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“I spent my first 19 years trying to escape my hometown of Neptune. Made it out, then after a decade away, decided Neptune needed me and I needed it. I was wrong on both counts. Neptune didn’t need another private investigator: It needed an enema.”

How very Veronica Mars to start things off like this. Not just the voiceover part but specifically Veronica highlighting how co-dependent she and the town she calls home are. Such is Veronica’s way: A healthy relationship? No fun. Dysfunction? As much as Veronica may loathe Neptune and believe it needs an enema, she’s still the one who returned. Neptune would continue to be Neptune, with or without her. But just when she thought she was out, etc.

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This season takes the spring break component of the first canonical Veronica Mars novel, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, and changes the mystery from missing girls to bombings. We learn early on that four people were killed at the Sea Sprite Motel, two days into this year’s month-long extravaganza. Veronica Mars doesn’t pull any punches—as it’s done a bombing storyline before—but based on this season’s mystery, Rob Thomas and company want everyone to know it’s not like before. That should probably be the biggest takeaway from this episode and the season moving forward: It’s not like before. In fact, Veronica’s initial voiceover even notes this isn’t one of those mysteries that’s personal to her: “Me? I was just trying to pay the rent.” That is not a line you’d hear in the series’ first three seasons, for obvious reasons. But if teenage Veronica had “angry at the world” down, then Veronica in her 30s has turned that anger into more than just fuel; it’s made her tired and world-weary, trying to survive in a place that would rather no one in her tax bracket do so.

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Season four looks more like the Veronica Mars movie than it does any episode from the first three seasons, and considering the number of rewatches and that have taken place over the past few weeks, that’ll take some getting used to. It’s not a bad thing though, because its look now makes sense for a series in the 2010s, with what must be a decent budget. As much as we Veronica Mars with a very sunny world filled with greens, yellows, oranges, and blues (and browns, in the third season), it’s a style that: 1. surprisingly, looked good for Veronica Mars (and its actors) within that younger, early 2000s teen show context, and 2. doesn’t exist in this era of television. The series’ poppy color palette helped create the necessary contrast in a neo-noir series about a high school girl P.I. But now that people know what Veronica Mars is really about, the contrast isn’t needed, not to that extent. Just like Veronica, the audience knows that when it comes to Neptune, you can’t be fooled by the glitz or the pretty colors.

Which brings me to Neptune’s new look as a full-blown beach town. Veronica Mars was always great at was world-building, and because of that, Neptune never seemed small. So while there’s a change in the series’ visual language in terms of its coloring, things have now also changed in terms of its physical world-building. The first shot of this season is a sweeping overhead of the pier, heading right onto the Neptune boardwalk, immediately showing how the Neptune of season four is visually different from Neptune of seasons one through three. This shot says a lot: With this revival, Neptune isn’t going to just seem big, it’s going to be big. And Michael Lehmann’s direction shows it firsthand. By literally opening up this world, it provides even more context into the fact that Mars vs. the world isn’t a small undertaking.

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The scene after has a similar effect, as it takes the audience over Karsyn’s (Eliza Coupe) house, just as quickly going from a “seedy” part of Neptune to the ‘09er world, secluded from said seedy parts—truly showing what we’ve always been told about these people. This scene is a perfect introduction/reintroduction to Veronica—what she does, who she is, and who the people (in the 90909 zip code) she has to deal with are. Both scenes are necessary for this season premiere—the first scene, especially, for the neo-noir vibes—and both take place just before the (new and tonally appropriate) opening credits. Talk about a solid start.

Of course, there’s bound to be talk about fan service this season, especially as that was one of the major criticisms of the movie back in 2014. In the movie’s defense, given its crowdfunded nature, it makes sense that Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, etc. felt like providing a necessary return on fan investment. But there’s a reason people worry about fan service: In a broader sense, it’s arguably the worst part of television revivals, because giving the fans what they want doesn’t always necessarily mean giving them what they need in terms of a good story. Nostalgia shouldn’t be the driving factor in a revival, and Veronica Mars’ season four should be a success on at least one front if it realizes that.

