Disclaimer: This review is about the show “Velma” and contains spoilers. It is not intended to unfairly criticize or praise the show.
A few days ago, a friend mentioned her confusion over vitriol aimed at Mindy Kaling and her new show, “Velma.” The show was tanking in the ratings, earning an abysmal 41% average from critics and 7% from the audience.
For those who don’t spend their time trolling critic review sites like I do, do you know how rare it is to see a movie or show with scores like that? For comparison, the 2004 live-action “Scooby-Doo 2” movie has a 22% critic score and a 40% audience score.
Rotten Tomatoes tends to work like this: if a movie or TV show has a high critic score, it usually shows that it is well-made and artistically significant. A movie with a high audience score means the audience and passionate moviegoers enjoyed it. A film can be loved by audiences and despised by critics. I’ve even written a list of “stupid” movies I loved that critics trashed and a heartfelt essay about why I think the god-awful “The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2” is still worth watching despite it not being well-made or artistically significant.
What’s a lot rarer is a film or tv series with a high critic score and a lower audience score. This does happen, especially with pretentious art-house films and other esoteric works of art, but it’s not that common.
And when I see a work of art created by a woman with a horrendously low audience score, alarm bells go off in my head. I do not know Mindy Kaling well enough to determine if she deserves near the level of criticism she has received for this show. I would have to do more research on her to give a fair opinion, which is content for another post. I can confidently say that being a woman in the entertainment industry is extremely difficult. And being a woman of color, especially one not considered “conventionally attractive” by Western standards, is even more challenging.
I guess I was technically a fan of the OG “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” show. I used to watch it all the time on Boomerang. As well as “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo,” “Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School,” that one movie with the aliens, that other movie with the zombies, all of the live-action ones, a couple of other animated movies, and the phenomenal show “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.”
Oh, and I really liked that episode of “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” where Shaggy and Scooby get arrested for possession.
So yeah, I think I can call myself a fan of the franchise. My favorite character from the OG show was usually Velma because she solved the mystery and did all the work. I had a soft spot for the other characters, like Danger-Prone Daphne and the cowardly Shaggy. Fred Jones was like a walking manilla envelope in most of the franchise, but he was easily the best character in “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.”
As for the dog… well, Scooby-Doo reminds me of when my friend told me how she hates movies with talking animals in them because “it’s just not right.” He’s part of the package, but he’s never been my favorite character.
All I knew about “Velma” before watching it was that it was panned by critics and audiences. Normally, when that’s the case, I just wouldn’t watch it because I no longer have the time to hate-watch stuff. But my friend had piqued my interest with her description of “Velma” and her concern regarding the extent of the criticism directed at the show and Mindy Kaling.
The show “Velma” is a prequel series about Velma Dinkley and the rest of the Mystery Inc. gang. Two core mysteries are driving the plot: a serial killer is removing the brains of “hot” teenage girls at Crystal Cove High, and somehow that is connected to the disappearance of Velma’s mother, Diya, two years prior. The serial killer frames Velma for their crimes, and she is forced to exonerate herself, which is made even more complicated by the horrifying, heart-stopping hallucinations she has whenever she tries to solve a mystery.
The other main characters are Daphne Blake, voiced by Constance Wu, Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, voiced by Sam Richardson, and Fred Jones, voiced by Glenn Howerton. Daphne is Velma’s former BFF, for whom she now has complicated feelings. Norville is technically Velma’s only friend, but she treats him like garbage. Fred is a spoiled, sexist jerk who gradually matures into a better person. So far, Scooby-Doo is not a character in this series.
Most of the anger for this series seems to be directed at the character portrayals. I think the voice actors did an incredible job with their material, with Constance Wu and Glenn Howerton standing out as the best. However, the characters didn’t act at all the way fans of the franchise have come to expect. Daphne’s personality is much darker and more aggressive in this series, and in the second episode, the show reveals she’s the school’s drug dealer. All of Fred’s worst characteristics are brought to the surface in this version of the show, and as the only white man in the main cast, the show repeatedly points out his unearned privilege. Norville is never even once called “Shaggy” during the entirety of the show’s first season, and he’s depicted as a sweet nerd who hates drugs. In many ways, the show gave all of Velma’s positive characteristics to this iteration of Shaggy. He was my favorite character out of the group because of his polite sincerity and kindness.
Some of the changes were fine. I like that the show made the main cast more diverse and cast diverse actors to play those roles, while still paying homage to the veteran actors from the franchise. I don’t think giving Daphne a darker backstory ruined her character. If anything, it made her seem more intelligent and nuanced than in the original series. The show makes a point of having Shaggy declare his hatred for drugs, which some fans rejected, but it was really funny. Shaggy has been associated with marijuana since the show first aired, but I thought his dislike for drugs was a clever inversion of our expectations.
Other changes didn’t go over so well. Fred was fine, but he didn’t act like himself. “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” showed that even if Fred Jones was portrayed as a single-minded guy focused entirely on solving mysteries, he could remain true to character and be fun to watch. However, out of all the characters, the changes made to Fred Jones weren’t the most controversial.
The creators of “Velma” seemed to struggle with Velma Dinkley. It’s like they couldn’t decide between “bright but traumatized young feminist in a superficial society” and “heinous bitch,” so they went with both depending on what would fit the scene. The intention was clearly humorous, but it constantly missed the mark. The show establishes that Velma’s home life is pretty crappy since her mom’s disappearance, but that doesn’t justify how Velma treats the other characters. Velma was often mean, selfish, and inconsiderate. She ordered Norville around like a servant and showered harsh, unfair judgments on Daphne. To the show’s credit, it does call her out for some of this, and she does mature into a kinder person. Unfortunately, for most of the show’s duration, she reminded me of the fictional Amy Schumer in this Tig Notaro skit.
