Velma launches with punchy narration that makes explicitly clear this isn’t a version of Scooby-Doo characters the audience is already familiar with. “I’m Velma Dinkley, and this is my origin story,” Mindy Kaling’s voiceover proclaims as the first episode begins. She continues: “Normally, origin stories are about tall, handsome guys struggling with the burden of being handed even more power. And if they are about girls, it’s usually like: Hey, what made this hot chick go crazy?” This isn’t entirely true, of course, but it’s a vivid snapshot of the type of story Velma strives to tell. Thankfully, it’s told amusingly, even if the show tends to get trapped by the same YA tropes it tries to poke fun at.
HBO Max’s animated comedy re-contextualizes in a new light the four humans who will eventually go on to create Mystery Inc. and adopt the iconic talking Great Dane. (Since it’s a prequel, the show doesn’t have a Scooby-Doo just yet). At its best, Velma is a meta coming-of-age tale for the titular star along with Daphne (Constance Wu), Fred (Glenn Howerton), and Shaggy Norville (Sam Richardson). It’s a frothy mix of murder mystery and soapy teen drama that never takes itself too seriously. The eight of 10 episodes watched for review run less than 30 minutes each, so Velma boasts a well-structured narrative with jokes, suspense, interconnected plotlines, and evolving relationships instead of a “case-of-the-week” format and various monster antics.
At worst, the show doesn’t feel entirely fresh despite approaching beloved characters in a distinctive light. The animation style isn’t distinctive either, but at least it feels like a pointed homage to the cartoon that inspired it. Velma beckons comparisons to everything from Harley Quinn to Riverdale, from Supernatural to Kaling’s own Never Have I Ever. In fact, the similarities between Velma and NHIE’s Devi are often striking: Two selfish but relatable winsome teens burdened by the loss of a parent, and grief becomes a strong motivator for their actions.
As with any Kaling-created TV series, including The Mindy Project and The Sex Lives Of College Girls, the writing here is sharp and full of quips. Velma will leave an enjoyable imprint if you’re already a fan of this other content. The show thrives on mile-a-minute jokes, but they don’t all land equally. Expect a plethora of pop culture references. (Less than two minutes into the pilot, I counted nods to—whether subtle or obvious—Riverdale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and House Of Lies, and that’s only the beginning). The show is clearly catering to viewers who are well-tapped into the zeitgeist.
Underneath the buzzy one-liners is a generic but fun mystery or two. Velma is trying to find her missing mother, Diya (Sarayu Blue), who vanished a couple of years ago. She’s convinced something terrible happened to her mom. Her dad, Aman (Russell Peters), believes Diya abandoned them, so he moves on with the local diner’s vain waitress/owner Sophie (a delightfully acidic Melissa Fumero). Velma is pathologically obsessed with figuring out what happened to Diya, so she usually disregards people unless they’re useful to her quest. The suspense deepens when a masked serial killer begins targeting popular girls at Crystal Cove High. Naturally, this puts Daphne in grave danger.
Don’t worry, though, because Daphne is more than a damsel in distress. She’s essentially the second lead, voiced pitch-perfectly by Wu with a blend of menace and vulnerability. Adopted by a lesbian couple (played by Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes), Daphne sets out to learn more about her birth parents as the season evolves. The show’s remarkable contribution to Scooby-Doo lore is developing Velma and Daphne’s captivating dynamic. They go from childhood buddies to frenemies to a potential romance without contrivance.