Archive for May, 2015

Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated 2010’s Greatness is 2015’s Obnoxiousness

There are three moments in Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated that best represent the show’s biggest, most glaring problems.

Let’s start at the end and work backwards.


In “Gates of Gloom,” there’s a bit of misdirect in which it seems like Fred, Daphne, and Velma are inside a souped-up, armor-covered Mystery Machine, plowing through heavily armed killer robots. Sacrificing the iconic van with an explosion to take out the remaining robots, it’s revealed that the three teens were controlling it from inside a completely different vehicle. Fred proceeds to lament on his car’s sacrifice to ensure his love, Daphne, remained safe… only to toss a half-assed nod to Velma’s protection as well (Velma replies flippantly). And I get it. It’s a gag that emphasizes Fred’s simple, one-track mind; Fred just forgot about Velma as he declared his passionate love and devotion for Daphne. Yet even within the parameters of the gag, it’s pretty mean, particularly after two long seasons of uncommitted, un-established relationships among the group’s members.

This is more distinct in “Night Terrors,” admittedly Mystery Incorporated strongest technical episode. This homage to The Shining pits the individual members of the group against a series of hallucinations, including one that makes Daphne think Shaggy is Fred, and makes Shaggy think Daphne likes him – which leads to the two making out. Set aside the awkward sexual misconduct of the moment (Shaggy’s prideful boasts of this “conquest” is both gross and wildly out-of-character), the scene falls apart when Fred sees it. In typical Fred fashion, he freezes up (an act he has done before when he sees Daphne flirt with other men). Daphne and Shaggy express concern about Fred, but Velma – again, who knows this is one of Fred’s dumb freakouts – makes a sarcastic comment towards Fred. Shaggy and Daphne, for some reason, are deeply offended by Velma comment, and it’s at this point I just want to throw my phone out the window. For you see, Velma has been the ignored butt of the team for several episodes, the only member truly committed to solving the various mysteries, and often had to venture out on her own because of the group’s self-centered, whiny crap. They have abandoned her many, many times. So for the characters – and by proxy, the show – to turn a typical Velma bit of sarcastic comedy against her, so viciously… it just was so awful, a moment that pretty much made the show irredeemable in my eyes. Fred’s forgetfulness is portrayed as comedy, but Velma’s flippant gag is some sore of cruelty? In Shaggy’s own words, “Not cool.”

Yet it’s all the way in season one’s “Howl of the Fright Hound” where the show essentially falls into a character-narrative trap from which it never can escape. Mystery Incorporated started off with the show’s worst decision – a forced relationship between Velma and Shaggy. It’s wildly nonsensical and utterly ill-defined, with Velma acting as a nagging shrew, forcing Shaggy to do a bunch of crap he doesn’t like, all while keeping the relationship a secret from Scooby-Doo. Nothing good, worthwhile, or meaningful comes from this, and it creates eight-or-nine episodes of piss-poor sitcomy bit-writing. So in “Howl of the Fright Hound,” Shaggy finally tells Velma that he doesn’t want to date her any more so he can maintain his friendship with Scooby. There’s a lot of problems here (mostly because it’s unclear if Scooby is upset because Shaggy never told him about the relationship or if he’s jealous that Shaggy and Velma are dating, and also, is it that hard to date Velma and still maintain a friendship with Scooby?), but the show comes to a screeching halt when Velma yells out, in front of Scooby, “The boy I love picks a dog over me? That’s the most insulting thing a girl could have ever happen to her!” Velma says this with a tone that’s so off-putting that it becomes a real question of why in the hell are these four teens and their dog even hanging out together (the show is aware of this, but tries to gloss over it, which I will get into later). As goofy as Scooby-Doo is, he’s definitely not just “a dog,” but even beyond that, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated represents an uncomfortably dated showcase of TV entertainment, part of the post-Lost landscape of shows that emphasize long-term mystery over characters and their relationships. The show’s second season scramble to “explain” that behavior, but right here, right now, I’m calling bullshit.



