school-related mystery while suspended, it’s the episode where she hears incredibly telling testimonials from Logan, Weevil, and Duncan (all thanks to a bug she planted), which all end up being integral to her work on the Lilly Kane mystery. Also: “Veronica Mars is smarter than me” is an all-time great line. [LaToya Ferguson]


Mars Vs. Mars” (season one, episode 14)

One of the cornerstones of Veronica Mars is that it’s Veronica and Keith against the world, whether that’s healthy or not. Up to this point, there have been moments of teenage impatience that put the duo at odds, but “Mars Vs. Mars” flips the script by having the two go head-to-head. The episode serves as a reminder that, while Veronica Mars may be smarter than you, she’s still a teenager who can let personal biases (against mean girls, for her favorite floppy-haired teacher) cloud her judgment. On top of that, “Mars Vs. Mars” is the definitive “before they were famous” episode of the series: Mr. Rooks is Adam Scott’s most infamous role (right up there with his role on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me) and a pre-Gossip Girl Leighton Meester is so good as Carrie Bishop it’s enough to get angry at the movie recast (and general story for the character) all over again. Outside of the case, this episode also begins a shift in character dynamics, as Logan hires Veronica to solve his mother’s disappearance. [LaToya Ferguson]


A Trip To The Dentist” (season one, episode 21)

The pinnacle of Veronica Mars, and the culmination of the first season and what it’s been building toward even more than the season finale. Most specifically, because it speaks to the ecosystem of Neptune High—in finally solving the mystery of Veronica’s rape—which is just as important to the series as the identity of Lilly Kane’s killer. In terms of episodes being “earned,” that’s exactly what “A Trip To The Dentist” is, taking seemingly bit characters from past cases of the week—proving just how great the series was at world-building, even when you weren’t thinking about it as such—and cashing in on the new dynamics they have with Veronica in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Season one is when the ethereal magic of Veronica Mars’ flashbacks were at their best too, so this is also an episode that exists both in the right time and right place. [LaToya Ferguson]


Leave It To Beaver” (season one, episode 22)

The first series finale of Veronica Mars remains its best, satisfyingly wrapping up the biggest of its early mysteries in deeply distressing fashion, while still ending on a note of something best described as mournful optimism. Few episodes of this series pack more emotional punch per square foot: Veronica signs away her rights to the Kane fortune, only to be told immediately afterward that Keith Mars is her biological father after all. She discovers that her mother has been drinking, and sends her packing in brutal yet somehow compassionate fashion, only to have Lianne steal her settlement check on the way out the door. Her suspicions about Logan reach an inevitable climax that sends him to the edge of a meltdown (and a bridge). And Lilly Kane’s killer is revealed, leading to a genuinely terrifying sequence in which the Taser-tough Veronica genuinely and understandably loses her shit. But it’s her goodbye with Lilly, her inner picture of her friend restored to youth and beauty, then set free, that seals the deal. Finally, there’s peace, but with peace comes loss; a difficult thing for any marshmallow to bear. [Allison Shoemaker]


Normal Is The Watchword” (season two, episode one)

The second season of Veronica Mars demonstrates (together with iZombie) that the shows of Rob Thomas and Dianne Ruggerio-Wright at their best thrive off chaos. This premiere takes the relatively straightforward stories of the first season, tosses them in a pot, and sees what boils over. Not only does it take the ridiculous cliffhanger from the first season finale and use it to troll shippers, repeatedly, by showing who is and who isn’t Veronica’s boyfriend, but it also tosses a dazzling set of season-long plots out to be resolved. Bus crash? Obviously. Steve Guttenberg and Krysten Ritter showing up? Why not! Logan accused of murder? Indeed. Meg inexplicably hating Veronica? That’s a thing. All this, and a quick little standalone plot that highlights the race and class divisions at the core of Veronica Mars? That’s about as chaotic and beautiful as a season premiere can get. [Rowan Kaiser]


Donut Run” (season two, episode 11)

