Cartoon review: “Velma”

Velma Dinkley from HBO Max's "Velma"

Today I give my thoughts on the pilot for “Velma,” an adult-oriented HBO Max original series that’s supposedly a prequel to the “Scooby-Doo” franchise. The series debuted in January 2023.

SPOILERS below, of course.

Summary

“Velma” focuses on Velma Dinkley, traditionally the cerebral member of the Mystery Inc. gang. Here, she’s interested in solving the mystery of what happened to her missing mother, as well as contending with her former friend-turned-adversary, popular girl Daphne Blake. An ongoing plot involves a serial killer targeting teenage girls around town, with their brains removed from their skulls.

Also in the show are Fred Jones and Shaggy Rogers. Fred here is a vapid, spoiled rich boy who’s worried about belatedly reaching puberty. Shaggy here goes by his real name, Norville; he’s interested in both journalism (as a school reporter) and in Velma romantically.

Notably missing from this show: the dog the franchise is named after. The show’s producers A) weren’t allowed by Warner Bros. Animation to use Scooby, and B) felt he was too kid-oriented a character to fit into an adult-oriented show. (Something that apparently doesn’t apply to the human members of the gang.)

Velma is voiced by actor and comedian Mindy Kaling, who was on the 2000s sitcom “The Office.” I’ve never seen “The Office,” so I never heard of Kaling until “Velma” was announced. The rest of the cast also has new voice actors (Glenn Howerton as Fred, Constance Wu as Daphne, and Sam Richardson as Norville), though Frank Welker (Fred’s traditional voice actor) voices Fred’s father.

My thoughts

Velma HBO Max poster
“Velma” HBO Max poster. (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)

As readers of this blog can tell, I like “Scooby-Doo.” However, I admit I wasn’t excited for this series after seeing its initial trailer; it featured a stock horror parody and Velma griping about a “Jetsons” reboot changing things around for Judy Jetson. The latter is a signature part of “Velma”: meta-humor about the show itself.

After watching the pilot, I came away not irate (versus the reaction of some online), but instead just, well, eye-rolling. The word “banal” crossed my mind pretty often while watching “Velma.”

Overall, the show feels very much “Scooby-Doo” in name only: most of the cast is obnoxious, unlikable, and out of character (especially Fred); there’s also the lack of a certain Great Dane. I half-suspect they really wanted to make a generic adult animated sitcom (or a parody of “Scooby-Doo”) in the vein of “Harley Quinn” and “Family Guy,” but were forced to use an existing intellectual property, which would explain a lot about the show.

As for the lack of Scooby himself, I note that “Family Guy,” a show that features a talking dog front-and-center, has been running for 21 seasons (as of this writing), so clearly a talking dog can work in an adult animated sitcom. If nothing else, one would figure there’d be the chance to deconstruct or parody the very idea of a talking dog—for starters, the traditional franchise generally has nobody ever find it odd that Scooby can talk, when few other animals do so in-universe. But I guess not?

As an adult-oriented animated sitcom on HBO Max, “Velma” has a lot of the elements one would expect: partial nudity, references to sex, some gory violence, and obligatory swearing. Even if I ignore any ties to or feelings about “Scooby-Doo” and treat it as a generic adult animated sitcom, none of its humor or “adult” elements are particularly original or clever. The only remotely decent joke was one that wasn’t “adult”: a restroom scene where Daphne stops her rant at Velma long enough for someone to come out of a stall, wash her hands, dry them, and then join Daphne’s posse, before Daphne resumes said rant.

As for the “ironic” racial humor others have remarked on, that’d fall under “why I put ‘adult’ in quotes.” It also makes “Velma” feel dated: it feels like the “we make fun of both sides!” tone of a show from the 90/00s like “South Park,” without considering the downsides of said approach.

Highlights

  • The show’s set in Crystal Cove, the name of the gang’s hometown from the 2010-2013 spin-off “Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated.” Spinoffs since then seem to have either used “Crystal Cove” or “Coolsville” (from “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo”) as the name of the gang’s hometown. (My personal handwave: they’re neighboring towns near “Big City” from “Dynomutt?”)
  • The one positive aspect of the show: the entire gang (save Fred) are people of color. Norville’s Black, Daphne is Asian American, and Velma is Indian American; Daphne also has two Moms, one of whom is Black. Unsurprisingly, part of the criticism of “Velma” online is out of racism, either thinly veiled or just openly. (A day ending in “y” for the internet?)
  • This isn’t the first “Scooby-Doo” production without the canine, or to focus on Velma; that’d be “Daphne & Velma,” a 2018 live-action direct-to-video prequel movie about how Daphne and Velma first met, before meeting the rest of the gang.

Conclusion

Norville on "Velma"
Norville on “Velma.” (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)

Overall, “Velma” didn’t leave me irate, just mildly annoyed at how banal and adolescent its “adult” humor felt, while lacking much else of interest. While I’m glad we finally got a racially diverse version of Mystery, Inc., I just wish it was for a more traditional take on the gang. Otherwise, this show is pretty much “‘Scooby-Doo’ in name only.”

I assumed “Velma” was meant to appeal to fans of “Harley Quinn,” “Family Guy,” and the like, or those that weren’t big fans of “Scooby-Doo.” However, the online reaction I’ve seen suggests otherwise. It doesn’t seem aimed at traditional “Scooby-Doo” fans, either (again, where’s the dog?). “Velma” also doesn’t even work well as a parody of the franchise. So that leaves… fans of generic adult animated sitcoms, I guess?

As for my suggested alternatives to “Velma”:

  • If you want a better-done “mature” take on “Scooby-Doo,” I suggest “Mystery, Incorporated.” I wasn’t big on the show, but it did a better job than “Velma” in offering a “darker” take on the franchise.
  • Another “darker” option is the 1998 animated film “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island,” as well as the follow-up 1999 film “Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost.” (I suggest skipping “Zombie Island”’s 2018 sequel “Return to Zombie Island,” however.)
  • If you still want a “darker” take but read comics, the DC Comics series “Scooby Apocalypse” is an option: the gang as young adults fighting a zombie outbreak. I didn’t read it, but it was reasonably popular, running for 37 issues.
  • If you want a Warner Bros.-created “Scooby-Doo” parody, “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law” on Adult Swim had one, the episode “Shaggy Busted.”
  • If you’re here for just Velma herself, but want a more traditional/light-hearted version, try “Trick or Treat, Scooby-Doo,” a Halloween special released in October 2022. It’s been nominated for a 2023 GLAAD Media Award.

Image of Velma Dinkley from HBO Max’s “Velma.” (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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