I saw the promo materials for Velma come out from San Diego Comic-Con last summer where they promised a totes dark and edgy take on the Scooby gang. I then saw the trailer, which was just one leaden joke after another falling flat, but still, I pressed on. And watched the two episodes that HBO Max released yesterday.
It couldn’t be as bad as all that, could it?
I am here to tell you that, yes, it was. It is only January, but I am hard-pressed to imagine a worse, more disappointing show coming out this year.
The overarching premise of Velma is how our beloved Scooby gang first got together and started solving mysteries. Velma (voiced by the showrunner, Mindy Kaling) is a judgy, sarcastic teenager, traumatized by the disappearance of her mother. Daphne (Constance Wu), is a mean girl and Velma’s ex-BFF who now sells drugs so she can get enough money to hire a private investigator to find out who her real parents are. Norville, aka Shaggy (Sam Richardson), is Thelma’s only friend with a huge crush on her and he gets routinely ignored and belittled by her. And Fred (Glenn Howerton), is now a mediocre rich white boy, who is basically a huge jerk with a baby dick… Which is an actual plot point in episode 2.
Now, I am hardly someone who thinks that the Scooby-Doo cartoons of the 1960’s is some sacred text that can never be altered or updated or made fun of. Heck, practically every animated show out there has made jokes about Scooby-Doo, like Venture Bros., Family Guy, and Robot Chicken. So please, make all the jokes you want. The problem with Velma is that every character is unpleasant and awful, and worst of all, not funny in the slightest.
It starts with the scripts. The opening scenes of the pilot are just full of self-referential, meta “jokes” that aren’t really jokes. Velma starts off by talking about origin stories. “Sure, normally, origin stories are about tall, handsome guys struggling with the burden of being handed even more power. And if they’re about girls, they’re usually like ‘Hey, what made this hot chick go crazy?'”
First off, that does not describe the typical comic book origin story at all. If you made a joke about how “a nerdy incel has all his power fantasies come true,” that would at least be somewhat accurate. “Hot girl goes crazy” really only describes Harley Quinn, and this show should never, ever, ever compare itself to the much better adult animation show on HBO Max.
The next scene takes place in the girls locker room, where Daphne is showering with her hot girl friends. “Have you ever noticed,” she asks her friends, “how pilot episodes of TV shows always have more gratuitous sex and nudity than the rest of the series?” This isn’t a joke. This is a show doing a cliche and expecting a cookie because they realized it was a cliche, but not actually doing anything satiric with it. It’s an excuse to have naked teen girls fight in the shower.
And it just goes on like this. There are a dozen places where Velma and company comment on the cliches of modern television, but don’t actually make a joke about it. When they do attempt jokes, they’re all mean-spirited and sarcastic put downs, with tons of fat jokes about Velma and even more jokes, calling Daphne a bitch.
It’s just really obvious elbow-in-the-ribs attempts at humor. Like when Norville (Shaggy) surmises that the murder that kicks off the show had something to do with drugs, “Which I hate!” he says and then stares straight into the camera for five seconds (GET IT? BECAUSE EVERYONE THINKS SHAGGY IS A STONER! AHAHAHAHAHAH!!).
I wanted to add a note about the racial makeup of the show. Much has been written (or more accurately, shouted on YouTube) about how the show went “woke” by making Velma southeast Asian and Daphne Chinese and Norville/Shaggy black. This is utter nonsense, and frankly, the absolute least of the issues with the show. The bigger issues are about how terrible the jokes are and how much they lean into anti-“woke” humor. For example, Velma insists she just an unfiltered truth-teller, “just like every comic before hashtag MeToo!” Because stupid girls killed comedy by not wanting to be harassed, AMIRIGHT? Nudge, nudge!
There’s a germ of a good idea in this show, where Velma is guilt-ridden about her mother’s disappearance. See, her junior investigative skills led her to find her Christmas presents early, so her mom went out to get her a gift to open on Christmas morning but never returned. As a result, now when she tries to solve a mystery, she hallucinates ghosts and monsters trying to kill her. This would be a good idea, except it’s immediately neutered by a dumb meta comment by Fred. “Wow, after hearing that I not only feel emotionally hooked, I understand the stakes of your journey.” It’s neutered further by the dad telling Velma that Mom didn’t disappear, she just left them because she hated them. Great character work, everyone.
It’s really a shame, because this has an excellent voice cast. In addition to the leads, there’s Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch playing Daphne’s adoptive parents, Russell Peters as Velma’s lawyer dad, plus Nicole Byers and Melissa Fumero. They’re all just completely wasted here.
One thing that especially bugs me about this whole thing is just the whole strategic direction of HBO Max. Last summer, WB Discovery just straight up deleted a Scooby-Doo movie – Scoob! Holiday Haunt, a sequel to Scoob! (2019) one of the first ever films on HBO Max. This was part of the tax-break, cost-cutting purge that new CEO David Zaslav embarked on when the companies merged. Yet the sequel to the charming movie (even featuring Tracey Morgan as Captain Caveman) got cancelled, but this awful piece of IP garbage got a full promotional push. Never mind all the other animated shows HBO Max axed in the last year to make way for this misbegotten dreck.
So please, I am begging you, don’t even give this a hate watch. Algorithms don’t care WHY you watched. Make it as clear as possible that WBD made a terrible mistake and should delete this from all the servers.