Of the many problems with Dreamworks’ theatrical flop, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, there’s one glaring one that occurs at the beginning of the film. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, really; it’s, like, a “character dissonance” of sorts, an inability or failure to establish an outlier character-type within the world that’s bigger than who the character-type is, or what he or she represents. There isn’t much to the original Mr. Peabody and Sherman after all; Jay Ward’s educational segment within The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was just a tossed off bit that produced historical lessons along side Ward’s acerbic, smartass wit. The film, forced to double down on the familial connection between Sherman and his canine father, may have managed to contextualize that connection via a montage of historical trips and visual examples of nurturing, but it never establishes Mr. Peabody and Sherman as individuals within the modern world – especially Mr. Peabody. That’s because he’s a dog.

It’s hard to see how the movie wants to fit the very idea of “Peabody as a talking, brilliant dog” among humans. What is his place? Sure, he’s introduced as a figure providing the world with gift-after-gift of scientific achievements, but he seems to be the only dog in this entire universe, and the film never bothers to explore what that might mean. Other characters toss indirect insults in his direction, along the lines of questioning the entire premise of a dog raising a child, but it’s approached with a “seriousness” that is left hanging in the wind. Do other characters just “see” Mr. Peabody as a dog? Do they not know about his real accomplishments? Is the whole thing “the joke”? There is no context for this dissonance; it’s not really metaphorical, it’s not really comical, and it’s not really complex, yet it tries to be all three, which is vague and inherently lifeless. (As a counter-example, look at Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which establishes quickly, and often, that Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad are absolute abominations and thus completely part of the nonsensical joke of the entire premise of the show.)

I’m not even sure if I quite explained myself all that well there. It’s a tough subject to explain. Mr. Peabody is an outlier of a character (a dog in a purely human world), and the world never situates his place within it. It tries to showcase him as different but the same, but never works to establish how Mr. Peabody himself feels about that dissonance. And that dissonance is alive and present in Mystery Incorporated, right when Velma makes her blanket statement. Velma may be angry, but Scooby is not just “a dog,” and the idea that she would just say this without the show establishing Scooby’s reaction to such a disingenuous, belittling statement, is baffling. And the show knows it, because 1) that’s the joke and 2) the inanity of my complaint makes it immune from criticism.

Think about it. I’m basically complaining that we’re not provided with Scooby’s real feelings about Velma’s statement. Scooby-Doo! Who in their right mind would raise such a stink about an objectively mean complaint towards an objectively ridiculous character from one of the most objectively stupidest franchises in history? Why would you even care? Why would anyone care? Half of my life is spent arguing about the very nature of contextualizing cartoons, a medium that has been geared towards children for years now. Why would anyone bother to complain about characterizations in such an inane kids’ cartoon?

And, really, that’s been Mystery Incorporated’s shield, its safeguard from complaints and critiques. Scooby-Doo, ever since, oh, let’s say, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, has become the great Hanna-Barbera joke, the epitome of self-aware self-deprecation, a franchise that has been ripped apart in order to make every obvious joke ever possible. Fred is stupid and Daphne is stuck-up and Velma is a nerd and Shaggy totally smokes pot and Scooby is a talking dog that’s hard to understand and what’s up with that? And we have seen every joke ever made about how insane it is for some old man or crazy woman to dress up in a scary costume to scare people away from “generic setting X” so they can steal gold or dig for oil in peace. It is the nature of this very formula that Hanna-Barbara established back in the 60s, that they themselves have repeated, knocked-off, ridiculed, and re-hashed all the way up until their passing. Scooby-Doo has been, and always will be, nonsense, and to even question that kind of nonsense in any way, shape, or form would be a fool’s errand. No, the show wants to say, you’re the idiot for wanting to know about Scooby’s feelings.

