emergency discussion

Velma and the Case of the Condescending Reboot

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: NBC; HBO; Netflix

The year isn’t even a month old, but already the 2023 TV Reboot Production System has delivered three high-profile specimens for public consumption. There’s Velma, the Scooby-Doo-inspired animated adult comedy on HBO Max that explores the origin story of one of Mystery Inc.’s most beloved characters; Night Court, a slightly rejiggered version of the ’80s NBC sitcom set in present-day Manhattan criminal court; and That ’90s Show, the Netflix sequel to That ’70s Show that takes place in the Clinton-Gore years.

For two of our TV critics, Jen Chaney and Roxana Hadadi, attempting to assess all of these blatant nostalgia grabs generated such a flurry of emotions — comfort! Befuddlement! Abject rage! — that it was obviously time for an Emergency Discussion.

Jen Chaney: There are two types of reboots: the kind that tries to completely modernize or reimagine the material, and the kind that’s just plug-and-play — just stick some new characters into the preestablished formula and let nostalgia work its magic. All three of these reboots do a little of both, but I would say Velma veers more toward the former and That ’90s Show, an exercise in nostalgia for both That ’70s Show and its titular decade, does the latter. Night Court has a foot in each of those camps and, despite some flaws and flatness, particularly in its first two episodes, is the most successful of this trio.

Roxana Hadadi: I think your read on the reboot formula is right, Jen. There are reboots with tenuous connections to the source material, like someone had an idea for another show but then just grafted it onto an already established concept or IP. (Cough, Velma, cough.) There are the reboots that bank entirely on that already established IP being enough to draw viewers in, and are loath to do anything at all different with the formula. (I cannot keep forcing myself to cough, so: That ’90s Show.) And then there are the reboots that seemingly have genuine affection for their predecessors but also the willingness to deviate, modernize, or update: Night Court isn’t breaking the wheel or anything — it’s still a workplace comedy with quirky characters and faith in the judicial system — but the new Night Court is also not destroying what made the original so enjoyable, nor copying it so fully that it doesn’t justify its own reason to exist.

We have this conversation all the time, right? We are awash in reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels, projects that feel increasingly narrow in what they are willing to do. Just look at the Star Wars TV universe and how bland and low-stakes it felt early last year, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett, before Andor got revelatory and radical. I sympathize with how “Well, who knows how this is going to go?” it must feel to make a TV series within a deluge of content and the constant battle for people’s attention, and familiarity has long been an effective way to get eyes on your project. But series that thread the needle between not too different and just different enough are feeling increasingly rare. Is nostalgia the only thing to blame for this, Jen? Who or what can I yell at?

JC: Oh, you can shake your fist at a lot of things. Certainly nostalgia is a scapegoat here, but I would place the blame on executives and programmers who rely on the familiar as a guiding principle for what to green-light. I get that it’s hard to stand out in a flooded marketplace and that anything recognizable may have a better chance of being noticed, but that kind of decision-making can also lead to some lazy creative choices.

That brings us back to Velma, which has been maligned online since it showed up on HBO Max for reasons both legitimate (it’s quite bad) and less so (bigotry, basically). Developed by Charles Grandy, a frequent Mindy Kaling collaborator who has worked with her on some good series (The Mindy Project, Champions) and some bad (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Velma tells the origin story of the bespectacled member of the Scooby-Doo gang whose mission throughout the ten episodes is to solve the mystery of her missing mother. I have no idea how this show was pitched, but I assume it involved someone saying, “It’s Scooby-Doo … but with an edge.”

That alleged edginess involves a lot of crass jokes, excessive horniness, and such extreme attempts to be meta — Riverdale is referenced within the first five minutes of episode one, which also features two cockroaches having sex in a high-school locker room — that I am amazed the writers didn’t injure themselves in a tragic pop-culture-referencing accident. I have no problem with switching up Scooby-Doo a little; making Velma, voiced by Kaling, an Indian American character and a pre-Shaggy Norville (Sam Richardson) a Black kid is completely fine and appropriate. The issue with this series is that it’s so smugly certain about how smart it is when it is, in fact, not that smart. I feel like Grandy and his cohorts were aiming to do what the genuinely clever reboot of Saved by the Bell did, by honoring the core elements of the original and satirizing it at the same time. But the tone is an inconsistent mess and so is its character development. Velma is both the nerdiest, most-hated kid in school and a girl to whom every member of Mystery Inc. is wildly attracted? Make it make sense, Roxana!