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The closest this episode gets to fan service is the Veronica/Logan sex scene, but even that makes sense as what would happen when your longterm boyfriend makes a surprise return home from Navy. While the movie gave us mature soldier Logan, his first scene here is a pitch-perfect reminder that he can still banter with the best of them. The scene explains right away why these two ended up together and why they fit, even when Veronica rejects his proposal just a couple of scenes later. (The proposal scene, on the other hand, highlights the dysfunction that would suggest to Veronica that they were on the same page about marriage, from “an Echolls Ultimatum” to her reminder that she’s seen nothing but bad marriages in her life.) Logan is arguably the biggest example of how Veronica Mars has grown up and how that’s just the new normal, even though the spark is still there when it needs to be.

In introducing its mystery, season four doesn’t have the advantage of past seasons. There’s no personal or societal connection here. While there’s a chance the perpetrator is someone we know, the introduction of new characters on top of the old suggests we might not know them. And as season two proved, that can make investing in the mystery an uphill battle for Veronica Mars. Plus, the bombing victims here are essentially stock characters, like Jimmy (Mark L. Young) the spring break bro, Gabriel (Rudy Martinez) the nerd, and Tawny (Chanel Marriott) the fiance who’s not good enough. Sullivan “Sul” Ross (Brad Morris) the motel owner is the outlier, as a Neptune native (and non-Spring Breaker) who actually feels like he’s always been a part of this series’ ecosystem. However, in their brief time onscreen, you know exactly who these characters are as soon as they order 10 shots of Jager or spend their spring break trying to get wifi or talk to their friend about the $50,000 payoff they turned down from their fiance’s family or have their back and forth banter with their spunky teenage daughter. It might seem like these characterizations are wasted screentime, but they’re necessary to lead us toward how the people close to them react, like the political family of Tawny’s fiance, Alex Maloof (Paul Karmiryan). Or Gabriel’s crime lord uncle, El Despiadado (Marco Rodriguez).

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Even with spring break, Neptune’s class issues are still integral to Veronica Mars’ world and what makes it tick. As things ramp up to the explosion, the way the spring breakers treat Penn (Patton Oswalt) the Cho’s Pizza delivery guy is a microcosm of the issue, as most of those people aren’t even from Neptune. But the friendship between Penn, Sul, and Matty (Izabela Vidovic) shows how tight-knit the working-class community can be. And while the Hu’s Reduced story seems like it would typically just be a case-of-the-week, the very existence of the store speaks to the way the non-’09ers can even survive these days. In fact, Hu (Francois Chau) can barely afford Mars Investigations services as it is. Because apparently, since both the movie and the novels, Neptune’s finally incorporated. Meaning the rich got richer and, more importantly, there’s a chief of police, no more Neptune Sheriff’s Department. In the second novel, Mr. Kiss And Tell, Marcia Langdon (Dawnn Lewis) just barely beat Dan Lamb in the sheriff’s election, seemingly ushering in a new era in Neptune law enforcement, free from corruption. (As for Langdon and Keith, they used to be friends. A long time ago.)

Of course, the biggest indicator of the class issues stems from Big Dick Casablancas. The Trump analogy is right there in the city council meeting. However, Big Dick’s not just a Trump proxy for the sake of being a Trump proxy: In its original run, Veronica Mars was ahead of its time in its social commentary, and on rewatches, it’s now strangely prescient. Veronica Mars was clearly always leading to this storyline; it’s just that the real world decided to do it too. Veronica Mars is too subtle to do the hacky “Make Neptune Great Again” bit that is right there, probably already in plenty of tweets about the episode... because it would rather double down on the dick jokes (the Big Dick jokes) with the “NUTT” (“Neptune United for a Tidy Town”) situation. “No To NUTT.” “The Truth About NUTT.” “Big Dick and his NUTTs…” (There’s also the whole “NUTTs”/”nuts, as in crazy” thing. See? Subtle.) Veronica Mars has always been a dark series, but it’s also a series that loves its juvenile humor. And now in its adult, streaming platform form, we no longer have to wonder how it got things past the network in its UPN days.

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Big Dick’s NUTT ordinances are what he considers necessary “to get back to a better time,” longing for bullshit nostalgia which is kind of a brilliant point to make in a television show’s revival. While Veronica Mars will always have nostalgia attached to it based on its very bizarre journey, “Spring Break Forever” makes a statement that it’s not concerned with trying to turn back the clock and capture the magic of the good old days. Because Veronica’s not a teen anymore. And neither is the company she keeps. It’s honestly surprising no one tells Big Dick to “grow up” after his speech at city council.

