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HBO Max’s Scooby-Doo Prequel Starring Mindy Kaling  

Here is what HBO Max’s Velma is not: It’s not the Scooby-Doo you remember from your childhood, or that your parents do from theirs. (The Great Dane doesn’t even appear, in fact.) It’s neither a faithful update of those wholesome old cartoons, nor an attempt to reboot them with more dramatic heft. It’s not just another supernatural teen drama, and it’s not just another superhero origin story.

It’s too smart for all of that, or so it believes. From its first minutes, Velma is a thoroughly meta affair, winking at the sillier staples of the Scooby-Doo universe, at the lore and the stereotypes built around its characters, at the absurdity of TV screenwriting conventions in general. But if Velma delights in sending up all the usual tropes, it seems somewhat less sure of what it has to offer in their stead.

Velma

The Bottom Line

Too much meta humor, not enough heart.

Airdate: Thursday, Jan. 12 (HBO Max)
Cast: Mindy Kaling, Constance Wu, Sam Richardson, Glenn Howerton
Developed by: Charlie Grandy

Created by Charlie Grandy, a veteran of The Office, The Mindy Project and Saturday Night Live, the adult-oriented animated offering is positioned as a prequel to the Scooby-Doo stories we know and love so well. At its start, Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) is an awkward teen outcast still haunted by the disappearance of her mother Diya (Sarayu Blue) some years earlier — to the extent that thinking about it too hard conjures life-threatening, and rather strikingly animated, hallucinations.

But her interest in the case revs back up once Crystal Cove High is hit by a string of murders that may or may not have anything to do with Diya’s absence, but definitely put the prettiest, most popular girls in town — like Velma’s BFF-turned-nemesis Daphne (Constance Wu) — at risk. Complicating matters further are the raging adolescent hormones that send the kids lurching from one crush to another. Velma truthers can rest assured the show wastes little time addressing speculation about whether its protagonist might be gay, and, if so, whether she might be in love with Daphne.

Initially, Velma‘s ironic approach is amusing, in the way that a string of clever tweets calling out overused tropes is amusing. This comedy is so extravagantly self-aware that it’ll tweak its own self-awareness within the very first minutes of the premiere. “Have you ever noticed how pilot episodes of TV shows always have more gratuitous sex and nudity than the rest of the series?” Daphne blithely notes, before getting into a naked shower fight with a fellow hot girl over whether Riverdale can be both self-referential and sexy.

The series is equally playful about lampshading its much-discussed choice to race-swap its characters, or winking at Shaggy’s pothead reputation. Here, the iconic slacker is presented as Norville (Sam Richardson), a clear-eyed band geek who tells Velma, “Man, if I even think about getting into 420, 420 culture or especially 420-related humor, kill me.” (The pair then clarify that 420 is “code for adults who still watch cartoons.”) And the humor is delivered by an enviable roster of comedy actors: Glenn Howerton rounds out the main quartet as Fred, a helpless rich boy with daddy issues, and even minor roles are filled by the likes of Weird Al Yankovic or Nicole Byer or Stephen Root.

But Velma‘s insistence that it’s not like other shows grows thin over the season’s ten half-hour episodes (eight of which were sent to critics). An opening voiceover promises that this is a different kind of origin story, one not about “tall handsome guys struggling with the burden of being handed even more power” or asking “what made this hot chick go crazy?” In practice, however, this one feels plenty familiar, invoking the likes of Riverdale in its archness, Veronica Mars in its prickly crime-solving heroine and most especially its HBO Max sister show Harley Quinn in its gleeful irreverence — all shows that, whatever their shortcomings, enjoy a much stronger sense of identity and purpose than Velma does.

For every solid crack (“Ranking hot girls is exactly how the Trojan War and Facebook started!”), there’s an observation that feels like a repurposed Twitter draft from some harried screenwriter’s folder. “I speak truth without a filter, like every comedian before #MeToo,” declares Velma, never mind that the line doesn’t make a ton of sense coming from a proud feminist teenager in 2023. Amid the semi-topical snipes at teen rom-coms, yass-queen feminism, hairy Brooklynites and, for some reason, the movie Serpico, the future Scooby-Doo gang and their peers can come off less like individuals than joke-delivery machines.

Yet Velma never loses sight of its affection for its heroine. The single most endearing element of Velma is, paradoxically, how unlikable she can be — how selfish, how self-righteous, how emotionally messy in the way of traumatized but also super-horny teenagers since time immemorial — and how much the show seems to enjoy her anyway. At one point, Velma tries to remake the school’s pretty, popular girls in her own “uggo” image before eventually confessing, “I have no clue how to be a woman in a way that doesn’t judge other women.” It’s one of the show’s most thoughtful, emotionally honest beats, and a testament to the its willingness to meet Velma on her own flawed terms.

Perhaps it’s also, based on the series’ emphasis on snark over heart, a lesson Velma could stand to consider for itself.

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