RH: I’m shuddering remembering the cockroach sex, and all the other stuff this series does in the name of boundary-pushing: mocking the Me Too movement, referencing Larry Nassar’s legal problems as a point of sympathy, joking about police brutality. I don’t want to say that certain concepts or subjects are off-limits, but very little of this dialogue feels organic or believable coming from these characters. Plus, Velma can be romantically interested in both Fred and Daphne without that being super-confusing to understand! Why does Velma have such resistance to believing that bisexuality exists?

But all of that feeds into my biggest issue: Does anyone involved in this reboot actually like the Scooby-Doo property? Deepening and complicating characters with new ethnic backgrounds, altered family dynamics, or sexual identities is one thing — and reboots arguably should do that, to reflect the contemporaneous world in which they’re being made. But Velma spending an entire episode joking about how the titular character hates being called fat but also eats French fries out of the trash just makes me wonder why this series is about Velma when the creators seem to find her abhorrent.

A baseline rule for me when approaching these revamps is that I need to understand what the people behind the series found compelling or curious about the original work, and Velma, in both trashing and distancing itself from the Scooby-Doo universe, doesn’t answer that question at all. Do you have any foundational issues you need these projects to address, Jen? How did the new Saved by the Bell get it right, and, say, That ’90s Show get it wrong?

JC: To return to that Saved By the Bell example, Tracey Wigfield, who adapted that series and, coincidentally, worked on The Mindy Project and Four Weddings and a Funeral, seemed to have an innate understanding of what was both appealing and ridiculous about the original. The jokes that made fun of Bayside High were mostly aimed at the educational system or society at large, but the characters, even when they were being idiots, were generally treated with generosity and respect, which is something Velma is deeply lacking. A really good reboot should have an obvious reverence for the material that inspired it, without letting that reverence get in the way of attempting different modes of storytelling. Velma does a lot of gesturing toward its source material — there are multiple allusions to “meddling kids” and one sly, well-deployed nod to Casey Kasem, the original voice of Shaggy — but the show never feels like it was made by someone who deeply cares about the Scooby-Doo franchise.

That ’90s Show does something similar by replicating the approach of That ’70s Show and doing a lot of gesturing toward the 1990s. Look, there’s a Riotgrrrl sign on the bedroom wall of Gwen, the teenager who lives next door to the Formans and becomes friends with Leia, daughter of Eric and Donna from the original series! Hey, someone mentioned Zima! Oh, how cute, this scene is an homage to the music video for Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” All of those things are sooooo ’90s! But at no point does this show ever feel like it’s actually taking place in the 1990s or have any sense of what it felt like to be alive then. One of my massive pet peeves is period pieces from the late 20th century that treat their eras as if they are theme parties, something that, to be fair, That ’70s Show did too. Both are traditional sitcoms that are not exactly intended to be grounded in reality, and I get that. But it still feels lazy to me, as if That ’90s Show has just Xeroxed That ’70s Show, copy-pasted some references to Kevin Smith and 90210, then shipped it off to Netflix. Am I being way harsh, Roxana?

RH: No, I had similar feelings: That ’90s Show lacks the texture of the decade, which I do think was something That ’70s Show did well. Star Wars and Led Zeppelin are easy monoculture touchstones, but they actually meant something to Eric, Donna, et al.; the series integrated the paranoia and rebellion of the time into how these teens interacted with each other and with adults; and in later seasons, That ’70s Show ventured out into the wider Point Place, Wisconsin, to see how its economy and community were changing. That ’90s Show includes subplots in which the kids watch Free Willy and sneak out to a rave, and Gwen is introduced belting out Alanis Morissette, but for a decade with so much iconic pop culture, none of it seems to matter much to these teenagers. They don’t argue about it or bond over it — they don’t really have much interiority at all. Instead, the season spends nearly all its time on the will-they-won’t-they first-love relationship between Eric and Donna’s daughter, Leia, and Kelso and Jackie’s son, Jay, but doesn’t give them personalities or interests past the thinnest comparisons to their own parents.

