Veronica Mars, All Grown Up at the ATX Television Fest
Series creator Rob Thomas explains why the cult show has to change
Veronica Mars has never shied away from life's gritty realities. Unlike many millennial teen melodramas – which glossed over everything from eating disorders to binge drinking – Kristen Bell's 21st century teen sleuth waded into the deeper, darker end of the pool, most notably in the show's unflinching sexual assault storylines. Now – 15 years, one fan-funded film, and two novels later – Veronica Mars will once again draw from real-life calamity as it returns for season 4.
Now a bona fide adult, Veronica is back in Neptune, Calif., and back on the Mars Investigations payroll. Though thousands of miles away in a fictional Southern California town, the season's big bad will hit close to home for Austinites. Neptune, always plagued by evildoers, is under siege by a serial bomber during spring break – a plotline showrunner Rob Thomas admits was inspired by the 2018 Austin bombings.
An Austin resident for many years (he was teaching journalism at John H. Reagan High School when he came up with the original high-schooler-by-day, private-eye-by-night storyline), Thomas was back visiting when the deadly attacks occurred. He recalled the "eerie feeling" that fell over the city. Clearly affected by the chaos, Thomas, as writers do, found an outlet in the script, and now he brings the result back to Austin with a special preview panel at this weekend's ATX Television Festival.
Thomas said he is hopeful that the overarching storyline in season 4 will help Veronica Mars continue "telling the story we've been telling since the dawn of the show": that of the widening gap of economic prosperity in the U.S. The showrunner promises that the new episodes, airing on Hulu in July, will continue to address gentrification as well as other socioeconomic issues. As our heroine, the older, more mature, and more foul-mouthed Veronica (Thomas also confessed Hulu allows for most cuss words, but "fuck" had to be cut from the script no less than 17 times) is still fighting for the underdog. "She hates to see people turned into victims and still has a pretty biblical sense of justice," explained Thomas.
The show's original fandom grew out of devotion to and respect for Veronica's sharp tongue and "quick wit." During the original three seasons, Veronica's "superpower," as Thomas described it, "was being 17 and not giving a fuck." But in 2019 and age 35, even Thomas has to admit: A lot of her peers have "caught up." Veronica, he explained, is still "clever and great, but it's a different type of bravery now. ... I'm curious to see if people still respond to her the same way. I think they will – I still admire her when I'm watching the show, but it's a grownup show now."
All this change and all this pressure to deliver ratings raises the question: Why bother bringing a beloved show back if it can't (and perhaps shouldn't) be the same? For Thomas, the bulk of that answer lies in Bell, who he described several times as "just so good." The remainder of his answer, however, is credited to the rest of the cast and crew, and season 4 brings back all but two original cast members. Even after 15 years and several mediums, Thomas still loves working with the VM team, and filming a five-page scene of dialogue between Veronica and her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) encapsulated his commitment to the saga. "It was the second scene we shot and I remember watching it – it felt like being home."
But that doesn't mean the show is going to stay the same. As Thomas sees it, Veronica Mars will fail sooner rather than later if it continues to try and operate like a high school drama. Instead, he sees it moving forward as an adult-driven detective show. Yet he remains concerned that fans could be put off or turned away from the show that's grown up like its cast. He can't help but wonder out loud: "Is what made the show the fact that she was a 17-year-old PI? Can we respect and admire her as 35-year-old PI?"
That answer remains to be seen, especially since the 2014 movie was all about nostalgia for the show. "It was fan funded," said Thomas, explaining why the film focused so much on Veronica's high school years. He added, "We also weren't sure we'd see it again."
If season 4 is a hit, Thomas promises more Veronica Mars in the future; but this hopeful continuation won't look like a regular TV series with consecutive seasons. Instead, Thomas hopes he'll reunite with Bell – who's willing to play Veronica until the show reaches Murder, She Wrote levels – whenever they both have a window of free time to "knock out" episodes for a season or miniseries. But whatever happens, he expects the show to become more centered on Veronica herself. Spoiler alert: This time around, don't expect her friends, except maybe semi- reformed biker Weevil, to be tied to her cases. "It's hard to keep writing murder mysteries where you wrap up the same six to seven people's storylines every time," laughed Thomas.
On that note, Thomas – who's looking forward to his return to Austin during the ATX Television Festival for barbecue and potential inspiration – makes no promises about exactly what Veronica's future could hold. He admits there's been "some talk" of pulling her away from Neptune and sending her out into the world. "I'm not sure what the next Veronica Mars adventure will be. ... She can leave. ... We can always come back." Neptune, Austin, wherever – as long as it's home.
ATX Television Festival
The Veronica Mars panel, with showrunner Rob Thomas and cast members Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, and Percy Daggs III, is Saturday, June 8, 10:30am, at the Paramount Theatre. Season 4 will start streaming on Hulu July 26.
Don’t miss Chronicle screens editor Richard Whittaker at the Alamo Ritz on Thursday in conversation with Lou Diamond Phillips and the cast and crew of Fox’s The Prodigal Son (noon), then George Takei and the creators of AMC’s The Terror: Infamy (3:30pm).