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HBO Max's Velma Can't Stop Apologizing for Itself

When Mindy Kaling's Scooby-Doo reimagining stops winking for a second, it's not half bad.
  • Mindy Kaling voices Velma (HBO Max)
    Mindy Kaling voices Velma (HBO Max)

    While it would be foolish to suggest we've reached the endpoint of reboot culture, HBO Max's animated series Velma at least gives the impression we're at a moment of high anxiety about how to do a reboot right. Mindy Kaling’s reimagined origin story of the Hanna-Barbera Scooby-Doo series, Velma is focused on Velma Dinkley (voiced by Kaling), the gang's bespectacled, turtleneck-sweater-clad smartypants. That’s a clever entry point for a reboot series, especially one that wants to be as comedic as this show clearly does. Her status as the least obviously campy member of the Scooby-Doo gang makes her, ironically, the best suited to a postmodern campy take on the character. And her longtime status as a queer icon offers a ton of potential in a reimagined setting. Velma was only canonically confirmed as queer in last fall's Trick or Treat, Scooby-Doo, but there's obviously a lot of ground that a show like Velma can cover. And because Kaling has so much to work with here, it's frustrating to watch the show nervously wink at its audience, assuring them that what they're watching is smarter than the IP-mining trend that birthed it. It would be a better series if it could just calm down.

    Velma is a postmodern, adult-oriented take on the kid-friendly adventures of the Scooby-Doo gang — although due to a studio mandate, Scoob isn't a part of the story — and from the very first episode, Mindy Kaling's voiceover as the title character asserts that the show is aware of itself. Velma assures us she knows how origin stories usually go, and she swears this one's going to be different. The first scene has its characters explicitly riffing on how pilots usually load up on sex and violence to hook the audience, then self-consciously stages its own acts of sex and violence. By the time it offers up an (unnecessary but well-argued) justification of its own race-blind casting choices, the audience may feel exhausted. This is only five minutes into the first episode.

    Perhaps this aggressive tone is meant to match the show's title character. Kaling's Velma is an outcast, hated by the in-crowd at school and neglected by her father and his new young wife. She has a white-hot hatred for Daphne, her former best friend who ditched her when she got super popular. She sneers at Fred, a pampered dunce and heir to his family's gentlemen's accessories empire (that's an ascot joke), even as she can't help but notice what a hottie he is. And she benignly takes advantage of Norville (not yet Shaggy), her fellow nerd who's always willing to help her due to his screamingly obvious (to everyone except Velma) crush on her. Besides her wardrobe, the only aspect of this Velma that’s indebted to the original is her passion for solving mysteries, passed down from her mother, whose unexplained disappearance years ago haunts Velma still (literally — this is a show with g-g-g-ghosts).

    Of all the puzzling creative decisions, one that works quite well is the casting of the four leads. Like Kaling, Velma is Indian, while Daphne is East Asian and voiced by Constance Wu (adopted by lesbian cop parents, voiced by Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch). Norville is Black, voiced by the great Sam Richardson, and is massively endearing, while It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Glenn Howerton brings a privileged-idiot spark to Fred. Other decisions yield mixed results. For instance, the storylines among the crew are dependent on a hamster wheel of romantic longings. Velma has a crush on Fred; Norville has a crush on Velma; Fred eventually falls for Velma himself, but he gets weirdly male feminist about it. These entanglements feel like unnecessary wheel-spinning, particularly because the central romantic spark comes from Velma and Daphne, whose friendship-turned-hatred masks a flame of attraction. Obviously, this show was going to play with Velma's much-discussed queerness, and pulling the trigger on a Velma-Daphne romance is exciting, even as it underlines how much of the show's bold take on its material is reminiscent of its HBO Max stable-mate, Harley Quinn, a show which has thrilled its audience with its pairing of lead characters Harley and Ivy.

    In fact, Velma is reminiscent of many other — usually better — shows. There's some Clone High DNA in its arch depiction of high school and enough Riverdale inspiration that Velma explicitly name-checks that series in its first scene. In its stronger moments, when it’s able to relax for half a second and just deliver good jokes, Velma feels like a worthy contemporary to those series. But when it falls back on sweaty meta-commentary, it feels like it's arguing unconvincingly that it belongs.

    That insecurity shows up in the way Velma structures itself too. Despite being based on a cartoon that excelled at the mystery-of-the-week format, Velma opts for a serial arc, following one mystery about a serial killer offing pretty teen girls and stealing their brains. As it unfolds, the mystery involves Velma's aforementioned disappeared mom, as well as the backstories of several other characters. On the surface, a serialized murder mystery would seem like the obvious way to keep an audience hooked through a full season, but Velma could have set itself apart from the endless serial mysteries on streaming TV by delivering mysteries of the week. That kind of short-burst storytelling also could have played to Velma's comedic strengths — Kaling's sharp, quippy comedic sensibility — while separating it from the Riverdales and Harley Quinns of the world.

    Still, Velma will likely find fans —the animation is distinct and vibrant, and Kaling's comedic voice has been repeatedly successful on other shows for a reason. If it makes it to a second season, we might even see a more confident show that's less intent on analyzing itself. Velma Dinkley as the barbed and brainy core of this group of mystery-solving teens could be a ton of fun, if the show could just get out of its own way. 

    Velma premieres Thursday, January 12, on HBO Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Velma, HBO Max, Constance Wu, Glenn Howerton, Mindy Kaling, Sam Richardson