Reading Time: 4 minutes
Imagine Scooby-Doo (1969), but Scooby is non-existent and Fred, Daphne, and Shaggy are all madly in love with Velma, who is the world’s biggest narcissist. This is the premise of HBO Max’s new adult animated series, Velma, which premiered on January 12. The series serves as an origin story for its titular protagonist, Velma (Mindy Kaling), as she tries to solve a series of femicides in her small town of Crystal Cove. Joining her are the show’s radically different versions of her iconic detective posse: Daphne (Constance Wu), Fred (Glenn Howerton), and Shaggy “Norville” (Sam Richardson). The show defends its character modifications as a means of tackling important topics, such as feminism and race, in an attempt to modernize and appeal to a now grown-up Gen Z target audience. Unfortunately, Velma’s most notable flaw—the mishandling of its characters—ends up making a mockery of both its celebrated source material and the political correctness it tries to represent.
Velma’s storyline, much like its comic predecessors, is centered around a mystery. Velma is determined to discover what happened to her missing mother and its potential connection to the serial killer terrorizing Crystal Cove. Unfortunately, she suffers from life-threatening hallucinations whenever she thinks about solving a mystery—a result of the trauma and fallout from her mother’s initial disappearance.
On the surface, Velma seems aligned with her original incarnation: a nerdy teenage outsider who is perplexed by mysteries of any kind. However, the show’s new representation of her lacks the empathy that made the original character likable. She treats everyone around her poorly, from ignoring Norville unless he is useful to her to publicly exposing Daphne’s journal to humiliate her. Velma is also a performative activist. When the aggressively sexist police believe that the rampaging serial killer is only targeting “hot people,” they assign Velma to give the popular girls at school “uggo lessons” to make them “less attractive.” While Velma sees this as an opportunity to free the girls from the repression their patriarchal society has placed on them, her only solution is to make them look and act like her. The girls even point out the fact that she is only replacing one unfair societal expectation with another instead of just letting them be themselves. Though Velma is made aware of her hypocrisy, she goes back to criticizing the popular girls by the next episode. As a protagonist, Velma’s fatal flaw is her lack of character growth; her unlikable nature and failure to redeem her past behaviors make her mistakes unforgivable.
The show’s visual style and character design are two of its positive aspects. The designs of the main characters truly feel like modern interpretations of their classic inspirations, retaining iconic parts of their original designs, such as Velma’s glasses and orange turtleneck, and Daphne’s bright orange hair and colorful outfit. The show’s artstyle conforms to the standards set by other modern adult animated series with round shapes, exaggerated facial proportions, and thick line work. However, though the animation is well done, it remains predictable and unoriginal.
One of the show’s most questionable writing decisions is how it chooses to handle its romances. Daphne, Fred, and Norville are all part of what fans have dubbed the “love quadrangle,” chasing after Velma. So much time is dedicated to these romance subplots that it quickly becomes a defining factor for how each deuteragonist’s character is portrayed. However, each “relationship” with Velma feels either incomplete, superficial, or arbitrary, hurting the supporting cast’s characterizations overall.
While Velma and Daphne’s relationship is the most developed, it is unfulfilled. In the second episode, the two kiss, and their relationship gradually escalates. They dance together, spend time together, and confide in each other before they finally start dating. However, the storyline is quickly dropped after Velma abruptly professes her love for Norville, resulting in a shallow pairing which goes nowhere. Velma and Norville’s romance is heavily discouraged throughout the show, with Norville developing resentment toward Velma and her complete apathy. Their romance feels entirely forced, betraying Norville’s character arc.
Velma and Fred’s relationship is taken the least seriously, as its purpose is purely to establish Fred as a blatant sexist. Once Velma makes him read feminist theory after being fed up with his misogynistic antics, his eyes are opened to her “inner beauty” and he becomes obsessed with pursuing her, believing that she will accept him purely because he has a somewhat better understanding of feminism. However, he starts harassing her to date him, coming off as an unchanged womanizer, and his only purpose within the larger narrative is to have comedic effect.
Whether it be the mockery of “wokeness” that the show embodies or its lack of adherence to the source material, Velma received scathing criticism across social media platforms. The show’s downfall ultimately lies in its portrayal of its most important characters and the lack of weight it gives to its overarching story. Through unfulfilled character arcs and extreme exaggeration, fan favorites quickly dissolved into embarrassing parodies of themselves. Velma abandons all respect for its characters’ integrity, creating a product that feels mean-spirited, condescending, and inauthentic.