I don’t know what someone watching That ’90s Show without the context of That ’70s Show would actually understand or learn about any of these characters, or the circumstances and time period in which they live. Do new viewers care that these characters are the children of the previous show’s main crew? What context is actually provided by Kelso’s son also taking too much pride in his hair, or Donna’s daughter also playing basketball? Is it genuinely funny to a new audience that Red is still obsessed with putting his foot in a teenager’s ass as a means of punishment, or are they just being duped by the laugh track? The ’90s crew doesn’t exist on its own terms, and that’s always a danger in a show that follows the literal next generation of characters. This isn’t so much homage as it is a facsimile, and that approach raises questions about what happens to these characters if the series gets renewed. Does That ’90s Show just keep recycling That ’70s Show ideas over and over, or does the series — once it’s established — finally think for itself?

I must admit, though, that part of the appeal of That ’90s Show is how nice it is to see Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp again as Red and Kitty: two veteran actors who slide easily back into these characters and their quirks and peculiarities. I could watch Rupp cock her head and squint and Smith roll his eyes at the self-involved antics of these clueless teenagers all day. The legacy character who bridges past and present is a reboot staple, a shortcut to recognizability for returning viewers — and just as good as Smith and Rupp in That ’90s Show are John Larroquette in the new Night Court and Christina Ricci in Wednesday. As skeptical as I was of both of those series, those performances drew me in. Did they do the same for you, Jen?

JC: Larroquette is a key reason why I have been enjoying the new Night Court so much. In the original, Dan Fielding was a loveably loathsome character who, it being the 1980s and all, creeped on women without being totally off-putting. For many reasons, that type of behavior would not pass muster in 2023, so Dan Rubin, the developer of this new incarnation, has recast Fielding as a widower whose edges have softened a little, but not enough to stop him from being a reliably cranky provider of sarcastic comments. It’s truly energizing and comforting to see Larroquette getting to flex his wry comedy muscles again.

The show itself is still finding its footing. The first two episodes were a little rough, but I can sense in the subsequent ones — NBC provided us with six — that the actors and the writers are settling more comfortably into these characters and their situations. Night Court is very much one of those aforementioned plug-and-play situations: Melissa Rouch, as the new judge and daughter of Harry Anderson’s original robed authority figure, gets to project a similar sunny optimism and penchant for magic. This being a courtroom, there is of course a new bailiff (Lacretta), a new defense attorney (India de Beaufort), and a new clerk (Kapil Talwalkar). And this being night court, there are always weird cases coming through the doors. Yes, all of this replicates what the original show did, but it still works because that construct is just a solid, timeless one for comedy. Though we can’t talk as much about it yet, I feel the same way about the forthcoming reboot of Party Down: The structure of the original series — every episode brings a new party for the hapless cater-waiters to work — was just a damn good spine around which to build a television show, and it still is.

Night Court is a network sitcom and as such is beholden to some of its trappings: the laugh track, the sometimes-hokey tendency to turn every episode into a lesson. But I never feel like it’s talking down to its audience in the same way I think we both felt insulted by Velma and, to some extent, That ’90s Show. That’s really key to a good reboot for me. The whole notion of recycling a TV show can seem insulting on its face because it implies the audience doesn’t have the curiosity or hunger for something new. (I don’t think this is true. It just sometimes feels true.) So if you’re going to do it, it’s crucial to show some respect for your audience by honoring what came before and also crafting something brand new. It’s a very tricky balancing act to get right, which is why when a reboot comes close to right, it feels worth celebrating.

RH: And even if you’re not showing full-fledged, unassailable respect for your audience (because there are a couple episodes of Night Court that I think stumble in this regard), a useful rule of thumb might be: Don’t go for spite. It’s no mystery why Velma doesn’t succeed as a reboot. It does succeed, however, as a cautionary tale for future reboots.

Velma and the Case of the Condescending Reboot