These things all work (even the set-up to the bombing, as obvious as it is) in “Spring Break Forever,” because even with the changes, they still feel like Veronica Mars. They feel like the natural progression and growth of this show and its characters. I can’t say the same about the Tijuana/cartel parts of the episode, which halt the momentum of the episode entirely every time. The scenes feel like Veronica Mars attempt at being an FX series (which would actually make a lot of sense for the show) but without informing the audience that that’s the intent now. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line introduced cartel-related characters within the world of Neptune, but it didn’t go outside Neptune to do so. And the introduction of the Fitzpatricks in season two was necessary for Veronica Mars, to create more of an intimidating threat than the PCHers. So in that way, it’s understandable if the point is for El Despiadado’s cartel to follow that same principle, even though Alonzo (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dodie (Frank Gallegos) are on a mission for one person (and to behead them), not to set up shop in Neptune.

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But while this episode introduces plenty of new characters (whether they make it through or not), the cartel scenes are the only ones that have that sense of unfamiliarity when it comes to Veronica Mars. We may not know Jimmy Hatfield, we know how he fits in the world of Neptune and its spring break. How does a dangerous, pontificating member of a cartel fit? That’s another mystery, I suppose, but it’s pretty open and shut that the Tijuana scenes feel out of place. Not because they’re in Spanish but because they simply don’t follow the same flow as the other scenes or Veronica Mars in general. Alonzo’s introduction is that aforementioned pontification, about free will (or the lack thereof)—that is either extremely important to the series’ overall theme or just the character talking to talk. Plus, the scene between El Despiadado and his ex-wife Silvia (Alanna Ubach) is the largest bit of pure exposition in this episode, slowing down things tremendously. Things could always change when Alonzo and Dodie are actually in Neptune, but it’s clear that the hardest part of this episode for Rob Thomas was setting that up in the first place.

While mostly a continuation of the Veronica Mars story, this season’s also technically a reboot: As the movie set up, from now on, it’s no longer the story of a wise-beyond-her-years teen detective, a hard-boiled Nancy Drew, on the case and helping out at her dad’s P.I. agency. It’s one of a grown woman with over a decade of experience, taking charge, with actual options at a life outside of Neptune, options that she turns her back on to work side-by-side with her P.I. father. So the interesting thing about the movie and this season—and any potential further seasons or novelizations—is that it essentially creates a new premise for the series, simply because Veronica’s an adult. She still has the fact that she looks remarkably like Kristen Bell working for and against her, but she’s also now on a more equal footing with her clients and suspects. She’s not just her father’s assistant at Mars Investigations anymore, she’s his partner. That’s something the familiar audience has to get used to, and as they most likely grew up alongside Veronica, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

