In the context of another cartoon, Mindy Kaling’s line “ is code for adults who still watch cartoons" could be worth a chuckle. Through her bespectacled Velma, though, what Kaling mouths off somehow doesn’t land. Maybe because it feels more like a rude punch than a friendly jab. As of now, six episodes of this adult-oriented Scooby-Doo spinoff-reboot-prequel have aired on HBO Max, but my access to an eight-episode binge (excluding the last two of the 10-episode debut season) has not been advantageous for its ongoing negative litigation across the Internet. If you bother to ask me, “Does Velma get better?” my answer is, well, marginally.
The Mystery Gang of the Hanna-Barbera 1969 Scooby-Doo cartoon (which I’m most familiar with) has morphed through countless cartoon and live-action iterations. Developed by writer and producer Charlie Grandy (who worked with Kaling on The Office), Velma stars its executive producer Kaling emanating her signature cattiness as the Mystery Gang’s turtlenecked brainiac. In a controversial move, the reboot-prequel scrubs out Shaggy’s famous Great Dane because Grandy reportedly couldn’t really spin Scooby for an adult-oriented context and Warner Bros disallowed it (if there’s no bigger conspiracy at play). The cartoon also reimagines each of the human gang member’s ethnic backgrounds (except Fred Jones, who stays white), starting with Velma Dinkley’s Indian American identity to match Kaling’s. Though a non-white Velma isn’t new (Gina Rodriguez in Scoob! and Hayley Kiyoko in Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins), the reimagining of the Mystery Gang is a welcomed move. Which is why this new gang, though, deserves better characterization.
Aside from racist backlash over the Mystery Gang redesigns, Velma has fired up criticism for reinforcing a Kaling-patented pattern of Indian American self-loathing and pining for white men (Velma expresses attraction to a white jackass after all, but more on her queerness later). Velma’s script compounds this by flaunting mean-spirited teen vocab with little convincing adolescent beats (with Velma writers Akshara Sekar and Matt Warburton having credits on Kaling’s productions). The Gang doesn’t feel like messy and misguided youths engaging the world and pop culture around them, but rather scriptwriter desperation. Be prepared to sit through copious ethnic-guessing-games and fatphobic gags levied at Velma. The few zingers are flip-a-coin accidental. The show wants to have it both ways. It sympathizes with Velma’s social plight as an Indian American teen who does not fit inside a conventionally attractive framework, yet it nudges us to laugh at her expense. Velma’s as-of-now unaired line “Indian woman, lots of opinions on personal weight and hygiene,” referring to her missing mother, might come from a lived experience, but comes off as situationally unfunny rather than observational.
This is also a shame because the writing buries the emotional potential in each performance. Kaling can at least make Velma’s volcanic bitching come from human teen-pain. Constance Wu proves herself to be the standout as vulnerable mean-girl Daphne Blake, Velma’s former-bestie-cum-love-interest, reimagined as East Asian like her voice actress. Together, Kaling and Wu do have the vocal chemistry to sell Velma’s and Daphne’s burgeoning romantic feelings for one another.
Glenn Howerton can be somewhat amusing as the bratty rich dumbass, still lily-white Fred. But Sam Richardson, as a Shaggy reimagined as Black, is especially saddled with a disinteresting “Norville” Rogers, a nerdy teen who feels entitled to Velma’s affection. Norville’s development, not even when he moves away from his one-sided infatuation of Velma, does not render him human, interesting, nor amusing, so it’s hard to care when he will adopt the name “Shaggy.”
Raunchiness, meta-commentary, and comic uber-violence have worked better in Velma’s adult cartoon contemporaries. Take, for example, two tragically canned productions: The Inside Job (Netflix) and the wrongfully HBO Max-purged Close Enough (sharing a Velma writing credit with Stephanie Amante-Ritter), both of which exercised a boundless affection for their humorous scenarios. And I join a chorus of critics’ recommendations to point to Harley Quinn, a fellow sapphic reboot-spinoff cartoon on HBO Max.
A crass and uncomfortable Velma cartoon starring Kaling could have the right groundwork. But alas, how did it feel so limited?
Velma is streaming on HBO Max.
Published on January 26, 2023