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With Veronica Mars and Party Down, Rob Thomas Cracked the Code to TV Revivals

For a true model on how to drag an old series out of retirement with its pleasures intact, Thomas is the person to see.
  • Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars; Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in Party Down (Photos: Everett Collection/Starz)
    Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars; Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in Party Down (Photos: Everett Collection/Starz)

    What’s old is new again on television. The calendar currently reads like an issue of TV Guide from back when people still figured out what to watch by flipping through TV Guide. This month alone, viewers can tune in for the new adventures of Carrie Bradshaw, catch up with Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens on the limited series Justified: City Primeval, and once more board the Planet Express as Futurama returns from cancellation again, roughly a thousand years after the animated sitcom first landed on Fox.

    From a ratings standpoint, this current trend in bringing shows back from the dead has proven lucrative. Creatively speaking, it’s a dicier proposition. Even reuniting the original cast and crew of a series is no guarantee you’ll be able to recapture the magic of its first run. Greatness in a TV show is like lightning: It rarely strikes the same spot twice, and it’s difficult to bottle.

    Still, worthy resurrections do happen. Twin Peaks is the most obvious example, but also the most flukishly audacious — a once-in-a-lifetime deal. For a true model on how to drag an old series out of retirement with its pleasures intact, the person to see is Rob Thomas. The writer, creator, and executive producer has now successfully raised the dead twice — pressing one-time teenage sleuth Veronica Mars back into investigative service for a fourth season on Hulu, and reuniting the bumbling caterers of cult sitcom Party Down for a very belated third season on Starz.

    Thomas is a veteran at squeezing new juice from old oranges. He was among the writers hired to update the ’90s primetime soap 90210 for a new generation back in 2008. A year later, and the same month Party Down premiered, Thomas also took a second shot at Cupid, his first TV show, about a man who insists he’s the Greco-Roman god of love, sent to Earth to play matchmaker. It was very much in the spirit of his 1998 Cupid, down to surviving only a single season.

    Those shows, of course, were basically reboots, with entirely or predominantly new casts. Thomas really found his mojo on TV’s comeback trail when the industry turned from remaking its old hits to engineering the small-screen version of legacy sequels. In this new climate of de-cancellation, he saw the fresh opportunity to jolt his cult hits back to life, rewarding the patience of faithful fans.

    The Veronica Mars revival, which dropped on Hulu in 2019, had the advantage of commencing from what was, in practice, something of a second pilot: The crowd-funded movie from five years earlier had already dragged a now-fully-adult Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) back to her seedy California hometown of Neptune. An enjoyable but limited blast of fan service, the movie was like a test balloon for renewed interest in Veronica Mars, proving the story could work without its central hook, the fact that its sardonic detective was originally a high school student, solving crimes involving her rich classmates.

    Veronica remained a winning protagonist far beyond the rites of adolescent passage, but she belonged on TV, where her investigations could sprawl over the course of a 20-episode season instead of the length of a single feature. The Hulu version essentially split the difference, plopping Veronica into an eight-episode whodunit you could binge over a single weekend.

    In adjusting his most beloved creation to the reduced episode orders of the streaming era, Thomas emphasized the actual appeal of the show: It wasn’t the case-of-the-week material his network bosses preferred but the long-form mysteries he would tell across whole seasons — an element of serialization that was much less common in the early 2000s, when Veronica Mars initially dabbled in it, than it's become in our present age of murder-mystery procedurals. Season 4 of Veronica Mars wouldn’t so much compromise the show for a new era as trim the compromises of an earlier one (including UPN and CW restrictions on sex, profanity, violence, and other noir essentials).

    Party Down, which Thomas co-created with John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd, was always itself, and always an outlier: a scrappy Starz sitcom, vaguely in the Office workplace comedy mold, whose low-budget aesthetic reflected the paycheck-to-paycheck reality of its characters’ lives as service-industry grunts slinging drinks and hor d’oeuvres while awaiting a big break that might never come. Then and now, the show existed on the margins of Hollywood; the new episodes that premiered earlier this year didn’t deviate from the format of the two seasons that came before. But they did find Thomas and company adapting to the changing times in other ways, diversifying the cast and lightly pruning some of the more outdated sexual politics.

    Neither series tries to pick up where it left off, exactly. They both, in fact, interrogate the de facto homecomings on which they hinge. Season 4 of Veronica Mars begins with a voiceover in which the eponymous private eye wonders aloud whether it was a good thing that she returned to Neptune; however triumphantly right it felt to see her behind the desk again at the end of the movie, ambivalence dominates the revival. Likewise, one of the villains of the show, the previously vanquished businessman Richard Casablancas (David Starzyk), sells his nefarious beautifying plan for the town as a return to the good old days that never were, a real Make Neptune Great Again plot. The season is an ostensibly nostalgic revival that casts nostalgia under suspicion.

    Season 3 of Party Down finds a reasonably organic way to get the gang back together, then uses their reunion to ask questions about the nature of success. By season’s end, Ron (Ken Marino), Kyle (Ryan Hansen), Roman (Martin Starr), Constance (Jane Lynch), and Lydia (Megan Mullally) have all achieved some measure of success, but that hasn’t left them unburdened or carefree. And if the initial run of Party Down was about Adam Scott’s Henry regaining the gumption to finally give acting a second try, Season 3 builds to a different kind of choice. As time passes, your dreams might change. Ideally, chasing the past becomes less important than living in the present, and not just accepting but appreciating where you’ve landed. An ironic point for a very late season of a long-dead show to make, but Thomas leans into the irony.

    The new season of Party Down also updates its portrait of professional aspiration for a new generation of gig-economy hustling. Neither of the new characters, content creator Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) and budding food artist Lucy (Zoë Chao), are as sharply defined as the original ensemble. But they aren’t superfluous either: Through their career foibles, Party Down tries to rethink what celebrity is today, and how that hopeless pining for showbiz success both has and hasn’t changed since the late 2000s.

    Part of the appeal of TV’s revival wave is that it essentially tells viewers that they don’t have to grow up. They can still have the stuff they liked when they were younger. That’s the real hook of nostalgia bait—it’s a vicarious way to relive your glory days. With their cameos and occasional callbacks, the recent seasons of Veronica Mars and Party Down aren’t totally above thinking fondly on the past. But they draw poignance from letting the characters grow up, from having them acknowledge their age, from not pretending that it’s still the 2000s, when both premiered.

    And both shows genuinely strive, in their rebirth, to continue the stories they’ve been telling, and not simply echo the pleasures of old episodes. They’ve been made in the spirit of the previous seasons, with an understanding of what made them special, without embalming their characters in that spirit. That Thomas was after more than just the quick hit of fan service is evident in the runway he left himself for more: The most recent season finales of Veronica Mars and Party Down both look forward, not backwards. They see a real future for these characters.

    Whether we’ll ever get that future remains to be seen. Neither show has been renewed for more seasons, with the saga of Veronica Mars currently stuck on an indefinite downbeat note and the adventures of the Party Down staff ending with an ellipses of romantic possibility. But if either does come back, count on Thomas to find a way to justify that continuation beyond a thirst for ratings or fan approval. Or maybe he’ll dip back into iZombie instead. These days, no show is so dead that it can’t be dug out of the grave.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Veronica Mars, Hulu, Starz, Party Down, Adam Scott, Jason Dohring, Kristen Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Rob Thomas (Writer), Zoe Chao, TV Revivals