Everyone loves an underdog story — even one that conspicuously excludes a literal dog. That’s the drive behind HBO Max’s “Velma,” an origin story about its titular bespectacled mystery solver who goes on to be integral, if under-appreciated, in 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 screened to critics (out of 10 total in Season 1), “Velma” proves to be a send up of high school shows, crime dramas, and television at large, full of all-star performances and packed with punchlines.
Velma Dinkley (Kaling) grew up loving mysteries, but all of that changed when her mother went missing. Velma blames herself — her mom was out getting Velma a Christmas present because this amateur detective found hers early — and the guilt sometimes leads to terrifying hallucinations. That’s less than ideal when a fellow student is murdered with Velma as the prime suspect, and her only way to clear her name and find her mother is to go into detective mode once again.
The show of course hinges on Velma, who cannot be separated from the actor bringing her to life. The character is infused with desires, insecurities, and quips seen across Kaling’s oeuvre, tidbits that could be plucked from the mouths of Kelly Kapoor, Mindy Lahiri, Devi Vishwakumar, or Bela Malhotra. That’s a double-edged sword, because Kaling still delivers a stellar voice acting performance, but it’s one that can’t help evoke her eminent celebrity and previous works.
That said, even when Velma is narrow-sighted and selfish, her relationships strengthen the show all around. At the forefront is ongoing tension with popular girl Daphne (Constance Wu), Velma’s former best friend who quickly becomes a begrudging ally and major crush. While the girls grapple with their vacillating feelings, Velma is also getting over a crush on resident hot dummy Fred (Glenn Howerton) and repeatedly ignoring the romantic overtures of loyal friend Norville (Sam Richardson), whom she finds so unserious as a prospect that any mention of it has her fighting tears of laughter. As she grows further enmeshed in the mystery of her mother, Velma also can’t help bonding 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” is undoubtedly in its humor, dense and irreverent and often referencing the wider Scooby-Doo canon and other pop culture (the cold open is a meta-commentary on why TV pilots include gratuitous nudity — featuring gratuitous nudity). Jokes range everywhere from bangers to duds, the latter end of that spectrum being anything that seems to scorn political awareness or cultural sensitivity — remarks that feel out-of-place in an otherwise admirably progressive show and which sound at least 20 years older than the characters voicing them. But with so much dialogue delivered at supersonic speed, there’s as much time to cackle at a hit (“Dad says we can’t even afford to buy me a second sweater”) as there is to roll your eyes at a miss.
Kaling is joined by a superb cast, from the future Mystery 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 moms, while Cherry Hill and original Fred voice actor Frank Welker play Fred’s contemptuous 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 invigorate every line of “Velma” and propels the series even when tangled plotting 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).
By the time you hear the name “Scooby” (and you will hear it), viewers will be engrossed in the town’s crime, gossip, and shrouded history to the point that these meddling kids seem just fine without a canine companion. “Velma” is doing a lot — possibly too much — but there are emotional beats and comedic gags that do land amid a saturated creative canvas, including arcs for the future Mystery Inc gang that combine existing backstory with eclectic “Velma” flourishes (a big Fred twist leads to some truly 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” makes for a pleasing weekly treat at least as good as a Scooby Snack.
The first two episodes of “Velma” are now streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes every Thursday.