The Line That Velma Crossed
In Velma, HBO Max’s adult-oriented Scooby-Doo spin-off, familiar faces get involved in all sorts of gritty, R-rated activities. Velma (played by the show’s executive producer, Mindy Kaling) and Daphne (Constance Wu) sell drugs. Fred (Glenn Howerton) gets shot in both legs. Shaggy (Sam Richardson), known by his birth name, Norville, tries to sell a kidney on the black market. Scenes of gratuitous violence pad almost every episode: Limbs get severed, corpses roll out of trash bins, riots break out in prison.
Meddling kids getting into wacky mysteries with their dog, this show is adamantly not. And in the months leading up to Velma’s debut, the creative team seemed to anticipate backlash to the bold changes they’d made. The creator, Charlie Grandy, argued that the writers’ alterations—including excising Scooby from the gang, reimagining Velma as a misanthropic South Asian teenager, and incorporating grotesque gags—felt authentic to the spirit of the original series. “We wanted to be respectful,” he explained. “We didn’t want to just kind of take these beloved characters and put them in outrageous or gross situations and say, ‘Isn’t it crazy you did that to Velma?’”
If only viewers felt the same way. Since Velma began airing on HBO Max this month, audiences have pummeled the series with negative reviews. Many complaints are—as is frequently the case with projects that change the ethnicity of originally white characters—knee-jerk, racist reactions to seeing well-known figures in a new context. Other viewers say that the show is too vulgar, transforming Velma and the gang into characters they no longer recognize. But the real problem with Velma isn’t that its updates make Euphorialook like child’s play; it’s that its edginess comes at the expense of its own characters and punishes the audience for being invested. Like a certain Mystery Inc. member rummaging around in the dark for her glasses, the series is unfocused, confused, and desperately lost.
The issues begin with Velma’s overreliance on meta jokes about television in place of a compelling plot. The show follows Velma as she attempts to find the serial killer targeting high-school girls, searches for her missing mother, and tries to overcome nightmarish hallucinations that occur when she pursues cases—storytelling beats meant to parody dark teen dramas such as Riverdale. That concept, though, quickly grows old. Characters constantly pause the action to call out and summarize narrative tropes rather than letting the story unfold. In an upcoming episode, for instance, Velma explains her relationship with her father in terms of television history before the scene plays out. “If there’s one thing teen dramas get right, it’s that nothing is ever actually a teenager’s fault,” she says. “We’re all really just paying for the sins of our parents. They’re either lying to us, or trying to change us, or hiding some dark family secret. But when it comes to truly crappy parents, no one beats my dad.” The monologue is unfunny, unsubtle, and completely unnecessary.
Worse, such moments reduce the ensemble into static joke-delivery machines. Kaling and the rest of the cast deliver enthusiastic performances, but their animated counterparts never come across as actual teenagers or coherent characters. They tease each other by pointing out the stereotypes they embody, flattening everyone into the very archetypes they’re skewering: Daphne is a hot girl obsessed with being popular, Fred is a womanizing rich kid with daddy issues, Norville is a loser who can’t get laid, and Velma is a hypercritical outcast. When characters do grow, the evolution is inconsistent or simply played for laughs. Velma, in one episode, realizes she has “no clue how to be a woman in a way that doesn’t judge other women,” but by the next installment, she’s once again pettily tearing down a female classmate. Fred reads The Feminine Mystique, only for his attraction to “inner beauty” to become a running gag. The show, as a result, doesn’t feel clever; it just feels mean.
In other words, Velma isn’t really reimagining Velma—or Daphne, or Fred, or Norville—at all. Through endless references and half-hearted attempts at self-aware humor, the show seems most concerned with picking apart the original franchise: the ludicrousness of the mysteries, the absurdity of the gang’s efforts, the tropes each character perpetuated. Yet in doing so, the series fails to make fresh observations about Scooby-Doo or about the teen-drama genre. It just offers a relentless barrage of outdated pop-culture commentary. Across the eight episodes I’ve seen, the weak jokes come first. Take a scene of Velma and her father heading to a strip club for lunch, for example. The setup could have been an opportunity to examine the characters’ awkward relationship, but it’s mostly done for shock value—as well as to land a tasteless punch line about how strippers take off their clothes because they’re still chasing their father’s attention.
Mature updates of venerated cartoons can work. HBO Max itself houses one of the best: Harley Quinn, a colorful extension of the DC animated universe that follows the titular comic-book character striking out on her own. Like Velma, the show is violent, packed with meta jokes, and concerned with depicting a female character’s journey of self-discovery. But unlike Velma, the series has a clear reverence for the original franchise; it treats Harley with respect, prioritizing her development even amid rapid-fire jokes. Velma, meanwhile, emphasizes its shallow humor, yielding a project that struggles to be playful and misunderstands its protagonist’s appeal. No, reboots shouldn’t be carbon copies of their source material. But neither should they dismiss it—or sneer at the viewers who care.