Not only does Mystery Incorporated know this, it uses it to its advantage, re-contextualizing it in a huge, series-length story arc. The very nature of Scooby-Doo’s inexplicable character behaviors is not just the lazy-turned-ridiculing nature of the show’s premise, but also part of a super-serious-guys-you-don’t-even-KNOW massive plot. There’s a whole lot of “things will never be the same,” “you cannot possibly understand,” and “this is bigger than you or me.” Abject world-changing cliches taken from so many movies and shows (particularly from the failed post-Lost shows like Flashforward and The Event), re-contextualized within the Scooby-Doo’s self-awareness model. It is the cartoon’s cartoon, the obviousness of animated inanity as applied to the biggest event in history, that literally puts the world in danger.

And every single decision and action and episode and choice is built around that – that self-awareness-but-also-world-changing story arc, and this allows criticisms thrown its way to be deflected to either “C’mon! It’s Scooby-Doo! Who cares!?” or “No, but see, it’s all part of the plan!” It is the Steven Moffat-ing of Scooby-Doo, and I actively, adamantly reject this. I refuse to be cow-towed to tossing aside real, legit complaints about the show’s poor, weak characterizations and relationships because it’s either part of the joke or part of the plot. Because I believe Mystery Incorporated could indeed have been both self-aware AND plot-driven without approaching its characters as misanthropic, one-note, antagonistic avatars under the control of an evil force.

And it sucks, too, because Mystery Incorporated is arguably one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and creepiest shows ever, purely at a technical level. Insanely tense chase sequences. Horrifying imagery. Terrifying art design. Homes, mansions, hotels, basements, dreamworlds and alternate-worlds are animated with lush, decaying details; oil-painting-esque backgrounds give everything an old, decrepit sheen. Villains are comically but dangerously overpowered, and when they give chase, viewers will physically jump and wince at every near-death leap, every close call, every death-defying dodge. Most remarkable is the show’s use of colors; a commanding use of reds, blues, greens, and purples give each and every scene a stark edge, applying visual sensations to every type of danger that occurs on screen. Taken away from its characters, Mystery Incorporated is an abject lesson art design and art direction, worthy of study for future artists, animators, and scenic designers. (I say all that with one caveat: the character designs themselves are lackluster, with basically three different body types for its male characters and only one, maybe two, basically body types for female characters.)

Yet Mystery Incorporated’s characters are there, and they’re rather unpleasant to watch in action. And I’m certainly not adverse to unpleasant characters – Darkwing Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and Master Shake are all my favorite characters and not-at-all role models – but it’s clear that Mystery Incorporated is not at all interested in exploring its five titular characters and how they relate to each other as friends and teammates, beyond establishing that they just are friends and teammates, and that “this has all happened before.” For you see, the four-humans-and-one-animal grouping is not an in-depth look at the concept of five figures pulling together in a world of craziness and danger; they’re the modern incarnation of an historical timeline of such groupings, manipulated by “evil” to eventually release a dangerous spirit into the world. It’s as silly as it sounds, but played deathly serious (as in, various characters are actually killed!), but worse, it becomes the reason the characters are dicks to each other. Because it was planned that way!

The funny thing about that is that I sort of saw it coming. Part of it because I watch a lot of cartoons, part of it is because I have been weaned off post-Lost copycats. Large-scaled arcs are narrative false-flags; unless you’re Joss Whedon, there’s little chance of major characters being killed off, which turns universal stakes into ho-hum affairs (see: the lowering stakes of the Cinematic Marvel Universe). The importance of these kinds of arcs (which Lost got right, despite its disappointing finale) is how individual characters and relationships are formed, strengthened, weakened, or destroyed, and Mystery Incorporated is only barely interested in that (mostly only with Fred’s connection with his parents). When the show dropped the “bombshell” that this has all been done before, I pretty much assumed this was leading to a giant circle-jerk of self-awareness, that the creators themselves would be revealed as the source of everything – think the 2003 TMNT’s “Turtles Forever” special, but taken deadly serious. And, really, I wasn’t that far off.

