On HBO Max's Velma, the titular brainiac dishes out language that's much more explicit than "Jinkies!" Plus, there's a serial killer on the loose.
Developed by Charlie Grandy, who also serves as showrunner, and executive produced by Mindy Kaling, who also voices the titular character, the adult animated mystery comedy serves as an origin story for the beloved Scooby Doo character. At the start of the series, Velma has yet to team up with her fellow high schoolers Daphne (Constance Wu), Fred (Glenn Howerton), and Norville (Sam Richardson — and more on that character name later). But even as a murderer goes around slicing heads open and stealing brains, familiar high school high jinks and relationship drama play out between the four teens. Striking away from Scooby Doo's family-friendly sensibility, Velma leans into a darker and racier approach, a direction that also influenced Scooby's absence from the show.
"[The show] trends towards finding the sort of darker aspect of the Pollyanna-ish type of comic we might know before, just like Betty and Veronica and Archie in Riverdale," Wu tells Metacritic. "I was also a big fan of the Betty and Veronica comics when I was a kid, and it's idyllic — almost like Pleasantville. It's interesting just to see a darker version of that because light only exists without the dark and vice versa. The fact that [Velma] was an adult show, not a kid's show, and it didn't shy away from that was really fun."
Velma establishes its comedic and self-aware tone early. Within the opening minutes, a nude brawl breaks out in the girls' locker room during a debate over pilot episodes featuring gratuitous nudity and sex to hook audiences. Daphne also fields a question about racebending in media, a riff about how each of the core four characters reflect their voice actors' race.
"Part of the function of telling the stories the way we want to tell them was having those meta jokes to really help the audience hopefully bridge that gap," Grandy says. "From a writing standpoint, it felt like we were taking a big swing with changing ethnicities of the characters, so we just wanted to address it right out of the gate and then not really talk too much about it again but have characters be able to tell jokes."
A longtime lover of Scooby Doo, Grandy looked to the franchise's earliest iteration for inspiration.
"They've had different parents, they've had different backgrounds sometimes — they've had no background sometimes. There's been a lot of work done on them that I really just went back to the original [show's] first three seasons and worked off of that," he says, adding that viewers can expect Easter eggs to draw from those seasons as well as other "larger Hanna-Barbera Easter eggs that come in at different times."
When considering what makes Scooby Doo still feel fresh, more than 50 years after the premiere of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Richardson reflects how "in the original, you have your bookworm nerd, you have your barrel-chested jock, you have your pretty people person, and you have your stoner coward slash neurotic guy. Those are four different character archetypes that we've grown up with and we recognize and see. They're part of our character lexicon."
Howerton continues the thought, saying, "It's really interesting how different the characters are from the original characters that we know and yet there's enough there to where you recognize that that's the same person. To see the traits that they've latched on to and to get to watch the journey of how they become who they became and how they all come together and they really do."
"It's not just a different interpretation of the characters as much as it is like showing this really long and intricate arc to how they got to where they became the characters that we grew up with," he adds.
Here, showrunner Grandy and cast members Howerton, Richardson, and Wu preview what to expect from the four future Mystery Inc. members.
Bright, sarcastic, and a social outcast, Velma grew up solving mysteries because of her mystery novelist mom. Only, ever since her mom's strange disappearance two years ago, Velma now suffers terrifying hallucinations every time she tries to string a couple of clues together.
"The show is really also a love letter, not just to Scooby Doo, but to teen dramas and to the detective drama as well, and it felt like every great detective has some kind of great weakness. Usually it's either alcohol or drug addiction of some sort," Grandy says. "I wanted Velma to have something that made solving mysteries difficult, some impediment that had gotten in her way and somehow was of her own doing. As we go on, we play with how the hallucinations appear to Velma at different times."
He adds that the monstrous visions also provided an essential ingredient to the show's visuals. "Knowing where the show was going, knowing that we weren't going to be doing like a monster-of-the-week type thing, but how can we keep that element alive from the original Scooby Doo?"
Velma also finds herself at the center of a complicated love triangle — or, more accurately, quadrangle. She harbors a crush on Fred, while in turn being the unaware object of Norville's affections. Norville even helps break one of her hallucinations with his earnest confessions of love, which Velma obliviously interprets as his way of making her laugh. At the end of the second episode, titled "The Candy (Wo)man," things get even more complicated when Daphne breaks another hallucination by kissing Velma.