The biggest weakness in “Velma” is the writing often sacrifices meaningful character or plot development in the name of a joke. Sometimes the jokes land, but they often don’t. For example, the first time Velma says, “Jinkies!” her famous catchphrase, the other characters in the scene act like she’s trying to make “fetch” happen and ridicule her for it. As a viewer with a working knowledge of the franchise, I hope she makes saying “jinkies” a thing because this is supposed to be her origin story. To have it cut down like that is a bummer.
“Velma” also made a bold choice by romantically pairing Daphne and Velma, portraying both characters as bisexual. I have mixed feelings about the “Velma is a lesbian” rumors that have followed the character. Frankly, I feel many of those rumors were based on sexist, homophobic tropes. Velma didn’t perform feminity as well as Daphne, and it seemed like, in response, some viewers made crude comments about her sexuality. (Plus, she totally had the hots for Johnny Bravo)
However, I don’t want to inadvertently dismiss the possibility that young, queer women identified with Velma and felt seen by her character. I think sexuality and its portrayal in media is a complex issue, and it deserves delicacy and compassion. Even though “Velma” was far from perfect, I thought it handled the relationship between Daphne and Velma and the complicated feelings that arose from their attraction with sincerity.
I think HBO’s “Velma” could learn a lesson or two from “Star Trek: The Lower Decks.” “Star Trek: The Lower Decks” is an adult animated comedy within the Star Trek universe, and it both pokes fun at and pays homage to the Star Trek franchise. Characters will make silly jokes about the gross things people do on the Holodeck (which, let’s be fair, every Star Trek fan knows those Holodecks are for more than just LARP-ing Sherlock Holmes mysteries), but, then they’ll use those same Holodecks to go on a fun adventure. Much of the comedy stems from the ridiculous things that probably happen in Star Fleet.
There’s a lot to make fun of in the “Scooby-Doo” franchise. Frankly, the live-action movies already do a great job of pointing that stuff out, but plenty can be farmed for humorous content that doesn’t alienate the fanbase. Is Velma constantly losing her glasses? Well then, make a few jokes about contacts and Lasik. Is Shaggy always hungry? Make jokes about his weird food combinations, and then pick a random, normal food that he just can’t stand (I’m going to suggest “cilantro” or “Brussel sprouts”). Make jokes about how the Crystal Cove police must be wildly incompetent if a couple of teenagers and a dog are better at solving mysteries than trained detectives.
If the writing staff on “Velma” needs more inspiration, they should watch “Robot Chicken.” “Robot Chicken” has several hilarious skits involving Mystery Inc., all while staying mostly in character and casting the actors from the live-action movies to voice the roles. (The one where Velma is replaced by Lisbeth Salander is my personal favorite)
I didn’t have a problem with the dark humor, although I realize some people may take offense to some of the jokes made during the show’s run. My greatest concern is that if the show wanted so badly to shuck its wholesome origins and write jokes about sex and serial killers, why not just put the characters in college? I have this criticism about many shows featuring teen characters because it’s incredibly weird and creepy to portray minors, even animated ones, in such adult situations. This series wouldn’t have suffered if the characters were older than 18 (still very young, but at least they wouldn’t be minors).
The show is getting a second season, and I want to give it a chance. I enjoyed the mystery that threaded the first season together, and I’m curious to see how that mystery will continue in the second season.
“Bojack Horseman” was an animated adult comedy that didn’t have the strongest first season, but its later episodes were incredible. “Bojack Horseman” is renowned for its brutally honest portrayal of mental illness, trauma, sexuality, and existentialism. It’s a beautiful show with a rough start, but it’s easily one of the best television shows ever created.
If you watched “Velma” and disliked it, then that’s okay. Though I would reflect on why you didn’t like it. I also want to remind anyone who’s read this far that sometimes it’s best to refrain from engaging with the content you dislike. If you hate-watch a show, you’re watching it.
I’ve seen a lot of clips from “Velma” that have been carefully edited to showcase how “awful” and “cringey” the show is. That’s quite a bit of attention to give a show you dislike. It’s made researching for this blog post extremely difficult because I couldn’t find any clips from the show that weren’t bombed with negative comments. I didn’t know what criticism was legitimate and what was just the whinging of angry, racist, misogynists. Same goes for interviews with Mindy Kaling, and even clips from other Scooby-Doo shows that came out well before “Velma.”
While I’m sorry to the people disappointed by this show, your energy may be better put to other uses. Rewatch “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” or check out some of the other new content the franchise has released, like the 2022 movie “Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo!” Look into some of the comics released by DC, like “Scooby Apocolypse,” which seems both intense and delightfully strange. “Velma” is like an oatmeal raisin cookie in an assorted box. You have the luxury of picking something more to your tastes.
5 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with HBO’s “Velma”?”
Fantastic review that takes a wholistic and insightful approach.
Thank you, Sarah! I wanted to try and give the series a fair review. It wasn’t the best show I’ve ever seen, but I don’t think it deserves near level of criticism it has received
You write incredibly well, Hagfish
Why thank you! Thought I did have to edit your comment to remove my ~Government name~ and all the fun details about your former career
I have definitely heard of the criticism of this show, but I think Mindy has had success with a lot of other shows, so I’m sure she’s not upset nor worried about it. I think what’s difficult is adapting a children’s show into something it wasn’t in the first place. There is a lot of nostalgia surrounding Scooby Doo and when you turn it into something it’s not, people are going to have feelings about it.