Velma will premiere with two episodes on HBO Max on Jan. 12, followed by two episodes weekly. Below is a review of the first eight of ten episodes provided to press.
Much has been said about Velma being the unsung hero of Mystery Inc., the Scooby-Doo sleuth who’s never been given her chance to truly shine. To many, she’s the brains behind the teenage mystery solving outfit. But while it’s true the character in most of her iterations has typically played second fiddle to the rest of the cast, HBO Max’s Velma proves exactly why the character, at least this version, isn’t exactly ready for the spotlight.
Mindy Kaling lends her voice to a drastically different (and wholly irksome) version of Velma who’s a far cry from her original portrayal. Clocking in at ten half-hour episodes — the first eight of which were provided for review — this animated prequel is full of raunchy laughs and some fun story beats, but its insistence on reinventing Velma as a sarcastic, self-loathing outsider prevents it from becoming the genre-disrupting adult comedy it aspires to be. Instead, it feels like a biting, hateful version of Daria without the character growth.
This notably Scooby-less series follows teen Velma Dinkley as she attends Crystal Cove High School while a serial killer is on the loose. Their target? Attractive girls. When Velma is accused of a murder she didn’t commit, she tackles the case to clear her name. The only problem? She has a mystery of her own that needs solving: the disappearance of her mother Diya (Sarayu Blue). Along with pal Norville Rogers (Sam Richardson), estranged bestie Daphne Blake (Constance Wu), and spoiled rich kid Fred Jones (Glenn Howerton), she’s determined to figure out who’s behind the murders and unravel her absentee mother’s secrets.
In this animated series, Velma isn’t just a spunky, sarcastic teen who wants to fight the patriarchy and solve mysteries. She’s also kind of a jerk. When she isn’t complaining or putting someone down, she’s a veritable quip machine who never runs out of sardonic remarks that never feel as pointed as she believes they are.
She’s quick to judge others based on their looks and social status. Her peers may never let her forget she isn’t a “hot girl,” but her personality is by far the most unattractive thing about her. And even though it’s easy to understand why she might behave this way after internalizing years of feelings of misogyny and inadequacy, her perpetually grating wisecracks make her difficult to watch, let alone empathize with.
The series does seem to be self-aware enough to recognize these qualities about Velma, but it’s unclear if this is deliberate or an attempt at making viewers laugh at her shortcomings. “You think every girl deep down is like you, but you’re wrong,” popular girl Olive (Fortune Feimster) asserts after Velma gives the “hot girls” of Crystal Cove an “uggo” makeover to avoid attracting the ire of the serial killer running rampant. “In fact, your definition of womanhood is even more restrictive than ours,” Olive continues.
“I have no idea how to be a woman that doesn’t judge other women,” Velma concludes after this brutal takedown. Velma eventually reasons that she’s all “sass and glasses” compared to her conventionally attractive peers, realizing both ideologies should be equally respected. But it’s a lesson that rings hollow. It’s as if the writers made her just self-aware enough to condone her unsavory antics.
Velma isn’t the only character to have undergone an odd transformation. Shaggy, who goes by his birth name Norville in the series, starts off as little more than a wannabe paramour. His only concern is wooing Velma, and when he isn’t actively trying to get her attention, he’s scheming to make himself look attractive to her. This is a plot thread that’s later subverted, but the schtick wears itself out long before then.
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Luckily, the humor doesn’t rely on Velma’s jokes or Norville’s jarring new personality to work. There are plenty of genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments in every episode that don’t involve her at all. This is Scooby-Doo through the same adult lens that made DC’s Harley Quinn series such a hit, and when it works, it works extremely well.
Daphne Blake and Fred Jones are characters many Scooby-Doo fans have written off as vapid, privileged teens, especially in the classic series. Funnily enough, in Velma, they end up becoming the most interesting members of the cast. Daphne is a wickedly smart and funny member of the popular crowd who’s looking for her birth parents — though her moms (Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes) seem to know more than they let on. Constance Wu is absolutely hilarious as the flame-haired cool girl, and would have made a fantastic frontwoman instead of Velma.
Glenn Howerton gives the best portrayal of Fred the animated Scooby universe has ever seen. Simultaneously selfish, boyish, and virulently stupid, he’s given some of the funniest lines of the entire show. There’s a psychopathic lilt to him that has always seemed to simmer below the surface in every version of Fred, and Howerton elevates this personality trait in ways that make for side-splitting situations – including Fred going to jail.
For those hoping Velma would give the character space to explore her sexuality given her recent unambiguous portrayal as a gay woman, the series does get this mostly right. It wasn’t immediately obvious from early promotional clips, given Velma’s initial crush on Fred. Velma and Daphne do ponder the implications of their relationship beyond the bounds of friendship and admit that there’s much more to it than that. But this acknowledgement comes about without little more than a “blink and you’ll miss it moment” in one episode.
While the girls’ romance does become a major component of the series as it goes on, Velma and Daphne’s relationship gets less development than Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy’s had before the pair became a couple in the Harley Quinn animated series. At the very least, this prequel does give Velma and Daphne’s relationship a chance to blossom, even if it isn’t a perfect one.