Review by Tim Robins | Spoilers Ahead!
Velma, the new Young Adult cartoon series, is based on the character Velma Dinkley first seen in Hannah- Barbera’s popular 1960s and 70’s animation series, Scooby Doo, Where are You?
Velma was the one who wore glasses, not so much because her character was short-sighted but because, in the shorthand world of media, her glasses were a sign that she was “brainy”. Velma needed her brains because she was less attractive than the power couple of Daphne and Fred, and less ‘cool’ than the unkempt Shaggy and his best pal Scooby-Doo. Velma’s schtick was falling over, losing her glasses and fumbling around the floor.
This new series is the personification of Velma’s character – smart but short-sighted, and bumbling around without much of a clue.
I am not one to hate watch, that bizarre activity of watching a series to enable the viewer to vent their disgust online, usually on Reddit, Twitter or YouTube, so I won’t be watching any more episodes of Velma beyond episodes one and two. I even debated the wisdom of spending my time reviewing it and wasting your time reading my review. But I don’t think that I have seen such a calamitously flawed approach to comedy, animated or not, and I have a pressing need to explain why I feel that way, even if that means I am, reluctantly, keeping company with the likes of online hate posters and misogynists.
Velma’s set up in this: the pre-Scooby gang – minus the mutt – are at High School. Velma and Daphne are former friends with a complex emotional past, in other words they were, are, or will become a lesbian couple. Fred is a pampered, virginal boy and heir to a fashion empire (do you think he might be gay?) and Shaggy is a reporter for the school paper. There has been some ethnic reassignment; Velma is of South Asian American descent, Daphne is an East Asian American, Shaggy an African American while Fred a WASP and asexual – as all the characters were in the 1970s.
The new 10-episode series, from HBO and awaiting a UK home, weaves together a number of mysteries including an unidentified ghost haunting Velma, a series of High School murders that leave victims without their brains and the disappearance of Velma’s mother. According to publicity, Scooby Doo is not in the series due to “reasons” but I fully expected him to be not only a trans-dog but also Velma’s missing mother.
The animation is in that angular, clear-line style reminiscent of the Harley Quinn and Star Trek: Lower Decks series. The voice acting gives the series a “sassy”, sarcastic, sniping tone that can be as hard on the mind as it is on the ears. Fred’s interactions with his family are reminiscent of Peter’s dinners with the Pewterschmidts in Family Guy. In fact, Velma is very much “TV cartoons for adults: the next generation”.
Velma drags Scooby Doo: Where Are You? through a mire of sexualisation and criminality. Did anyone, prior to Velma, think of the Mystery Machine as “Fred’s Weird Sex Van”? (And anyway, since the episodes are at pains to point out that Fred hasn’t gone through puberty and is sexually retarded, why would he be thought to even have a “weird sex van”?).
Seeing Daphne selling drugs named after the old series’ catch phrases such as “Jinkies” and “Zoinks” didn’t raise a smile, either.
At times, the plot seems to be a limp clothes line on which to peg sex jokes. Think Carry On films, but where innuendo has been replaced by just telling it like it is.
And all this is before we get to the show’s misplaced attempts at meta commentary, for example, when Velma talks about having an origin story. “Normally origin stories are about how handsome guys struggling(?) with the burden of being made even more terrible.”. I’m not even sure what that sentence is saying, never mind whether it is even true.
But never mind, let’s move on “… and if they are about girls it’s: hey, what made this hot chick so crazy?” This is cast as a generalisation, but I can only assume the comment’s specific target is Harley Quinn, not a particularly exemplary character.
Then we get this from Daphne, while she is sharing a shower room with her fellow classmates: “Have you ever noticed how pilot episodes of TV shows always have more gratuitous sex and nudity than the rest of the series?” This ho, ho is a real no, no. Although we do get a flash of Daphne’s 16-year-old naked buttocks, the show can’t explicitly show the girls naked – thank God – so the irony is mostly lost. Instead, the show tries to have its cheesecake and eat it.
And, to be pedantic, the scene is not in a ‘pilot’, merely the first episode of an already commissioned season, with a second season on the way.
Perhaps talk of TV tropes doesn’t work for me because I have not watched enough television. When Velma is wrongly arrested by two female cops, she complains: “I thought lesbians were good at solving crimes. It’s, like, the one positive stereotype perpetuated in cop shows”. Help me, I’m struggling here, because even when women characters could be lesbians, their sexuality is rarely explicitly mentioned and even if it is, it is rarely cast in a “positive” light – and even less as contributing to their crime solving abilities.
I may be misreading much of the meta-talk, but it seemed to me the Velma TV series just generated supposed stereotypes as it went along. We are told that Beanie hats are “only for television actors who want you to know their roots are in theatre”. Well, thanks for that insight. Darn those tricksy actors and their pretentiousness, I guess.
It would have been better if Velma’s meta-commentary was directed at itself. Take the ethnically diverse casting. Surely Velma could have said “yeah, I’m now a South Asian American because TV is more willing to accept people of colour in lead roles!” or “Hey! Isn’t it great our gang is now so diverse because it leaves our mainly white audience feeling virtuous by imagining social equality exists!”
Or, more simply, what about jokes about the original show’s limited animation?: “I wish we could just walk on the spot and have the location move instead.”.
Velma is a show that hates everyone, including itself. As it should, because one plot thread is just sexist, no matter how the programme tries to finesse this. You see, someone has been going around stealing girl’s brains. Not that girls should be considered brainless. No, not at all. Except let’s laugh at that insinuation for a while.
And have I mentioned that Fred has a small willy? Well, that’s all you need to know, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. But, come to think of it, maybe that is another meta-comment, because the show is indeed utterly brainless. Avoid.
• Velma is screening on HBO Max in the US. There is no current UK broadcaster
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.