There’s a comfort to Scooby Doo‘s formula: Meddling kids (and one lovable dog) untangle a spooky mystery and unmask a villain. Rinse and repeat!
Of course, there have been several variations on this theme. Since our introduction to Mystery Incorporated in 1969, countless spin-offs have tinkered with the main Scooby lore. Sometimes Mystery Inc. are kids, sometimes the supernatural threats are real, and sometimes Scooby and co. team up with Batman. But no matter the changes, it always comes back to the main premise of a good mystery and the plucky gang who solves it.
Enter Velma, the latest Scooby Doo spin-off to hit our screens. An adult animated comedy, Velma explores the origin story of Mystery Inc.’s resident brainiac, Velma Dinkley (voiced by Mindy Kaling). How did she get her start solving mysteries? How did she put together the now-iconic group of herself, Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, and Norville “Shaggy” Rogers? (Scooby himself isn’t in the picture.) Velma seeks to reveal all through a new lens.
As someone who loves Scooby Doo and whose favorite Mystery Inc. member is Velma, I was all set to love Velma. The potential for an adult Scooby Doo series is enormous, especially when coupled with the talents of Kaling, Constance Wu (as Daphne), Sam Richardson (as Norville), and Glenn Howerton (as Fred). Yet as I watched the series and its mystery unfold, a bigger puzzle arose. All the pieces of a great Scooby spin-off are here, so why does this not come together? The answer: a combination of uneven humor, too little mystery, and a core misunderstanding of Velma herself.
Velma presents a wild twist on Mystery Inc.
Credit: Courtesy of HBO Max
Velma’s origin story starts — in her own words — “with a murder, bitch.”
A serial killer has descended on the town of Crystal Cove, murdering popular girls and snatching their brains. It’s up to Velma to find the culprit. The only problem? Every time she tries to solve a mystery, she’s haunted by ghostly hallucinations of her missing mother, Diya (voiced by Sarayu Blue), who disappeared two years ago.
With a more adult audience in mind, Velma has a chance to experiment with how intense the show’s horror can get. For the most part, it succeeds. The image of brainless corpses is graphic beyond Scooby Doo standards, immediately cluing us in that this isn’t the Scooby Doo of our childhoods. Velma’s hallucinations are also extra spooky, all skeletal hands and ghoulish mommy issues. Unfortunately, what starts out as a compelling narrative device to explore Velma’s inner demons quickly stagnates. Velma falls into a pattern: Every time the eponymous protagonist is about to make progress on the case, she gets the same kind of hallucination, with very little escalation or emotional payoff. The scariest thing about these visions ends up being how much they hinder the plot.
Velma isn’t only dealing with murderers and lost mothers. She’s also got the highs and lows of high school to worry about. Among these is her feud with former best friend Daphne, who ditched Velma for the popular crowd. Then there’s Velma’s strange attraction to hot jerk Fred, who doesn’t even remember her name, and her wonky friendship with Norville, who clearly has feelings for her. All four of the show’s leads deliver funny performances, but it’s Howerton who steals the show by bringing Dennis Reynolds levels of rage to a truly unhinged iteration of Fred.
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While the vocal performances are often quite funny, I can’t say the same about Velma‘s writing. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud lines, but overall, the jokes range from dated references to cringeworthy attempts at meta-commentary. Why, in the first episode, are characters opining on the increased levels of sex and nudity in TV pilots — while flashing plenty of cartoon skin? Why, later on, are we treated to an extended gag about flashbacks? There’s no bite to the commentary in these bits, so it feels like shabby lampshading.
The only time Velma‘s meta-ness works in its favor is when it pokes fun at Scooby Doo itself. Instead of being the goofy — maybe-high — Shaggy we’re used to, Norville is a straight-edge nerd, who declares right to camera that he hates drugs. Velma addresses rumors that she is a lesbian with “I know this is what you’re really here for” exasperation. These winking jokes work. For the most part though, Velma‘s parade of sex, drugs, and letting Velma say “bitch” doesn’t get the comedic support required for such a premise.
Velma is Velma‘s worst enemy.
Credit: Courtesy of HBO Max
The biggest strike against Velma is its portrayal of its main character — and I don’t mean this in a toxic, racist “they changed Velma’s race and explored her queerness, so I don’t like her” kind of way. I mean this in a “they completely altered her personality” kind of way.
One of the biggest delights of Velma as a character is the pleasure she gets from solving a mystery. Her intelligence and skepticism about the supernatural traditionally help drive Scooby Doo. Yet Velma removes any joy from mystery solving with its repetitive hallucinations gunking up the investigation. Snooping takes a backseat to relationship drama and high school woes, so the bulk of what we see of Velma is vindictive, selfish, and downright mean.
Prior versions of Velma could be sarcastic or sassy, but Velma‘s Velma is constantly slinging insults and talking down to people. This show does try to ground its protagonist’s anger in the loss of her mother and her status as a high school loser. Sadly, it rarely gives her moments of redemption or growth to balance out her staunchly misanthropic behavior.
The Kaling-produced Velma joins Kaling’s projects Never Have I Ever and The Sex Lives of College Girls in featuring complicated, messy young women. But there, characters learn bit by bit from their mistakes. Here, Velma remains steadfast in her flaws to the point of obstinacy — and to the point that she barely resembles the enthusiastically inquisitive character we know and love. It takes more than an orange sweater and a pair of glasses to be Velma Dinkley. Hopefully, Velma will come to realize that.