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Velma review: Zoinks! Mindy Kaling's Scooby-Doo prequel is a (mostly) fun time

HBO Max's animated comedy explores the teenage years of the beloved Scooby-Doo characters, minus a certain Great Dane

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A still from Velma
A still from Velma
Photo: HBO Max

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.

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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.

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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.

Velma | Official Teaser | HBO Max

Despite the thrills and gore (the killer slices their victims’ heads open, Fred’s mansion hides creepy secrets, etc.), the show’s driving force is its nuanced characterization. After it was announced that Kaling was developing Velma,
longtime fans criticized the character’s depiction as a South Asian bisexual teen as opposed to, well, how we’ve known her for decades. Additionally, Daphne is also Asian, and Norville is Black (and not a goofy stoner without his pet pooch/BFF just yet). So, yes, Velma takes creative liberties. But they’re not used for surface-level hype. We still get the origin story of “Jinkies!” and the Mystery Inc. van. The protagonists’ ethnicity isn’t a defining attribute; it adds unexplored layers to a known world. 

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In this case, the world of Crystal Cove is cartoonish and wholesome at the same time. All four kids struggle in their interpersonal bonds—Velma has a crush on Daphne and Fred, remaining oblivious to Norville’s affection toward her. They’re dealing with complex parent-child issues that Velma slowly fleshes out. The seriousness is balanced with plenty of self-referential humor, sometimes exasperatingly, but it mostly works as a joyride.

Velma’s suspense isn’t gripping on its own, but it doesn’t matter. The voice performances make the brief lulls worth it. The actors are clearly having a ball, with the warm chemistry between Kaling, Wu, Richardson, and Howerton shining through even though they don’t appear on screen. The supporting cast is equally charming, including Yvonne Orji and Fortune Feimster as the hot, mean girls at school. This isn’t the Velma we’re used to, but it’s the Velma we deserve to enjoy today.

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Velma will premiere on HBO Max with two episodes on January 12