While not weird enough, Netflix’s “Wednesday” succeeded in following in the footsteps of The CW’s “Nancy Drew” as it helped usher in a new era of teen TV detectives specializing in creepy crimes. And now, that torch has been passed to “Velma,” the HBO Max entry into the world of the iconic “Scooby-Doo” that premieres Thursday.
Film based on the 60’s and 70’s cartoon “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” Voiced by Mindy Kaling, who also serves as producer and co-creator with frequent collaborator and showrunner Charlie Grundy, Filma has more complexity, contradictions, and nuance than ever before.
Part of that is due to the way the OG series has been formatted. It’s an adventure-seeking animated series that’s less about the group of idiosyncratic teen detectives – and their fearful cat – that Velma is a part of, than the bizarre mysteries they challenge themselves to solve in each episode.
(The fading of central characteristics into the background is not unlike many adult crime procedurals today, including “Law & Order.”)
Velma clearly delves into her narrative, giving her an emotionally unavailable father, a mysteriously missing mother, friends, enemies, and sexuality, while rightly positioning her as the central gum in an increasingly bizarre case of murdered sexy girls. School.
It’s what you might expect from the “Scooby-Doo” world, though it’s very clearly born out of the mind of Kaling, who infuses Velma’s identifiable sense of humor, survival and cultural identity. Her race is changed from white in the original series to American Indian here.
Like previous iterations of Scooby-Doo that came after the original, Velma pushes the character back to the present day – reimagining her as a high school student entirely without the Scooby gang by her side but still gifted with the ability to solve crimes.
The mystery-loving group, as we learn later in the season, does not exist in this iteration, though there are many clever nods to their likeness scattered throughout the series.
However, flaming-haired Daphne, vetted Shaggy, and self-proclaimed chief Fred (voiced by Constance Wu, Sam Richardson, and Glenn Howerton, respectively) are all part of this story. But, like Velma, they’ve been reimagined – and in Daphne and Shaggy’s cases, bent on sweat (more on that in a bit) – with full stories.
Daphne is a misunderstood mean girl, Shaggy (referred to as Norville in “Velma”) is a low-key problem solver, and Fred is the fickle blonde with daddy issues.
And that means “Velma” has plenty of wacky moments that fans of the original series can appreciate, without the writers seemingly feeling the need to poop all over it. Like so many other rebooted shows have done.
Yes, Fred was always the white guy who was the smartest person in the room just because he said so. Always a graceful, impeccably dressed teen, Daphne lifted her weight among the set but never had much meaningful input. And Shaggy, Norville was useless until the eleventh hour.
“Velma” acknowledges all of this, while also celebrating the characters enough to want to dig deeper into them here.
Kaling is certainly an apt and crucial voice behind the series in many ways. If you’ve especially seen her work on “The Office” or in the movie “Late Night,” you know that she’s always had a knack for cruising gender, social, racial, and sexual norms. In addition to changing Velma’s race, she is also gay here.
And perhaps it’s because she has such an impact on her material, reinforced by the fact that she writes so much of it, that she has the liberty to create chaotic, hilarious, funny female characters who don’t easily fall into the trope of the badass female. Her films are no exception.
She’s highly intelligent and clearly the mastermind behind any murder-solving operation (no more surprising than actual law enforcement), while simultaneously trying to track down her mother and pretending she doesn’t care that she doesn’t have a date at prom. The character can also be self-centered and completely overlook the needs of her friends.
Or wrongly assume that her friends aren’t riddled with as many complexities as they are.
But just like the many white creatives who have undoubtedly influenced Kaling, she also finds an uncanny way to focus whiteness. Quiet as it seemed to be kept among wider audiences, it became a model in Kaling’s productions. Many disappointed viewers of color has indicated that “The Mindy Project,” “I’ve never done it before” And “The Sex Lives of Female College Students.”
For example, Velma was, of course, initially infatuated with Fred, who couldn’t be more white.
You can almost forgive that when Filma comes out and sets her eyes on a certain girl who couldn’t be farther away from Fred in every way. But Norville, who is cute but is written as vaguely non-committal, has a crush on her and can’t even be bothered to take her seriously.
Then there’s the backstory of Daphne, who is Asian American and adopted by a black and white lesbian couple (voiced by the funky Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch).
While it would have been a great chance that one of her adoptive parents would be Asian American instead of white, what is even more terrible is that one of her parents is white while the other is an Asian American woman who says she did a lot of drugs when she was pregnant which is why Daphne has orange hair .
(This is not how drugs work at all, but oh well).
Norville’s parents are also an interracial couple, which means pretty much all of the main characters, with the exception of Velma’s parents, have a white father.
It all feels like an extension of the focus of whiteness within a story that thrives in part on the fact that it doesn’t adhere to the social norms we see so riddled with most screen novels. Velma and Kaling for that matter both have the opportunity to take things a step outside of what we’ve seen, but continue to play within the confines of okey-doke in that sense.
To be fair, Kaling’s novels are far from the only culprits of this. Do this often, especially teen stories including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Jenny and Georgia.”
But that trope makes “Velma” sometimes seem like it comes strictly from the imagination of a liberal white man who tries really hard and does a lot of good things, rather than a brown woman who doesn’t have to try to see the world on the outside in whiteness. It is assumed that this world already exists for her.
This is one of those things that will turn some viewers off. But, since there are so many other delightful things going on in “Velma,” as there are with all productions Kaling is involved in, this glitch ends up being a warning.
Many young millennials and Gen Zers will appreciate “Velma” for its progressive story, while others may relate to one personal premise that everything that happens to teens in movies is not their fault but rather their parents’ fault. Because there is a file fact Focus on the problems that arise in the parent-child relationship here.
Meanwhile, fans of the OG series will likely enjoy the many references that appear in “Velma,” such as the infamous “mask-pull” technique of the ’60s and ’70s and the shout-out to “those meddling kids.”
or this line:[redacted for spoilers] is worse than turning from a lovable cartoon into a hilarious re-imagining.” Velma knows her place in the canon, is perceptive enough to know how it will be perceived, and plays with that perfectly.
The show also subverts the teen girl transformation tropes we’ve seen in many teen romantic comedies like “She’s All That,” while also finding a clever way to nod in teen horror movies like “Carrie,” “Halloween,” and “Scream,” which is famous for its killing spree. Beautiful and popular girls.
Because, as Velma suggests, being a pretty girl isn’t easy either. Someone on the show says, “I’d punch you if men didn’t have sex with fighting women.”
Teen and genre conventions seep through every line of dialogue in “Velma” so much that it’s impossible not to enjoy it despite its flaws. As the episodes progress, the story gets darker and more hilarious as well as heartfelt and wonderfully layered. The mystery of Vilma’s mother’s disappearance becomes even more mysterious as it happens with the hot girls at school.
Each character, even with their flaws, is given texture and a humanity as they descend into the most outrageous (and harrowing) situations. All of this, plus a great cast (special shout out to Wu for her animated, layered role) makes Velma quite satisfying.
But – ginkgo! – It’s a shame about her annoying metaphor.