“Veronica Mars” is back, again, courtesy of Hulu’s long-coming fourth season of a series born in 2004 on a network — the UPN — that no longer exists.
In a sense, Veronica herself has been there all along, as a potentiality and sometimes more: canonically revived in a 2014 Kickstarter-funded feature film and two subsequent novels co-authored by series creator Rob Thomas, and in the unofficial shared dream that is fan fiction. And, most important, in the person of actress Kristen Bell, whose shape and sound and carriage are Veronica’s as well. It is easier to imagine anyone playing Batman than it is to picture anyone but Bell playing Veronica Mars.
An attractive and subtle actress of greater range than any single snapshot of her career might suggest, Bell draws you in without seeming to work hard. This is true of many of television’s best actors, in part because the medium, in its intimacy, requires a light touch. Anything too big, too thespian, can become exhausting week after week. This is what makes Ted Danson, Bell’s “The Good Place” costar, a god of the medium.
What works for Bell in “Veronica Mars” is not wholly distinct from what works for her in “The Good Place,” in which she plays a hot mess becoming a better person after death; or worked for her in “House of Lies,” the Showtime series about self-dealing management consultants in which she appeared opposite Don Cheadle; or in “Deadwood,” where she took the role of a con artist masquerading as a good girl working as a prostitute. She’s a small person, with a persistent touch of the child in her features, that makes her age hard to pin down. As ingenues go, she’s always been a bit of a bad girl — elfin, but impish. (“Nicetiness,” I have called her particular mix of the nice and the nasty.)
The device in “The Good Place” that allows her to swear like a sailor within the framework of broadcast TV standards — substituting “fork” and “shirt” and “son of a bench” for some easily guessed expletives — is a perfect metaphor for her essence. The new “Veronica Mars” plays a similar game, perhaps as a nod to “The Good Place,” with Veronica and her father competing to see who can go longest without swearing, using forms of the word “cuss” to represent what they aren’t saying.
Not that the character has remained static. As Bell has grown older, so has Veronica, whom we first met as a 16-year-old high school junior. (Her portrayer was some eight years older; Bell is 39 now, so Veronica, if the spread holds, would be about 31.) Seven years separated the end of the series from the 2014 Kickstarter movie, and an additional five have elapsed between that and the Hulu season. Veronica is less Nancy Drew now than a sister of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
She is an adult, if not a wholly mature one; having earned degrees from Stanford and Columbia in the interim, she’s blown off a position with a big-time New York law firm to do mundane detective work with her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), and share a small beach apartment with on-again, off-again beau Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Where much seemed possible for young Veronica, older Veronica has narrowed her horizons some; she has gone back. She is not unhappy, but she is not exactly settled.
Television characters are special in that they live over many weeks, months or years in our home, aging alongside us. And, apart from the occasional reboot (or the self-renewing construct that is “Doctor Who”), they are for the most part inextricable from the actors who play them — who, in collaboration with the writers, have brought them alchemically to life.
There have, of course, been successful film franchises, and movie actors who have returned to the same role over many years, and characters who have been played by many actors. (Veronica’s spiritual godmother Nancy Drew, primarily a creature of the page, has been played by Bonita Granville, Pamela Sue Martin, Tracy Ryan, Sophia Lillis — in this year’s big screen “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” — and Kennedy McMann — in an upcoming series on the CW, the network where “Veronica Mars” finished its original run.) But TV exists over time in a special way. There have been 26 James Bond movies over the last 57 years; loosely estimated, that’s 52 hours of Bond, a mark “Veronica Mars” hit sometime in its third season. You might have seen her more often, and more regularly, than your actual friends.
In television, character transcends plot. The most vivid characters have an integrity viewers recognize; we can tell when a series is doing well or ill by them. (Of course, the people who run the show may have their own opinions about this, and my picture of Don Draper or Midge Maisel may not align with yours.) It’s why some fans of “Game of Thrones” called for a do-over of its final season. They felt let down by the outcome, not just as followers of the series, but on behalf of the fictional people they’d come to know. How dare they do this to Daenerys, Cersei, Jon, to Fill-in-the-Blank? We continue to believe in characters, whom actors make flesh and blood and imbue with some portion of their own spirit, even after we’ve lost faith in a show, which is just a thing that writers write. You may prefer not to think that Tony Soprano died in the blackout that sent “The Sopranos” abruptly into history; you may still be angry at David Chase for making you think he might have.
That isn’t to say that the new season of “Veronica Mars” represents a particular test of faith. It is an imperfect work, with a perfect performance at its center. Even though the plot is over-engineered, unwieldy and inorganic, individual encounters — Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Weevil, so on — have the proper crackle, a take on the knowing banter that animated “The Thin Man” and “The Big Sleep” that doesn’t lack emotional resonance, either. There are crimes, and guilty parties — I will save you the spoilers, though the secrets are all out — and, as with even the worst mysteries, you may find yourself sticking around to find out who.
It could not matter less. As they develop, we may find ourselves enthralled by the switchbacks and cliffhangers that animate our increasingly serial TV series, but in television story is above all a system for delivering characters into your company, into your home, for regular visits. From start to finish, all that really counts in “Veronica Mars” is how Veronica’s doing. What difference did it make who sat on the Iron Throne in the end?
Admit it: Not much.