‘Veronica Mars’ becomes a great character piece, pumps up the threat level in Season 4 (TV review)

V

eronica Mars” Season 4 (July, Hulu) had me so deeply invested in the people more so than the mystery – and it’s still a top-shelf mystery – that I wondered “Has it always been this way?” It’s been a few years since my last rewatch of the UPN/CW seasons, and while the father-daughter relationship between Keith (Enrico Colantoni) and Veronica (Kristen Bell) has always been central to the series, I had a sense that other players were chess pieces more so than characters, and that the mystery always reigns supreme.

Not so in the masterful eight-episode Season 4. The mystery is really good, granted: A bomb goes off at the Sea Sprite Motel during spring break, and any of the handful of victims could have been the target, for numerous and varied reasons. But in the end I’m thinking about Veronica and Logan (Jason Dohring) – of course, how can I not be after the way it ends? – and the genuine marriage dilemma for both of them: Even though they love each other, they’ve both seen spouses treat each other like garbage through the years, and they’re scared of messing with a good thing.

Although “Veronica” has always had more serious threats and stakes than those provided by the villains in its most obvious forbearer, the “Nancy Drew” novels, things get R-rated scary here.

At first I was skeptical of the idea of Keith limping around with a cane and having memory lapses. The hip injury from a car accident is a tie-in to the 2014 movie, but he’s only 56 (“the new 20,” as Veronica points out); his mind can’t be going already, can it? That terrifying idea – for Veronica and for anyone who has aging parents, and for proud detective Keith himself – ultimately becomes a backing thread I got invested in, and it pays off in a harrowing shootout.

Season 4 is a more “adult” story. Although “Veronica” has always had more serious threats and stakes than those provided by the villains in its most obvious forbearer, the “Nancy Drew” novels, things get R-rated scary here. When Mexican hitmen Alonzo (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dodie (Frank Gallegos) are introduced, they sail past a border patrolman who is suitably cowed by the powerful drug cartel they work for, even though there’s a man yelling from the trunk. The hitmen drive to the desert to murder the guy, and we could be watching “The Bridge” as easily as “Veronica Mars.”

Although there are definitely some “Hey, I remember that character!” cameos in Season 4, the new additions shine. Once you’re on “Veronica Mars” and speaking in the rhythms laid down by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, you’re established in this world. The standout newcomer is Matty (Izabela Vidovic, who guested in “iZombie’s” fourth season), the daughter of the hotel owner who died in the bombing. Poking around the crime scene and taking on seriously bad men on her own, Matty is sort of like Veronica at that age (I think she’s slightly younger than Veronica is in Season 1). Vidovic is a natural actress, and while I certainly want more Bell-starring “Veronica” seasons, if for some reason there’s a Matty spinoff, count me in.

Season 4 nicely dodges the nostalgic angle where we’re reminded that Veronica’s heyday was the Aughts and now she’s an adult, and therefore “old.” “Veronica” is contemporary to whenever the story takes place; there never has been anything intrinsically “teen” or “Aughts” about it. Helping to pull off this trick is the very 2010s idea of the Murderheads, a group led by pizza delivery guy Penn (Patton Oswalt) that investigates famous murders. This of course is a nod to “Serial” and other podcasts that have made amateur sleuths out of devoted listeners.

So Penn is coming up with theories even as Mars Investigations and the FBI (including Max Greenfield’s Leo) and the Neptune Police itself pursue the case. The latest in the proud line of not-so-great police chiefs is Marcia Langdon (Dawnn Lewis) – a nice continuation from the canonical novel “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” as is Veronica and Logan’s dog Pony. While Marcia is an inferior investigator to the Marses – as is always the case – we get a sense that navigating the crimes and politics of Neptune would be a nightmare for even the most competent chief; Marcia is not a cartoon dunce like the Lambs.

Also distancing Season 4 from its teen roots is that, instead of romance drama, we get friendship drama. Veronica hits it off with club owner Nicole (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Keith with reformed ex-con Clyde (J.K. Simmons in another turn that affirms he’s an American treasure). But the nature of detective work means you don’t have large groups of friends, and a couple of heart-wrenching moments occur when our heroes come up hard against this reality.

With Thomas and Ruggiero’s other series, “iZombie,” settling into good-but-not-amazing territory toward the end of its five-season run last spring, it’s notable that “Veronica” Season 4 is written with utter competence and confidence. It has that classic “Veronica” style where there’s no melodrama; everything is presented at the same tonal level and it’s up to us to watch closely and determine what piece of information is a case-breaking clue and what’s a red herring.

And then there’s that gutsy ending, which I totally rebelled against when watching it but then realized that’s what makes it good writing. Veronica, Logan and Keith deserve a happy ending, but – even though Mars Investigations tries to make sense out of seemingly cruel randomness – life remains cruel. For all the ways “Veronica Mars” feels as fresh as ever, it’s not about to abandon one of its central tenets.

Click here to visit our “Veronica Mars”/ “iZombie” Zone.