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Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) standing in a spotlight with her arms hoisted above her head Image: Warner Media

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Velma puts the girls (and their queerness) front and center

Episodes 3 and 4 show how the HBO Max show is deepening the Scooby gang’s relationships

Mindy Kaling’s Velma is here! It’s queer! And anyone refusing to get used to it should be prepared to be mocked in promo trailers.

This series explores the backstory of one of the most iconic animated sleuths in a way that takes both her motivations and relationships seriously. Rather than rehashing the same dynamics we’ve seen for decades between the members of Mystery Inc., Velma gives us a window into the origin of the group, and the relationships that helped shape our titular character, Daphne, Fred, and Shaggy into the meddling kids we all know and love.

Even at first blush these aren’t the same characters we’ve seen for decades: The art and voice cast deftly combine to lend depth to previously (sometimes literally) one-dimensional characters. While the stylized proportions of the redesigned mystery solvers can be a bit jarring when we’ve all become accustomed to the rampant “same-face syndrome” of animated media, the variety of mouth, nose, and eye shapes allows for more uniquely recognizable faces. Combined with frequent, exaggerated close-up expressions, the visuals alone create a stronger emotional connection to the characters than we’ve experienced before.

Velma quickly distinguishes itself from previous PG versions of Scooby-Doo with more cartoon nudity and gore in the first 10 minutes than in the past 50 years combined. It pokes fun at this exact concept — in the showers, of course. Our first on-screen character blithely asks her classmates, “Have you ever noticed how pilot episodes of TV shows always have more gratuitous sex and nudity than the rest of the series?” before stripping down and getting in a naked fight. The scene further ups the meta ante to take on horror tropes in general, as Velma quips, “Krista, if this was a show, you’d be killed off for being horny!”

The ensuing chaos reveals Daphne (voiced to sultry mean girl perfection by Constance Wu) and Velma (Kaling, of course) are, heartbreakingly, former best friends. In most versions of Scooby-Doo they’re just friends, but a past (let alone an exploration of their connection) is rarely explained. Having both the classic “childhood friends” trope and the set up for “enemies to lovers” gives a chance to learn more about these characters while also indicating early on that their relationship is leading to something more. Their past hurt and current differences are further emphasized when a classmate turns up gruesomely murdered, and Velma has to find the real killer to avoid arrest.

Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) looks scared of green ghosts behind her Image: Warner Media

While her clue-finding aptitude has never been in question, this series establishes a deep personal connection to mystery solving in general, and specifically to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her mother. Her beloved (if beleaguered) parental figure’s disappearance, and the resulting guilt, leads to vivid hallucinations. Scooby-Doo has always thrived as a horror comedy, particularly when it’s allowed to be genuinely scary. That is certainly the case with the hallucinations, with clawed hands committing Junji Ito-level acts of body horror, bright lime green glow around fanged and tentacled mouths, and a small throwback to the classic “menacing eyes in pitch-black darkness” imagery in the reflection of the puddle that the first hallucinatory hand rises out of.

In addition to providing a visual tie-in to monster moments from previous series, these visions provide moments of vulnerability for Velma that lead to the reveal of two key relationships. The first is when Norville (aka Shaggy, but at this point known by his terrible, awful, no-good canon first name) confesses his love in an attempt to shock her out of her hallucinatory state. It works, if only because it makes Velma laugh uncontrollably, much to Norville’s disappointment. The second is when Daphne shocks her out of the hallucinations, using a much different (and more well received) approach.

The romantic entanglements of Scooby-Doo characters have varied throughout the decades, but one thing remains the same: The queer readings of Velma have always been there. From her animated style and demeanor to her live-action portrayals (including being played by Hayley freakin’ Kiyoko in 2009’s Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins and 2010’s Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster), the hints have been there all along, obvious enough to pick up even if you’ve temporarily lost your glasses. Memes abound regarding there being “no heterosexual explanation” for her knowing what Daphne’s moans sound like, and she’s rarely shown to be interested in dating men.

