‘Velma’ tries to milk grown-up laughs out of ‘Scooby-Doo’s’ pre-dog days
“This is my story, told my way,” the title character narrates at the outset of “Velma,” an adult-oriented take on “Scooby-Doo” that demonstrates the limits of stretching what amounts to a one-note joke into a series. Sporadically witty but ultimately rather tedious, the HBO Max comedy leverages more than a half-century of name equity to yield an animated prequel that’s definitely not for kids, meddling or otherwise.
Playing revisionist games with “Scooby-Doo” has become a fashionable pastime, including a recent movie that established Velma’s LGBTQ credentials, which not surprisingly garnered a fair amount of media attention.
“Velma” fleshes out that idea with a protracted murder mystery, courtesy of producers Mindy Kaling (who provides the voice of Velma) and her “The Mindy Project” collaborator Charlie Grandy, bringing new wrinkles to the gang and their mostly bizarre parents, during the pre-dog days of their high-school years.
Aside from becoming a more diverse bunch, the Scooby-free gang includes the airheaded and lascivious Fred (Glenn Howerton); Daphne (Constance Wu), who was Velma’s pal until she reached her teens and became “hot”; and Norville (Sam Richardson), who hasn’t gone Shaggy yet, but who is a walking emotional doormat with an unreciprocated crush on Velma.
When classmates start dying (specifically — Ruh-roh — having their brains extracted), Velma leaps into investigator mode, although having a serial killer in town takes a back seat to the indignities of the high-school years and raging hormones. As far as that goes, Velma is essentially pansexual and attracted to pretty much everyone, while dealing with a home environment that includes a missing mom and dismissive father who treats her terribly, prompting her to say things like, “Hey dad, can we talk? You can be drunk if that’s easier.”
Grandy and Kaling don’t limit their satire to the series as they bring the 1960s creation into the 21st-century, allowing them to lampoon current trends and pop-culture oddities, like the way parents are depicted in teen dramas.
Those observations yield their share of amusing lines, like Velma angrily snapping at Daphne, “I’d punch you if men didn’t sexualize women fighting.” Still, 10 episodes of this (eight episodes were previewed) feels like too much of an at-best-OK thing, in a show that works overtime at replicating an irreverent Adult Swim-style sensibility.
There’s nothing wrong with handing the keys to a venerable property to writers with the hope of breathing some life into it, especially with a concept as lightweight as the original series. Sorry, but goofing around with a 54-year-old Hanna-Barbera cartoon shouldn’t ruin anyone’s childhood.
That said, “Velma” feels a little too pleased with itself to truly capitalize on the opportunity — a fun idea that sounds like a great way to reintroduce those meddling kids but that, finally, isn’t clever enough to get away with it.
“Velma” premieres January 12 on HBO Max, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.
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