Television

HBO’s Wokeified Scooby-Doo Reboot Achieves the Impossible

Mindy Kaling can be a divisive figure, but not this time.

Velma
Velma. HBO Max

Velma premiered on HBO Max last week, and almost instantly achieved the impossible feat of getting the internet to agree on something—that this attempt to flesh out Scooby-Doo’s most underrated character is very, very bad. Executive-produced by and starring Mindy Kaling, one of TV’s more divisive names, Velma is an adult animated mystery that follows a teenage Velma Dinkley as she attempts to solve the mystery of the serial killings of her fellow female high-schoolers, as well the larger mystery that plagues her: the disappearance of her mother.

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Velma aims to serve as an origin story, canonizing Velma’s homosexuality and positing that it was the brilliant Velma who actually brought together the Scooby Gang. Fred (Glenn Howerton), Daphne (Constance Wu), and Shaggy (voiced by Sam Richardson, and referred to here by his given name, Norville) are Velma’s classmates, ranging from sworn enemies to friends with requited and unrequited feelings for our four-eyed sleuth. But, like most origin stories, it doesn’t work in the slightest, and, despite boasting the record for the biggest premiere of an HBO Max animated series, Velma also sports one of the lowest Rotten Tomatoes audience scores I’ve ever seen.

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As someone who loved the animated Scooby series growing up, as well as the cult-favorite live-action film adaptations, the entire idea of Velma always seemed ill-fated. For one, the original Scooby iterations knew not to mess with the near-perfect formula: They were self-aware, sarcastic, and plenty funny. Velma, on the other hand, sits at the overlap of every streaming exec’s easy way to make a quick buck: rebooting major IP, darkening the tone of a beloved children’s franchise, attempting the “wokeification” of older franchises, and so on. These things, when balanced correctly, can have great, even beloved, results—take Netflix’s recent hit Wednesday, for example. But Velma defaults at every stage of the process, starting with the justification for its own existence.

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The industry’s penchant for reboots tends to come into conflict with just who owns the rights to what. For Velma, the legal casualty is, erm, Scooby-Doo. Charlie Grandy, the creator of Velma, attested that he had always considered leaving the dog out of the show as a way to age-up Velma even more, but the choice was solidified when Warner Bros. told them that the dog was off-limits due to licensing issues. A Scooby-Doo show without the dog seems pointless—why reboot a comedy and then get rid of its most inherently comedic element?

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Regarding another of the industry’s go-to moves, I want to push back on the notion that every historically white property or gang of characters needs to be melanized to fit today’s standards. I say this as someone who loves a race-swapped rebranding of a beloved franchise, and even more so relishes the hilarity of white people becoming incensed by a fictional character existing differently than they had imagined. To me, one of the best things about the Scooby Gang I grew up watching was how their whiteness tended to fit a lot of their slang (“zoinks” and “jinkies” are maybe the whitest words I’ve ever heard), personalities, and zany decision-making. I didn’t need to feel represented by them as much as I wanted to be entertained by them. In this version, Velma is a narcissist who has alienated everyone around her because she’s a smarter-than-the-rest Brown girl who incessantly reminds everyone of those two facts. It’s less kitschy and certainly less fun.

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As for the show’s aim to satirize the liberal political climate via adult comedy, it’s incoherent enough to make everyone mad. Conservative pundits lost their minds upon learning that the show’s Velma would be openly lesbian, but the show has also succeeded in alienating viewers who take issue with the series’ failed attempts at a more progressive approach. True, Kaling was already in internet leftists’ sights for a variety of transgressions, some arguable and some strained, ranging from self-hatred to transphobia. But it’s also because the show actually is misogynist, and totally devoid of nuance. As Forbes points out, the show’s idea of attacking white male privilege is making Fred “such a whiny white man baby that his mommy cuts his steak and he hasn’t finished puberty so he has a small penis.” It’s just as bad when Velma is forced to interact with her father’s pregnant girlfriend Sophie (Melissa Fumero), a young white business owner who, despite being overtly welcoming, Velma consistently denigrates as an idiotic “basic bitch.”

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Ideally, “wokeness” isn’t something you perform, but rather a reality you choose to exist in. When you force it, you end up with something that sounds like an A.I. regurgitation of Twitter. Velma’s attempts at modernizing the franchise are so inept, they’ve given rise to conspiracy theories that Kaling intentionally made Velma bad as fodder for an ongoing culture war in which people would beef about it incessantly online. And that criticism in turn has conservatives claiming that leftists rush to label as “conservative” anything they simply don’t like. Someone started a rumor that Scooby does show up, but embodied by a Black female character named Scoobi, angering those who believed that the show would draw such a close analogy between a Black woman and a dog. The actual character is named Gigi (Yvonne Orji), but even the rumor is being blamed on conservatives, who are believed to have allegedly started it to upset liberal viewers.

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Of course, nothing is above being satirized—it’s my opinion that even the best things in life deserve to be lambasted comedically. But Velma doesn’t feel like it’s knowingly and lovingly trying to make fun of a political view, or anything else, it identifies with. It’s nearly impossible to understand who this show is for. Even still, Velma’s mistakes might be forgivable if it was at least funny. But it’s not. And so, we’re left with a show that makes no one laugh and makes everyone mad, and doesn’t even have a great theme song. To quote a great Great Dane: ruh-roh.

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