I once posited in this space that Veronica Mars was one of the unsung (or at least under-sung) creations in the long transformation of the television series model from collections of loosely connected episodes to the mythology-heavy novels divided into strictly regimented chapters of an hour or half-hour each that are the norm today. There were certainly others that were key in the march to television modernity, but Veronica Mars, particularly in its first season, provided a commitment to a singular story deceptively divvied up that marked a significant shift. And now as the Kickstarter-funded extension of the series reaches theaters, the creation of Rob Thomas is at the forefront of upending the norms of the entertainment industry once again. It’s clear that Warner Bros., the official owners of the Veronica Mars character and all that comes with her, had little to no interest in funding the continued adventures of the spunky, sharp-witted, warmly cynical girl detective. It was only the concerted and record-setting commitment of the fan base to open their collective wallet that made the movie happen. If fan entitlement was an issue fretted about some ten years ago, then welcome to the era when the fans may have a point when they assert their ownership. A long time ago, we used to be friends. But now we’re in a full-scale co-dependent artistic relationship.
For now, though, what all this might mean to an entertainment business already beholden to established franchise fodder above all else is secondary to a simple, important question: How’s the movie? I have a hard time believing complete newcomers will be enthralled by the film, but it’s dandy as an extension of the three seasons that came before. Directed by Thomas (and co-written by him and Diane Ruggiero, a writer and producer from the original series), Veronica Mars returns to the California town of Neptune, with its stark class divisions and reverberating seediness. Veronica (Kristen Bell) is back her old stomping grounds, distracting herself as she’s on the cusp of getting a job at a big law firm, because her ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) finds himself in a jam, accused of murdering his rock star girlfriend (Andrea Estella). This is what Veronica used to do, after all, investigating crimes and getting to the bottom of all sorts of small town malfeasance, both in opposition to and giving assistance to her private detective father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni).
The familiarity of the scenario is part of the reason Veronica Mars feels less like a movie and more like an extra-long television episode. Across three seasons, there were any number of hours that felt exactly like this: zippy, smart, devious, funny, and all narrated by Bell with a splendidly wry delivery. The bigger cause of the small screen echo is Thomas’s clear compunction to structure it like a television episode with a clear B-plot and the occasional moment that’s just begging to be punctuated with a commercial break. That is the language he’s proficient in, making it no real surprise that he defaults into that mode. Even beyond that, it seems clear that what Thomas really desires is to see Veronica live on forever, so much so that the movie comes across less as closure or reinvention for a different form than a concerted effort to put all the characters back in the proper places, suitable for revisiting on a weekly basis. When Joss Whedon followed the dearly departed Firefly with a big-screen extension in Serenity, he crafted it so that his ship could fly again if given the opportunity, but also with an eye toward delivering an ending that perhaps betrayed his own knowledge of a inevitable finality to the endeavor. Just as Thomas capped the clearly doomed season three with a cliffhanger, he infuses the movie with a sense of new beginnings. It plays like a second pilot.
Luckily, Thomas’s approach comes across as less stubbornness (or even delusion) and more as pure affection, and he toils to make sure the audience understands where that affection comes from. Bell is a fine actress and engaging presence who has never and probably will never have a better role than Veronica Mars. She makes the most of the return, slipping back into the character’s bright banter, gurgling resentments, and anxious compulsions with aplomb. She can pivot from defense mechanism snark to dramatic heartache in a moment, and, crucially, make it clear how both characteristics stem from the same person. She also has a gift for making the simplest line deliveries into mini-masterpieces. She must have a half dozen different moments where she reacts to repugnant come-ons from men, usually with like more on the page than a single word (“Gross” or “Yuck”), and each one is a gem. It’s especially a pleasure to watch her in her scenes with Colantoni, reviving one of the wisest father-child relationships the small screen has ever known, free of treacle and powered by appreciation built on mutual respect. It’s clear how Veronica would have come from the home Keith built.
Certainly I have little cause to begrudge Thomas his abundant and apparent joy in continuing Veronica’s story. I’m not one of the most faithful who knowledgeably flipped over every inside joke and easter egg Thomas sprinkled into the film (though I did enjoy the allusion to the fourth season reboot that was never to be), but I was charmed nonetheless. If the film industry is going continue on in a state of perpetual recycling, at least some of the material should be defined by resounding desires on part of both the fans and the creators. In its manifestation of inspiring mutual appreciation, Veronica Mars may be starting the right kind of revolution.