Before exploring any of its other virtues, let us say that “Donut Run” has this in its favor: It gets Duncan Kane out the door. Nothing against Teddy Dunn, who put in the work to make the tormented, then not tormented, then once again tormented Duncan a compelling figure, and he and Bell have some great scenes together, particularly in the first season. But eventually, he was going to need to hit the road, and this story is a particularly smart, entertaining, and even moving way of doing just that. Veronica and Duncan essentially pull a con on the sheriff’s department, the FBI, Keith Mars himself, and most surprisingly, the audience, staging a breakup that allows them to get Duncan and his baby (with poor Meg) out of the country and out of reach of her abusive parents. Just when you think the big twist has arrived, another shows up. And best of all, it allows them to enlist the services of one Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino, terrific), Neptune’s other P.I. and a man whose reliable self-interest and secretly soft heart make him the perfect ally, at least this time. [Allison Shoemaker]


Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough” (season two, episode 13)

If the mark of a great TV show is its bottle episodes, then Veronica Mars passes with flying colors in “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enogh.” First, this is by far Tessa Thompson’s best episode as the doomed Jackie, when she’s finally the underdog that Veronica works with. Second, it’s a twisty-turny mystery, one that both reveals the core class and racial tensions of Neptune—then tweaks them. Third, the best denouement of any episode, with Kristen Bell literally singing as she dances around her enemies with Thompson gleefully backing her up. Fourth, a slowly touching B-plot involving Keith Mars reckoning with fandom, betrayal, and forgiveness. And fifth and finally—a warning that there’s a bizarrely transphobic end to a C-plot involving the Casablancas boys. Without that misstep, this might be the single best and most representative episode of Veronica Mars. Even with it, it’s still got a case. [Rowan Kaiser]


Show Me The Monkey” (season three, episode 10)

Let’s hear it for the too rarely appreciated talents of Mac (Tina Majorino), computer nerd extraordinaire and excellent foil to Veronica’s been-there-solved-that attitude. This episode provides a showcase for the sidekick, as she joins Veronica to investigate the kidnapping of a monkey from a research lab, but in the ensuing undercover operation in which the pair join a PETA-like activist group they suspect is responsible, Mac finds herself falling for the likable head of the organization. This episode begins the second major arc of the third season, as it kicks off the story of Keith investigating the Dean of Hearst College’s suicide, but mostly it works as rich and rewarding character development of the sort it took a while for season three to deliver. Plus, it has Mac and Parker turning their dorm room into the most delightful representation of Canada this side of a Schitt’s Creek episode. [Alex McLevy]


Debasement Tapes” (season three, episode 17)

If there’s one thing season three of Veronica Mars proved—other than being a time capsule of the dire, lime-green-color-scheme, Dawn-Ostroff-led early years of The CW—it’s that a little levity could go a long way. In fact, any levity at all could do so. And thanks to Paul Rudd, “Debasement Tapes” is the closest episode in this particular season that gets that and just goes for it. Before Rudd was credited with Thomas, John Enbom, and Dan Etheridge as a co-creator of Party Down, and even longer before he did the voiceover for a zombie documentary in iZombie, he guest starred in this third-season episode of Veronica Mars as burned-out alt-rock star Desmond Fellows. And this wasn’t a situation like the previous guest appearances by Jessica Chastain, Adam Scott, or Leighton Meester: Paul Rudd was firmly established by this point in his career. (Though you’d barely be able to tell from The CW’s “promotion” for the episode. Nor would you be able to tell what Veronica Mars is about.) At the same time, in all of this fun, this is also an episode where Keith’s seemingly direct shot to becoming sheriff of Neptune is suddenly challenged by Vinnie Van Lowe, of all people, which leads the rest of the season down a continued dark path. Really, looking back, “Debasement Tapes” is such a surreal episode of Veronica Mars—kind of like season three itself. [LaToya Ferguson]


The Bitch Is Back” (season three, episode 20)

“After all these years, do you not instinctively fear me?” says Veronica, early in what used to be the last episode of the series. There was a problem with much of the third season, where Veronica’s disdain for being a private detective—the whole point of the show!—overwhelmed the character to the point where she wasn’t a fun character anymore. That’s not the case with “The Bitch Is Back,” where a very personal case of the week reverts her to the full joyously nasty avenging angel of the first two seasons. But being the avenging angel has consequences, and it wouldn’t be Veronica Mars without some level of betrayal, which is hammered home in the bittersweet final montage. While technically the finale was accidental, it encapsulated the show’s themes and characters perfectly, had great throwbacks to its first season, and solidified Keith and Veronica Mars as the greatest father-daughter relationship on television. [Rowan Kaiser]


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