Velma -| Review Score – 3/5
The Candy (Wo)man -|Review Score – 3.5/5
Velma Kai -|Review Score – 3/5
Velma Makes a List -|Review Score – 3/5
Marching Band Sleepover -|Review Score – 2/5
The Sins of the Fathers and Some of the Mothers -|Review Score – 3/5
Fog Test -|Review Score – 2.5/5
A Velma in the Woods -|Review Score – 2.5/5
Family (wo)man -|Review Score – 1.5/5
The Brains of the Operation -|Review Score – 2/5
I’d like to say that rumors of Velma’s dreadfulness are greatly exaggerated. In reality, they are only slightly embellished. It’s not that, as some critics posit, the HBO Max Original can’t decide what it wants to be. Velma sets out very clearly, not to stay true to the original characters, but to simply use their templates as a vehicle for social commentary and a mystery that keeps you guessing. There’s a vision there–but one that creator Charlie Grandy and the series writers have no idea how to execute.
Velma reimagines the origins of the Scooby gang, minus the titular talking dog of the franchise (copyright issues are to blame). High school student Velma Dinkley (Mindy Kaling) has average concerns for a teenager: crushing on rich, boyish Fred Jones (Glenn Howerton); maintaining an exhausting friendship with Norville Rogers (Sam Richardson); dealing with the fact that her best friend Daphne Blake (Constance Wu) ditched her to be popular; not fitting into Crystal Cove’s standards.
But nothing compares to her near-singular drive in life: finding out why her mother Diya disappeared two years ago. What’s hindering her, then? Every time Velma tries to get answers, gruesome hallucinations plague her. And they make it all the more difficult for Velma to solve a new mystery–the identity of a deadly serial killer loose in Crystal Cove.
Audience reaction to the prequel series has been wildly negative. A common critique regards the slew of changes (ethnicity- and personality-wise) to the original characters; Velma may still sport her classic orange turtleneck–but her South Asian identity, bisexuality, sassy bite, and selfish drive are a step overboard for many die-hard Scooby Doo fans who think Kaling’s representation of the character is simply too different and unlikable for everyone’s favorite cartoon nerd.
Unlikable characters happen to be the least of my worries when it comes to the series’ faults. In fact, I resonated with the way Kaling, who also co-executive produced the show, described how she relates to Velma. According to UPI, Kaling told a New York Comic Con crowd how much she identified with the character growing up. Grandy contributed too. “When Mindy came to me and said she wanted to do it, it was because she connected to her,” he said. “Because she was this girl who was the smart one who does all of the work and doesn’t get nearly enough credit.”
Velma’s selfishness and immaturity, then, make sense –because they are informed by not only her young age, but her experience as a young woman in a world that doesn’t appreciate her talents. Grandy takes the idea that few women–and fewer women of color, at that–get to be as successful as Velma without facing discrimination and being pit against other women along the way.
Using this information, Grandy builds a realistically flawed teenage character. In one episode, for example, the show highlights Velma’s defense mechanism of putting down other women as a response to not being accepted for who she herself is. It’s not a likable trait, but it is a real and relatable one for a neglected teen.
Velma’s titular character has to work through the bitterness of being cast as the “other” in her own story. That leads to some hard-to-swallow character flaws, but it’s a strong premise, regardless. The unlikability of the show’s protagonist was never one of its main issues–and those are plenty. While Grandy and his writers may have fresh and original takes on how to bring the Scooby gang into the modern world as a diverse group of teenagers, they execute them flatly time after time.
The show fails to dig deep into how Velma (and consequently, women everywhere who might relate to her) interacts with and learns from the world around her. And it’s not the only aspect of the series that fails to be nuanced. Clever ideas consistently meet lazy execution, from the show’s jokes to its half-baked plot points.
Although Velma’s writers insert a one-liner, over-the-top meta humor, or some jokey social commentary every other statement, perhaps only five percent of its jokes actually land–and that’s likely a generous estimation. The failed attempts at comedy and social relevance are only distracting from the mysteries and character arcs that could have been vastly more interesting had writers spent more time fleshing them out.
In introducing her backstory, Velma bemoans the fact that most origin stories are about the “struggles” of being a handsome and powerful man.
Velma does attempt to change the score in documenting the rise of an intelligent and marginalized female detective, but does so with disappointingly little nuance. The HBO comedy repeatedly repeatedly winks at us over how “relevant” and biting it is. In reality, however, season 1 of Velma can’t scrounge up enough reason to exist.
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Verdict - 4/10