And so we’re given a show where Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, Velma, and Scooby-Doo are essentially one-dimensional jerks, plopped with their signature characterizations but played up to eleven for the occasional self-aware gag (Velma tells Scooby she can barely understand him on the phone! Fred loves ascots and traps! Shaggy and Scooby eat a lot!) and not much else. Potentially interesting aspects, like Daphne’s rich family and her jealousy of her sisters, or Shaggy’s constant disappointment to his parents, are hardly explored. This isn’t a show where Velma and Scooby hash out their complex emotions towards Shaggy, or Fred confronts Daphne’s parents about their obvious dislike of him. This is the kind of show where Daphne leaves the group and is replaced by Marcie (“Hot Dog Water” is her nickname, because they’re jerks, remember), only for Daphne’s new boyfriend to be revealed as a criminal so she can join right back in – and for Marcie to be consequently kicked out because “it’s always been the five of us,” despite her being legitimately helpful. (Nice for Mystery Incorporated to make Daphne’s boyfriend villainous and for Marcie to be secretly working for a big bad to justify all that.) Also all their mean behavior isn’t about five disparate characters struggling to come together as a group, but the results of a “supreme evil,” because that’s easier to make work than, you know, character development. Hell, it doesn’t have to be deep characterization, but it would’ve been nice to see something other than the lame collective of forced feelings the Mystery Inc. team formed to plunge a stick into the heart of said supreme evil spirit. In “Dark Night of the Hunter,” when this master, manipulative evil is revealed, Shaggy wonders aloud if they were ever even friends, which is less of a genuine, pressing concern from Shaggy and more of an admission of characterization failure from Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone, two of the show’s producers who, interestingly enough, screwed up the characterizations of the Looney Toon characters in The Looney Tunes Show.



Honestly though? I feel bad. I really, really do, because I can see the real, genuine effort that the animators and artists and writers put into the show. I can see them pouring their heart and soul into every loving frame, every tightly scripted moment, every sharply-delivered gag, every genuinely terrifying moment. I know so many people who swear by this show, who recommended it to me and sung its praises often, and who declared it the best iteration of Scooby-Doo ever. And I get that. I do. I was so ready to like this show. I was ready and willing and eager to love this show and be among those who happily, finally found a version of Hanna-Barbara’s enduring franchise that worked.

And then, right after Velma’s awesome introduction, I watched episode after episode of her constant nagging on Shaggy, and the on-again, off-again relationship woes of Fred and Daphne, and the complete lack of knowledge on what the hell to do with Scooby (an issue they admittedly use to their advantage in the second season). Then Velma called Scooby “a dog” with that distinctly dismissive tone, and then the criminals became more and more obvious, even by Mystery Incorporated standards. Flashes of brilliance, like “Mystery Solvers Club State Finals” and “Heart of Evil” were undercut by other episodes’ stretched-out chases and belabored villainy. Then Crystal Cove got a potentially cool mayor, who was once in the Air Force(!) – and then she was neutered and forced into an eye-rollingly inane love story with the incompetent Sheriff Stone. And the characters continued to be jerks with little to no attempt to make them into a cohesive team – or even friends – only for it to be revealed that that was the entire point (which is fan fiction’s number one go-to for bullshit explanations of all crappy storytelling). Then the overall long-term arc even begins to fall apart (did the other previous animals of past groups talk like Scooby?) and then it became clear that the creators were trying to be both clever and funny with it all, to which I just:


You can’t be self-aware and serious at the same time to justify weak characterizations; it’s a show writhing with visually fantastic noise but lacking real substance.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I, as a fan and supporter of Mystery Incorporated’s technical achievements, must declare my disappointment with the show overall. Shallowness masked as a comic bit/plot point is no excuse for poorly drawn characters, and being able to see through all the tricks, only to find a hollow, undercooked cast of characters has left me cold. Pulling the well-designed mask off Mystery Incorporated was no easy feat, for the reveal was empty and the culprit was my expectations.


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