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As for newcomers who want in on the action but aren’t committed to doing all the legwork, the series can’t just be in-jokes, callbacks, and fan service—it needs to be able to stand on its own somewhat, as the continuation of a series that ended in 2007 that has somehow managed to get a subsequent feature film, two canonical novels, and now a new season out of it. “Spring Break Forever,” at the very least, does stand on its own while continuing on with this dense Marshmallow-fueled world.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to Veronica Mars season four coverage. I only have one thing to say: “Duncan Kane. He used to be my boyfriend.” Oh, and also: I hate grading episodes. But since I must, I’m mostly going to be grading this season against itself and its function as a new season of a series that technically ended in 2007. To compare this version of the series—on a grade level—to the version of the series that focused on a teen detective in a very early 2000s climate is to compare apples and oranges. And one more thing: The plan was to drop two reviews a day, and now it’s four today, four tomorrow.
  • I think I’m in the minority, but I enjoy Chrissie Hynde’s cover of “We Used To Be Friends,” even after weeks of rewatching and having The Dandy Warhols stuck in my head. Not only does it capture the tone of its season better than the season three version did, the opening credits also work with it, very Netflix Marvel series-esque, which I wasn’t expecting. The first two seasons’ credits are very of their time—and appropriate for the teen drama component—but this is an adult beachy noir series, and these credits reflect that.
  • Cliff’s introduction is one of the most cinematic scenes of the episode (and series), one long tracking shot (until he hits Penn’s hospital room) on him in his element as an ambulance chaser. In this moment, you know everything you need to know about Cliff, including the fact that this is a character who makes friends wherever he goes. And not just because of his voice. Or because he suggests Mars Investigations to the Maloofs.
  • We don’t know much about Amalia Maloof (Jacqueline Antaramian), but we know that she didn’t approve of Alex marrying Tawny and she’s not afraid to direct her internalized misogyny at Chief Langdon or Veronica.
  • The original Veronica Mars run is now known for featuring various actors before they became anybody (and Paul Rudd, who was already somebody), but now it’s a place for actors who are already somebody. Eliza Coupe and Alanna Ubach in small parts, Patton Oswalt and Clifton Collins Jr. as series regulars. And in keeping with the Thomas-verse (the Spondoolie-verse?), you’ve also got iZombie alums as newcomers: Francois Chau, Izabela Vidovic, and Dawnn Lewis.
  • Keith’s still using a cane after the injuries suffered in the car “accident” that killed Deputy Sacks in the movie. But the scary part is he’s having memory loss and repeating things. He needs a CT scan, but that will cost a few thousand bucks, which isn’t something the Mars can spare. While Veronica gives Keith constant updates on the Logan situation, he does not tell her all of this.
  • Karsyn: “Oh, tell me we’re recording this.”
    Veronica: “‘We’re recording this’ is my middle name.” Veronica’s love for vengeance is still active.
  • Keith: “What exactly did you do for that lady?”
    Veronica (shrugs): “Feminist stuff. We got mad, we got even. Some scissoring.”
  • Wallace teaches at Neptune High, but his wife Shae (Kenna Wright) is a lawyer, so now he’s “‘09er scum.” Also, they have a baby named Noah. Uncle Logan is very good with him.
  • Keith’s unattentive physical therapist? It’s Corny. I missed it in the credits on my screener, but while he’s credited as “Physical Therapist,” it is, in fact, Jonathan Chesner reprising the role. The subtitles even say “Corny.”
  • While we only get two scenes of new character Nicole, they confirm my belief that Kirby-Howell Baptiste should be in every show on television. Nicole is a dynamic character the moment she stands up to Big Dick, but it’s hard not to be all in once she punches out Jimmy at her nightclub, Comrade Quacks.
  • Every moment Jimmy is on screen, he’s the worst… except for when he’s drunkenly arguing with his bros over legal cases.
  • Simon: “Now, there will be no money, but when you die—”
    Penn: “You will achieve total enlightenment. Yeah, I saw the movie. Bible for douchebags.” Both Simon (Logan Miller) and Penn poorly quoting Caddyshack is also proof they’re the worst. And then Penn decides to be that guy, all over the news after taking some shrapnel from the bombing.
  • That claustrophobic spring break feel is at an all-time high in the scenes leading up to the bombing, like a, well, bomb waiting to go off. Because of the in media res opening, we know it’s about to happen, and the episode makes mention of the Sea Sprite twice at Comrade Quacks just a couple of scenes before, with Jimmy and Alex/Tawny on their way to certain doom. The tension still remains. Especially as there’s still quite a bit of episode left after it.
  • The two survivors of the bombing are Jillian (Grace Eberle)—Tawny’s friend who rejected Gabriel and was completely into Jimmy—and Alex—Tawny’s fiance and Congressman Daniel Maloof’s (Mido Hamada) younger brother. Alex apparently lost a hand in the explosion.
  • It seems the only “censoring” in this season is “cuss” in place of the f-word, and: 1. It feels like the type of bet Veronica and Keith would have, especially because of how stubborn they are. Which is why it’s lasted three months at this point. 2. It probably won’t date itself as much as “frak” did in season three, when the writers apparently discovered Battlestar Galactica.
  • Despite Veronica Mars no longer being a “teen show,” this episode ends with Veronica voiceovering about she ended up caring about the teen girl on the show, Matty. Matty, who finds a pack of gum in the rubble of the bombing, removing the evidence from the crime scene. A real Veronica move.
  • Finally, we know: Tijuana is 80 miles south of Neptune.

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