Veronica Mars director Scott Winant on the set (©2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
There’s never been a more exciting time to be a connoisseur of great television than right now. And the new season of Veronica Mars, which premiered last month on Hulu, is Exhibit A for why that is. This series has come a long way since its start as a noir variation on Nancy Drew, with its teenage detective solving mysteries in high school and college. The series’ current fourth season is classic film noir at its darkest and most powerful, with the type of clever, literate dialogue one associates with the show’s creator, producer-writer Rob Thomas. If you haven’t seen Season 4 yet, I recommend you watch it ASAP. And avoid reading anything about the season that doesn’t specify that it’s spoiler-free. (For the record, this article contains no major spoilers.)
To say that Season 4 is a game changer, however, for both the characters and the series itself does not count as a “spoiler” because Veronica (Kristen Bell), in her voiceover narration at the beginning of the opening episode, warns the viewers that not everything will end well by the time the current mystery is solved. That mystery revolves around a series of bombings in the beach town of Neptune, CA (the show’s fictional setting) during the annual and predictably raucous spring break. The first bombing, at a low-budget motel, sets into motion a series of suspicions, double-crosses, revenge scenarios, and accusations of guilt, some justified, most not. (As longtime Veronica Mars fans, popularly known as “marshmallows,” are already aware, Neptune is a “town without a middle-class,” and the class tensions between the haves and have-nots, which have always been simmering just beneath the surface, threatens to boil over dangerously in the wake of the bombings.)
The season also serves to update the fans on the current lives of the series’ much-loved cast of characters. Veronica, in her mid-30s, has become a partner with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) in his private detective agency, a good thing for Keith, who now walks with a cane, since he continues to have health problems as a result of the car accident he suffered in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie. Veronica and her long-time off-and-on boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) are sharing an apartment on the beach when he’s not overseas in his position as a Naval Intelligence Officer. Other cast favorites, such as Logan’s best friend, perennial rich frat boy and party animal Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen); Veronica’s close friend Wallace Fennell (Percy Daggs III), biker gang leader Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra); and cut-rate lawyer, public defender, and occasional client of Mars Investigations, Cliff McCormick (Daran Norris), all put in appearances.
Joining them are some first-rate guest stars, including Patton Oswald as over-aged pizza delivery boy and conspiracy theorist Penn Epner; J.K. Simmons as ex-con Clyde Pickett, who works as a fixer for Dick’s sleazy real estate magnate father, “Big Dick” Casablancas (David Starzyk); and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Nicole Malloy, owner of “Comrade Quacks,” a favorite watering hole for the spring breakers.
Two-time Emmy-winning producer-director Scott Winant, perhaps beat known for such critically acclaimed series such as thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Breaking Bad, True Blood, and Californication, is a newcomer to Veronica Mars, but he was entrusted with two Season 4 episodes, “Losing Streak” and the season finale “Years, Continents, Bloodshed.” He did, however, find some story elements similar to one of his previous assignments.
“Not unlike Breaking Bad, there was a delicate balance between humor, drama, and sudden acts of violence,” Winant said. “Kristen Bell has an uncanny ability find just the right tone in her performance so all of these different colors fit together. I took my lead from her when directing the other actors to make sure the episodes felt tonally correct. Also, the show has an inherent rhythm both in its smart-clever dialogue and in its intricate story telling. I worked hard to create a visual style that supported those elements. I enjoyed learning about each actor’s history on the show and how their characters impacted Veronica. As a newcomer, my goal was to respect the past, but to also bring an object point of view that I hoped would give first-time viewer a comfortable way into the series.”
As he made clear to me, Winant couldn’t have been more pleased working with the Veronica Mars cast and crew. “First, Kristen is a marvel,” he explained. “Not only one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with but a genuinely great human being. On set, she is totally focused and locked-in, not only to her own work, but also to a hundred other things swirling around her. I’ve said it many times while shooting that having Kristen Bell in a scene is like have a co-director on set. She’s remarkably intuitive and is aware of everyone’s job. No matter how complex a shot, she could adapt instantly and make very difficult moments easy. And Ricco [Colantoni] is a prince. He, too, is a brilliant actor, but like Kristen, is a wonderful person, kind and generous. Down the line, across the board, the entire cast was a delight to work with. The crew felt like family and made me feel welcome. Every department showed passion and enthusiasm for all my ideas and gave me the tools I needed to create something special for this very unique show.”
It’s a testament to Winant’s skill as a director that his two episodes couldn’t be more different in tone. “Losing Streak,” the fifth episode of the eight-episode season, is basically the season’s equivalent of a “seventh-inning stretch,” a kind of summation of the various plot threats and suspects, with a relatively lighter tone than the other episodes, although it does have its share of dramatic tension. In fact, it has two particularly funny comic scenes back-to-back. The first is a party at Wallace’s house with his wife and child and, as Veronica puts it, “their yuppie friends.” (When told that Veronica is a private detective, a guest relates her profession to the “old Charlie Chan movies.”) That sequence is followed by an interlude with Veronica and Nicole vaping some excellent reefer in the Fennells’ bathroom. I asked Winant if he felt equally comfortable with lighter moments like that and the more intense moments that follow. “I do feel comfortable with both ends of the dramatic spectrum and approach them all with equal energy,” he told me. “Ultimately my goal is to find the honest truth to every moment no matter its tone.”
Speaking of intense, Winant’s second episode, the aforementioned finale “Years, Continents, Bloodshed,” is by far the darkest episode of the season. For example, the episode’s opening scene is a murder that manages to be both shocking in its violence and yet grimly amusing as a kind of poetic justice. I told Winant that the scene reminded me of a similar scene in an episode from the first season of Fargo he directed called “Who Shaves the Barber?”, which also had a killing that was both horrific and humorous, and compared both scenes to the type of dark comedy audiences associate with the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. “First, I’m flattered to be associated with the Coen Brother and Tarantino,” he responded, “and yes, I do feel I have a flair for those type sequences. I love dealing with material that is both complex and nuanced. It allows me to use cinematic techniques to convey mood and emotion. The Veronica Mars sequence, despite its gruesome content, read to me like a French Farce. Multiple characters with different motivations all colliding at the same time in the same space. It’s a tonal challenge because you want the violence to be depicted honestly, but at the same time, it must fit into the show as a whole. These esthetic choices are important and must be handled correctly, otherwise the viewer will be pushed out of the experience.”
As dark as that opening sequence is, the episode’s third act is even heavier dramatically. I asked Winant how difficult those final scenes were to approach. “I understood the importance of this sequence and how difficult it may be for certain fans to absorb,” he answered. “I did my best to give it the weight it deserved without belaboring what I knew would be an emotionally upsetting moment. Once again, I leaned into Kristen’s performance and the strong writing to carry us through this monumental story beat.”
All in all, Winant found working on Veronica Mars to be an especially satisfying experience. “If Veronica Mars comes back for a fifth season,” he said,” I would manipulate my schedule and make every effort humanly possible to be a part of it. Shows like this are rare and I consider being a part of it a privilege and an honor.”