Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Veronica Mars - "Spring Break Forever" (season 4, episode 1)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Veronica Mars - "Spring Break Forever" (season 4, episode 1)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Veronica Mars. Each day, I am covering every episode (and the film) including the brand new Hulu revival. I am watching this series for the first time, so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (premiered on July 19, 2019/written by Rob Thomas; directed by Michael Lehmann): In the spirit of "something old, something new" (a phrase whose implications our protagonist is determined to avoid), Veronica Mars deftly mixes familiar faces with updated-for-2019 references. From the opening scene in which Veronica brazenly assaults a smart house and earns a cool six grand as her reward to the conclusion in which the sight of a newly fatherless young girl reminds the thirtysomething detective of the vulnerable teen she once was and the quasi-orphan she nearly became, we are navigating good old Neptune through clear eyes, wizened by experience but freshly attuned to the present moment. As the episode title suggests, it's peak tourist season in town; the show's familiar social dynamic, the hardworking middle class vs. the entitled 1% (or, in Mars terminology, the 09ers), plays out against this backdrop. Small businesspeople like bar owner Nicole Malloy (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and motelier Sul Ross (Brad Morris) are eager to maintain the cashflow produced by party-hearty spring breakers (although not unethically eager, as Nicole demonstrates when she saves an unconscious young woman from a lecherous patron). And cleanliness-obsessed (or perhaps property value-obsessed) elites like Dick Casablancas, Sr., everyone's favorite white-collar criminal/father of a mass murderer, seek to "beautify" the town by chasing away the grubby tourist trade. Meanwhile Keith is hired by shopkeeper Hu (Francois Chau) who wants to maintain his small base of low-income clientele despite the rats being mysteriously released into his grocery store. A smallscale challenge (as are - for the moment - Keith's memory lapses which become evident as he initiates this investigation), cases like this aren't going to keep the Mars family business afloat.

Then comes the big bang. A devastating explosion in the lobby of the Sea Sprite, the shabby if serviceable inn of choice for beach-bound students, kills Sul, arrogant law student Jimmy (Mark L. Young), cheerfully nerdy Gabriel (Rudy Martinez), and Tawny Carr (Chanel Marriot), the fiancee of Alex Maloof (Paul Karmiryan), who is the little brother of Arab-American U.S. Representative Daniel Maloof (Mido Hamada). We meet Daniel and his mother Amalia (Jacqueline Antaramian) at the hospital where survivors are being treated. This scene not only introduces us to Chief - Neptune no longer calls for a sheriff, apparently - Marcia Langdon (Dawnn Lewis), who appears much more well-intentioned than the Lambs but inspires little confidence in the congressman. It also delightfully re-introduces Cliff. Elated by the cash crop of injured individuals, the amoral lawyer strolls through the ER, handing his card out left and right. A darker version of this cheerful-to-be-alive-and-profiting-from-pain persona is revealed south of the border where Alonzo Lozano (Clifton Collins Jr.) dispatches an informer for cartel head El Despiadado (Marco Rodriguez) while smilingly spouting his deterministic philosophy. His storyline dovetails with our central case when his boss' ex-wife Silvia (Alanna Ubach) convinces the powerful drug dealer to avenge her nephew Gabriel's death. Alonzo and Dodie Mendoza (Frank Gallegos) hit the road with a generous cash allowance and a promise they can keep everything they don't spend - as long as they deliver the bomber's head on a platter. Back in California, the Maloofs hire the Mars family to find out who maimed Alex, destroying his promising athletic career, and, very secondarily as they make clear, killed the woman his family did not want him to marry. Wounded like Alex, albeit to a much lesser extent, is Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), a garrulous pizza delivery man; wounded emotionally if not physically is Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), Sul's daughter whom Veronica sees wandering the wreckage after they take the case. Something about this figure calls to her, and as Veronica's voice returns on the soundtrack to bookend the episode, she remarks, "There was a girl. And I started to care about the girl. And if you know anything about what I do, that's never good."