Previous versions have largely dismissed fan readings of Velma’s queerness. But trying to force her character into a relationship with Shaggy (because, duh, Fred and Daphne are together, the remaining two should pair up as well!) rarely comes off as natural, even to the other characters. In Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated she’s shown to be dating Shaggy, much to Scooby’s chagrin, while in Scooby Apocalypse Velma’s announcement of her pregnancy is met by shock from Daphne, who states she didn’t think Velma was interested in men. When she is allowed a less heterosexual portrayal — living with Daphne in the Valentine’s episode of What’s New, Scooby Doo? or their interactions in 2002’s live-action movie (and the supposedly cut kiss during the body swapping scene) — it’s still only ever hinted at, no matter how heavily. While she’s shown to be a character unafraid to pursue what she wants, when it comes to romantic interest in women, Velma has only ever been allowed implication, rather than confirmation. Until now.

Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) in the foreground looking sad, with her back turned to Daphne (voiced by Constance Wu) in the background, who is turned away but also looks sad Image: Warner Media

With Velma’s sexuality now canon, we see an update to Daphne’s character as well. The women of Mystery Inc. are finally in the spotlight, able to be full, dynamic characters, which is particularly essential because of how Daphne has been portrayed in the past. The signature damsel in distress and presumed love interest of Fred in most iterations of Scooby-Doo, Daphne is rarely granted any level of agency. Even her physical whereabouts are often outside her control, as she frequently disappears into a trap door or gets snatched by a villain while the rest of the group is distracted. At best, she’s lent a sheer glaze of “girl power” with ambitions of being a mystery writer, or having basic defense skills.

Which is why it’s so damn refreshing to see her being the one doing the saving. Velma is the one in distress from her hallucinations, and Daphne saves her with a kiss.

She’s also given more nuance, without compromising her “Danger-Prone Daphne” status. It just turns out that for once, the danger is her choice, and something she actively seeks out. She’s shown to be more than capable at avoiding kidnapping or restraint, and determined to shape her own identity (including selling drugs, even though it “muddies her brand” with a bad-girl persona) and pursue her own goals, namely finding her birth parents.

Not only does seeing both Velma and Daphne have their own lives and motivations make them more interesting characters in their own right, but it also gives their relationship a more realistic (and adorable) basis. Velma’s unconvincing attempt to deny she kissed Daphne while saying things like “The heat of a thousand suns passing between us? What?!” to Norville simply wouldn’t have the weight it does without these characters’ newfound, demonstrated ability to take their lives into their own hands.

Daphne (voiced by Constance Wu) and Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) Image: Warner Media
Shaggy (voiced by Sam Richardson) holding a gem stone and looking to the side with Daphne (voiced by Constance Wu) looking shocked in the background Image: Warner Media
Velma (voiced by Mindy Kaling) looking excited by Fred (voiced by Glenn Howerton), who is taking a selfie Image: Warner Media

While Velma and Daphne’s characters seem to be updated versions of their previously underdeveloped selves, Fred and Norville are drastically different. Norville is lovelorn and nerdy, devoid of huge sandwiches and his usual canine companion. The humor for his character seems to play directly against the expectations we usually have for this role, like when he outright states that he hates drugs with a deadpan blink to the camera. Fred is a spoiled, babyish rich kid with little to his character besides body insecurities until he’s convicted of murder. The two male members of Mystery Inc. sport updated versions of their signature outfits and run through the classic “Scooby-Dooby Doors” together, but otherwise are essentially the antitheses of their usual selves.

As starting points for these characters, it’s fine. There are still small tie-ins to their more well-known identities, like Norville being an obscure snack vlogger and Fred being an heir to an ascot fortune. Ideally, the current distance from the expected personalities will result in richer character arcs that explain how they became Shaggy and Fred. And possibly show how the “love quadrangle” morphs into a powerful mystery-solving polycule? Or at the very least give us a jumping off point for a spinoff about the newly goth Gigi (one of Daphne’s popular friends) being a founding member of the Hex Girls.

Regardless of what’s to come, Velma has ascended as the main character she should have been all along. She and Daphne are finally allowed to shape their own destinies, hopefully as the happy on-screen couple we all deserve. Until then, a long awaited kiss and friend hugs where “boobs touch, no crotch” decisively solves one long-standing mystery for fans, while unmasking the potential for a brighter future for our two favorite sleuths.