Childhood friends turned nemeses, Daphne and Velma sit on opposite sides of their high school's social hierarchy. The pair begin working together again when Velma approaches Daphne, the adoptive daughter of two detectives, for help in getting her mom's cold case file.
"I wanted all the obstacles in their friendship to be just their personal issues and just things they need to resolve with themselves before they can truly be comfortable in each other's presence all the time or not stepping on each other's toes," Grandy says of their frenemy dynamic. "It was really designed to be a super combustive relationship by making both characters very strong willed and having strong opinions."
"That was a lot of the fun, especially with the Daphne character. who especially in those early episodes, the first three seasons [of the original show], is really a blank slate. It felt really exciting to take that idea of 'Danger Prone Daphne' and flip it on its head. She's more drawn towards danger," he continues.
In that vein, Daphne has been dealing drugs to help fund her search for her biological family.
"You know when you're a teenager, you do a lot of dumb sh-- to fund whatever other dumb sh-- that you want to get into. Her dumb sh-- is not dumb sh--. She's curious about her past and why she is the way she is, and she's still kind of figuring it out," Wu says. "I think that's reflective of a lot of teens today. They're interested about who they are, who they're becoming, and why they're becoming that way."
"When you're watching those original ones, you're like, who is Daphne? Who is this person?," Grandy adds. "And then to take that on the character and have the character asking, 'Who am I, like really? Who are my parents? Where do I come from?' It just felt very interesting, especially for Velma, who then so clearly knows exactly who she is."
In Velma, Shaggy isn't Shaggy — at least, not yet. Instead, the character's introduced by his canonical proper name, Norville. And while his love for food has been reimagined into a snack review video channel (take a closer look at the screen names commenting on his first live for some early Easter eggs), another prominent aspect of the character has been flipped on its head.
"He's sober, and he hates drugs — which if you ask anybody what the No. 1 trait about Shaggy is just like, oh, he's a pothead, right? And he has a dog," Richardson says. "Those two things are different about him right off the bat, so I think it's a very fun exercise to see these characters out of an element that you are familiar with."
"From what we know about Shaggy to where he is [in this show] is certainly a very dynamic change. I think it'll be fun to see how he gets to point B from point A. Or point Z!" he continues.
Nerdy and well-meaning Norville also starts the series completely enamored with Velma, willing to even get his liver removed to help her out.
"When we first meet Norville, it is that obsession of just wanting to be in the orbit of Velma. What'd he say? 'You're the main character in all my dreams,'" says Richardson, quoting his character with a laugh. "So it's a very clear want and obsession to just be around this person who truly just thinks of you as this scenery. But as we go, more things will develop and he becomes more [full] of a person, you learn about how much he loves himself and how much he appreciates himself."
The arrogant and entitled heir apparent of the Jones family fortune, Fred provides comic relief while also harboring deep insecurity over not living up to his father's expectations and his delayed puberty. It doesn't take long for him to become the main suspect in the murders due to a misunderstanding. But although his defense rests on his ineptitude and boyish nature, he reacts violently when mocked by the courtroom.
Of the dual nature of Fred's insecurity and narcissism, Howerton says, "Something I've always been fascinated by is, 'Who is the guy who's driving around in the car with the really, really loud exhaust?' This guy literally went to the auto body shop and went, 'Can you make it so that when I drive by, everybody has to look at me?' As opposed to what really happens when that guy drives by everyone's like, 'What a dick. Shut your car up. It doesn't need to be that loud. Especially if it's like a Honda Accord, you know?'"
"I've always just been fascinated by people who really feel the need to overcompensate for the ways in which they feel small," he explains. "I find it really irritating, but I also kind of feel bad in some ways, like, what made you that way? I do love that about this show, that you get to see where [Fred] comes from. I think you can empathize with him. I think you're gonna hate him and hate a lot of his qualities, but also feel bad for him, because [he's] just a product of his upbringing."
Fred clearly shares some qualities with some of the actor's best-known characters, namely Dennis from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Jack from A.P. Bio, although the actor didn't necessarily draw any intentional parallels.
"I don't always notice that that's happening when I read something or I get offered something. Then it often occurs to me after I'm like, 'Oh, right. There's a real theme here happening,'" Howerton says. "I think it's because I despise narcissism and entitlement so much that it's really cathartic for me to satirize it. And probably because I see a little bit of myself in there that I don't like about myself, so it's my way of sort of exorcising that."
Velma streams new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.