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"Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc.": More Muddling Than Meddling

by on July 12, 2010

Memo to Tony Cervone, Spike Brandt, and Sam Register:

C’mon, guys. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Look, no one ever mistook Scooby Doo for rocket science; it’s one of the most formulaic cartoon franchises ever made. But it’s also one of the most successful, and it’s so successful because it starts with a great formula. Dogs plus kids plus ghosts equals cartoon gold.

I feel like I need to remind you of this because your new series, Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc., seems awfully baroque. I like ambition, but you guys need to be real careful to not overthink things.

The series doesn’t get off entirely on the wrong foot, because at least it features the original gang doing what the original gang does best, which is solving a mystery while being chased by a ghoul. In “Beware the Beast From Below,” for instance, they tangle with some kind of radioactive goo-creature that encases its victims in ooze; for awhile, in fact, it seems like the gang might be up against an authentic monster. But then the clues—the odd texture and flavor of its slime; the tunnels beneath the bank—begin to suggest a more mundane explanation. Eventually deductions are made, traps are constructed, and a villain is unmasked. All would seem right with the world and the formula.

Unfortunately, it smothers this simple, wholesome comfort food under a hollandaise of outrageous condiments. Tony, Spike, Sam: Shaggy can get away with topping his hamburgers with bananas, chipotle peppers, vindaloo curry, chocolate sauce, and dishwasher detergent, but you’re going to give the rest of us stomach cramps if you do the same thing to the franchise.

Let’s review the basics. Why do kids love Scooby? lampshading of the Washington Post said it had a simple and attractive message for children: “Kids should meddle, dogs are sweet, life is groovy, and if something scares you, you should confront it.” Stuever nails it. The typical Scooby story is fodder for a seven-year-old’s perfect Saturday adventure: You and your friends (and your dog) sneak into that old house that looks like it could be haunted. The nasty thing that lives there chases you, screaming, all over the place. Then you turn around and chase it, and unmask it as some selfish, stupid, ugly old adult (but all adults are that way, aren’t they?) whose selfish and stupid schemes you’ve successfully thwarted. Then you go home and eat ice cream.

Like I said, it’s not a hard formula, and you can play lots of variations on it. But you shouldn’t overload it, and you definitely shouldn’t include things that undercut it.

For instance, you shouldn’t snap the suspending wires of disbelief by overstraining the mystery. Scooby Doo, Where Are You? played its mysteries perfectly by giving them form without texture. There was a setting and there was a ghost, but only gradually did the scheme behind the haunting come into focus, and sometimes it didn’t even introduce the bad guy until the mask came off. This worked because the kids at home don’t care about the solutions and barely care that they be believable. (It is, after all, a cartoon.) Certainly Scooby and the gang should treat the mysteries seriously, because if they aren’t genuinely curious, genuinely puzzled, and genuinely frightened, then the kids watching aren’t going to feel these emotions either. But there’s no percentage to be grabbed by making the mysteries “real” or pretending that anyone except the gang itself cares about them.

But “Beware the Beast From Below” almost instantly goes wrong by giving Velma a venomous little speech about how dumb all the old classic mysteries were—how lame and unbelievable were the old ghosts and villains. This is a mistake, because if she is going to highlight the stupidity of the average Scooby plot, why shouldn’t the audience turn the same harsh light on your series? Her speech doesn’t reassure me that the new mysteries won’t be stupid; in fact, it tells me that I should raise my expectations. Gentlemen, I mean no disrespect when I tell you that it isn’t wise to fling down a challenge this way, especially when the mystery plot that immediately follows is much stupider and less suspenseful than anything Ken Spears and Joe Ruby ever came up with.

Velma’s speech, which she gives in a museum that holds the costumes of those old, famous baddies, also ties this series to Where Are You, which I think is another mistake. It’s hard enough preserving a sense of credulity when the antagonists are phantoms and movie monsters, and the original series was very smart to send the Mystery Inc. gang wandering around the countryside in the Mystery Machine. It meant we didn’t have to believe that all these phony spooks were lumbering around inside a small ten-square-mile plot of land. The gang also rarely alluded to their previous mysteries; at most, Fred or Velma would say something like “It looks we’ve got another mystery on our hands.” Again, this meant we didn’t have to worry about continuity, and wouldn’t worry too hard about the long odds against the gang stumbling onto so many wacky hauntings.

But I guess Mystery Inc. is going to be incredibly tightly written. It’s set in a named, permanent locale—the kids’ hometown of Crystal Cove—and apparently there is going to be a season-long mystery unfolding. Kids don’t generally care about continuity, but they will turn into hyper-logical little calculators if you give them a reason to. Do you really want to give them an excuse to start scrutinizing your show for plot holes and continuity errors? Especially when, as the first series showed, you don’t have to deploy any kind of continuity to make a smash pop hit?