Forget it, Veronica - it's Neptune.

My Response:
This is a well-executed, enticing entry back into the world of Veronica Mars - promising if not yet fully-flowered. There's a lot to like here; I'm particularly taken with Veronica's thematically rich attraction to the lonely girl, Patton Oswalt's endearing "don't fuck with the delivery man" shtick, and especially Alonzo's philosophical hitman. God knows that trope has been played to death - this year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pulp Fiction, after all - but Collins plunges so lustily into Thomas' punchy dialogue that it's impossible not to be taken in; if the conceit isn't fresh, the energy is. Pacing itself, the episode is sparing with return characters; aside from Cliff's cameo, Wallace's family-man glimpse, and Dick's ostensibly mellowed-out return (I didn't recognize him at first), the show offers up Veronica and Keith and...pretty much no one else. Well, with one major exception of course (the third and last name in the very short opening credits). If you're a Logan/Veronica shipper, you'll be delighted with their (slightly) more revealing hook-up but the show reminds us it's not just here for gratification when Logan proposes marriage...and Veronica flatly declines. Don't expect it to end there; Logan makes quite a show of playing with Wallace's little infant. As for the rest - no Mac, no Vinnie, no Leo, no Duncan (LOL) - no Kanes at all. Given college's role in the third season and the high school reunion's in the film, it's striking how the absence of any school experience reshapes the narrative. Perhaps most notably absent is Weevil; having listened to a wonderful podcast interview with Francis Capra, Jr., I have some inkling of what's in store but I won't say much for now (although it's probably not much more than is revealed in the trailer). I really look forward to his appearance, whenever the show decides to dole it out.

Now that it's a series again rather than a film, Veronica Mars is concerned with establishing routine rather than exploiting nostalgia. There are still moments of teasing, anticipatory fanservice (pretty much everything involving Logan) and catch-up exposition (reminding us as often of what happened in the movie as what happened in the first three seasons). But even these obligations are treated as opportunities to build something new, something that can be delivered patiently in installments: for example, the nature of Logan's current occupation - a Naval Intelligence operation sneaking around the shadows of the U.S. empire - remains an open question, as does the possibility of nuptials in Neptune, and Keith's doctor's visit doesn't just call back to his near-murder in the film, it sets up questions about his mental health that can play out over the season. If this returns us to the long arcs of the UPN/CW series, in other ways the fourth season is less a return to form than a new turn in the road. With the possible exception of the very first scene (and even more arguably the two-scene set-up/payoff for Alonzo's fatally frightened partner, played by Josue Aguirre), there are no self-contained storylines. Episodic obligations, it seems, are completely out the window: the show is now fully committed to serialization, telling one long story over the season, pacing its beats as a miniseries rather than a week-to-week mystery loop.

That said, will the premise established in the premiere - a bombed motel against the backdrop of middle vs. upper-class tensions over spring break - be sustained for all eight episodes? When Veronica re-introduces herself alongside the town she calls home through gritted teeth, she tells us that she's going to "start at the beginning of the end" (she also refers to the "first" explosion). Which end? Whose? If the film kicked off with a "we're not in Kansas anymore" premise - Veronica far from home, establishing a new life in the big city - it ended by restoring her role in the show; the film's arc was, essentially, a movie rediscovering its roots as a TV series. "Spring Break Forever", on the other hand, hints at the opposite direction. While we're opening with a snapshot of just one case among many, however big and unusual, the voiceover hints that Veronica may break away from Neptune's orbit once again before we've concluded, this time more permanently. And perhaps most ominous - more so than the deadly terrorist attack - is Keith's health. Having twice teased us with his likely death (in the film and the season two finale), if this season edges toward that possibility again I suspect it will go all the way this time. Whether embracing a global horizon or grounding itself in very close-to-home heartache, Veronica Mars promises a heroine's journey extending far wider and deeper than a single event, however traumatic. Veronica's professional duty threatens to become all too personal...and that, of course, is nothing new.

No comments: