Yesterday, HBO Max bragged that Velma, the new adult-rated Scooby Doo cartoon, was its most-viewed animated premiere ever. I’m not sure precisely what that says, given that the only other Max original animated series I can even think of is Harley Quinn, plus a bunch of other older series that WB Discovery recently murdered.
But people are certainly talking about Velma, that much is true. Just…not very positively. Velma currently has the lowest audience score I’ve seen for an HBO or HBO Max production, a 7%. To get that low requires not just “review bombing” but your show also likely has to be…genuinely bad.
And it is. Velma is very, very bad.
Velma is so bad in fact, that it’s spawning conspiracy theories that creator Mindy Kaling made what is essentially a parody of what the right wing thinks left wing comedy is like. As in, a show that not just recast most roles with new races, but also features loads and loads of “white guys, amiright?” jokes. The idea is that Kaling is a secretly conservative force in media trying to make the left look bad by making a cringey adult cartoon full of “this rich white guy has a small dong” jokes that the right can point at as everything wrong with race-recasted, social justice-influenced media.
I do not want to go down a big rabbit hole about Mindy Kaling’s personal beliefs and influences here. And yet if that wasn’t the intent of the show, it sure feels like it in practice. On one side, it absolutely is working to spark mockery from the right, exactly as you might imagine it would. But on the other, it’s just not defensible at all by those who would normally welcome a progressive series.
Take She-Hulk for example. That was a hugely controversial show where it was very explicit about roasting misogynistic comic fans, perhaps often lacking in subtlety. But I would still very much defend that show, as I think its humor and fourth-wall breaking works, and most of the people who were upset about it are the very people that it’s overtly making fun of…for being upset about it.
Velma is not that. Velma is not defensible by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just bad. Making progressive jokes is fine so long as the jokes are good. They are not good. I heard the show described somewhere as a series written by TV writers who only ever talk to other TV writers. That’s a pretty good summary. And the idea here is that it’s so, so bad at landing its jabs at right wingers that it almost feels like self-sabotage.
There is a world in which this concept might have worked. I can see an “adult” Scooby Doo series where you have an overlooked Velma attempting to claw back credit from a privileged Fred, the “leader” of the gang. And yet here it’s not just jabbing at Fred for being an overconfident white dude, it’s literally “he’s such a whiny white man baby that his mommy cuts his steak and he hasn’t finished puberty so he has a small penis.” Like just…no remote hint of subtlety or nuance or anything that could make the progressive humor work.
An easy counter-example to turn to is the R-rated Harley Quinn series, also on HBO Max, which still feels true to the characters it focuses on, is full of left-leaning messaging on misogyny an LGBTQ issues, but importantly…is funny and compelling. I mean, this show recently did a full bit about the Joker running for mayor as a progressive socialist and it worked.
Velma? I don’t know what Velma is doing. I’m not sure I subscribe to this “Mindy Kaling made a dogwhistle series for right wing trolls” theory, as the Occam’s Razor explanation is that the show is just…bad. The jokes are…bad. That’s really it.
I may continue watching out of morbid fascination, but man, this is truly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.