Cheeky ‘Velma’ is less Scooby-Doo and more Mindy Kaling

Charlie Grandy’s R-rated adaptation holds more jokes than mystery, but the all-star cast delivers for HBO Max’s animated comedy.

Everyone loves an underdog story — even one that conspicuously excludes a literal dog. That’s the fuel behind HBO Max’s “Velma,” an origin story about the bespectacled, bespectacled mystery-solver who goes on to become, albeit underestimated, an integral part of the core gang of “Scooby-Doo.” The animated series was developed by Charlie Grandy and executive produced by Grandy, Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein and Sam Register. Over the course of eight episodes shown to critics (out of 10 total in season 1), “Velma” proves to be a show of high school shows, crime dramas and television in general, full of all-star performances and packed with punchlines.

Velma Dinkley (Kaling) grew up loving mysteries, but all that changed when her mother disappeared. Velma blames herself – her mother went to get Velma a Christmas present because this amateur detective found hers too soon – and the guilt sometimes leads to horrific hallucinations. This is far from ideal when a classmate with Velma as the prime suspect is murdered and her only way to clear her name and find her mother is to go back into detective mode.

The show, of course, depends on Velma, who cannot be separated from the actor who brings her to life. The character is imbued with longings, insecurities and jokes seen in Kaling’s work, tidbits that could be plucked from the mouths of Kelly Kapoor, Mindy Lahiri, Devi Vishwakumar or Bela Malhotra. That’s a double-edged sword, as Kaling still delivers a stellar performance as a voice actress, but it’s one that can’t help but cite her notoriety and past work.

Animated still image of a red haired teenage girl in a purple dress standing next to a crouched teenage boy in a green t-shirt holding a glowing rock sample; still from "Velma"

Daphne and Norville (voiced by Constance Wu and Sam Richardson) in “Velma”


That said, even if Velma is narrow-minded and selfish, her relationships bolster the show all around. At the forefront are ongoing tensions with popular girl Daphne (Constance Wu), Velma’s former best friend who quickly becomes a reluctant ally and huge crush. While the girls struggle with their fluctuating feelings, Velma also overcomes her crush on resident hot dummy Fred (Glenn Howerton) and repeatedly ignores the romantic advances of her faithful boyfriend Norville (Sam Richardson), whom she finds so untrustworthy as a potential client of Die Mention of it makes her fight back tears of laughter. As she grows more enmeshed in her mother’s mystery, Velma also can’t help but bond with father Aman (Russell Peters) in a refreshing parent-child relationship that feels more open and equal than most portrayals of South Asian families .

The joy of “Velma” undoubtedly lies in its humor, which is dense and irreverent, often drawing on the broader Scooby-Doo canon and other pop culture (the Cold Open is a meta-commentary on why TV pilots include gratuitous nudity – with unprovoked nudity). Jokes range from crackers to duds, with the last end of that spectrum being anything that political awareness or cultural sensibility seems to despise — remarks that feel out of place in an otherwise admirably progressive show and that sound at least 20 years older than the characters they voice. But with so much dialogue delivered at supersonic speeds, there’s just as much time to cackle at a hit (“Dad says we can’t even afford to buy me a second sweater”) as there is time to to roll your eyes at failure.

Kaling is accompanied by an excellent cast, from the future Mysteries Inc. members voiced by Wu, Richardson and Howerton to her scenes with Peters and Sarayu Blue in flashbacks as Velma’s mother. Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes play Daphne’s detective mothers, while Cherry Hill and original Fred voice actor Frank Welker play Fred’s scornful rich parents. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a who’s who of guest actors, including Stephen Root, Ming-Na Wen, Nicole Byer and Weird Al Yankovic. These actors enliven every line of “Velma” and propel the series forward, even when convoluted plots and repetitive beats threaten to slow it down (a feat for a half-hour series, but “Velma” works far better on a weekly basis than as a binge).

When you hear the name “Scooby” (and you will), viewers will be engrossed in the town’s crime, gossip, and veiled history, to the point that these meddling kids can do just fine without a canine companion seem to be “Velma” does a lot — possibly too much — but there are emotional beats and comedic gags that land amidst a saturated creative canvas, including arcs for the future Mysteries, Inc gang that tweak the existing backstory with eclectic “Velma” flourishes combine (a big Fred twist leads to some really outrageous scenes in later episodes). The series living on HBO Max means it may or may not be renewed, produced, distributed, or even guaranteed a home in the future, but for now, “Velma” is an enjoyable weekly treat that’s at least as good as a Scooby -Snack.

grade B-

The first two episodes of “Velma” are now streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes every Thursday.

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Lindsay Lowe

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