Then there’s the Mystery Inc. gang itself. The original characters are often criticized for being bland. Scooby himself had a lot of personality, but cartoon dogs almost always do. Shaggy also had personality—his hunger, his cowardice, his tight rapport with the Great Dane. The others? Well, the best you can say is that Velma was smart, Daphne was pretty, and Fred had leadership abilities. But this common criticism misses the point. The personalities may have been bland, but as characters they were sharply defined by the roles they played in the story. Fred organized things, Velma solved things, Daphne got into trouble so someone would need rescuing, and Shaggy and Scooby kept running into the monsters. Collectively, this quintet was the real “mystery machine,” because they clicked and kept the plot moving without once getting bogged down in “story” or “motivation” or “emotional arc.” Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and its immediate successors weren’t “action shows,” but they were well-paced, and they lingered on a scene only to build suspense and atmosphere.

So they didn’t distract us with inessentials. Were Daphne and Fred a “couple”? Everyone I knew assumed they were, but we didn’t care, didn’t need to be told that they were, and would have been baffled and bored by any scenes that dealt with “romance” instead of “chills and chases.” Were Scooby and Shaggy best friends? Of course they were, and they showed us their friendship in every episode without once having to tell us that they were friends. Was there something kind of, um, weird about Velma? Well, duhhhhh! You only had to look at her.

When characters are defined, as these are, by their role in a formulaic story, then you should strip away anything that doesn’t contribute to their function, because it will only get in the way. We didn’t know their last names; they rarely alluded to their families; we weren’t even sure if they were in high school or college. And of course we knew nothing about the policemen or bureaucrats or professors or fishermen who popped up, except what they needed to tell us to solve the mystery. (It helped if they had quirks, but that was only to help create atmosphere, not to make them well-rounded characters.)

So why in the name of all that is ooky and spooky does this first episode of Mystery Inc. spend nearly half of its running time:

  • Satirizing Daphne’s crush on Fred and Fred’s oblivious reactions to the same?
  • Revealing a secret, vexed romance between Shaggy and Velma?
  • Dwelling on what a Shaggy-Velma romance would mean for Shaggy’s friendship with Scooby?
  • Pitching Daphne and Velma into a snotty, gossipy conflict about their romantic lives?
  • Introducing a sheriff with a grudge against the Mystery Inc. gang?
  • Showcasing each of the human characters’ families and why those families can’t stand the other members of the gang and want to break it up?

Guys, I don’t understand. It leaves me feeling like I’m watching a CW soap opera. Are you trying to Buffy-ize Scooby Doo, by turning the gang into well-rounded characters who evolve dramatically and realistically (though comically!) as the series proceeds? I hope not, because I don’t see how you think you’re going to overcome a very salient detail that Buffy and Angel and Smallville and Supernatural never had to beat:

You see, your title character is a talking dog.

Let me repeat that: Your well-rounded, evolving, psychologically realistic characters will be hanging out with a non-supernatural talking dog. And this means that when Shaggy says out loud that this talking dog is his best friend, and uses this as an excuse to duck one of Velma’s clumsy romantic advances … Well, let’s just say it’s hard not to start making up jokes whose punch lines include the phrase “doggy style.” This was never a problem when the characters were ciphers.

And that brings me to my final criticism. There is altogether too much lampshading going on, in this first episode at least. Velma, I noted above, lampshades the plot stupidity of the earlier series. Shaggy lampshades his peculiar relationship with this peculiar mutt. Daphne lampshades the ambiguous nature of her relationship with Fred. Fred lampshades his own fixation on kooky traps. The townsfolk of Crystal Cove lampshade the bizarre fact that their town is ground zero for all kinds of weird occult happenings. At best, all this lampshading results in only meager jests. More often it comes off as insecure and highly defensive pre-emptive apologetics, as though you guys are deeply ashamed to be making yet another lame Scooby Doo series and are trying to take the curse off by jeering at the franchise before anyone else can. It also clashes with the more-textured characters you’re trying to put out there. How are we supposed to take these people seriously if you give them more dimension while at the same time crushing and belittling them as goofs, cranks and pathetic obsessives?

At least the production values are good, and the characters are faithful to the original designs while looking more supple and dynamic. In this age of digital coloring, I suppose, it is useless to complain that the visuals are cold and bland when they’re not completely washed out. The backgrounds especially suffer. More than anything, it was the dark, muddy colors and expressionistic brush strokes that gave the original Scooby series its sinister gleam, but I suspect those will never come back. Your cast is mostly decent. As Fred, Frank Welker sounds as good today as he did (gulp) forty years ago, and his Scooby is more than passable. Matthew Lillard has Shaggy’s cadences down cold, and it’s nice to hear Casey Kasem himself as Shaggy’s father. Velma and Daphne have had so many voice actresses over the years that there is no point in talking about their authenticity, and Mindy Cohn and Grey Delisle work just fine. Patrick Warburton perfectly fits the role of a dementedly resentful policeman; I’ll leave you to infer whether I mean that as praise.

I have to say, I’m more than a bit surprised that you whiff Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc. this badly after doing such a good job at capturing the look and tone of the Chuck Jones Daffy Duck in Duck Dodgers and the Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry in the recent KidsWB series. Scooby seems so much simpler and more robust than those characters and series. But maybe that simplicity is the problem, not because it is hard to do simplicity, but because you, like so many people, think you can and should “improve” on it. But it’s a mystery that too many people just don’t see their way through: not all “improvements” actually improve a thing.

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