Even if you didn’t like the shows, you know the talking Great Dane that travels with mystery-solving teens who yell “Zoinks!” and “Jinkies!” They’ve been around for over 50 years now, and there’ve been iterations for nearly every generation, with reruns of the preceding ones pretty much never not appearing on TV somewhere at some point (thank god for Cartoon Network!)
As such, Scooby and the gang are as much an American staple as Mickey Mouse, Looney Tunes and Superman, which is pretty amazing considering their humble beginnings of, as an AV Club reviewer put it, “a series where their chase scenes were choreographed to bubblegum pop and they were regularly pulling rubber masks off of petty criminals with delusions of grandeur.” Plenty of poorly-animated shows just like Scooby Doo! Where Are You? came out in the same era, so it’s even more amazing that Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Velma, and Daphne were the characters who stood the relentless test of time, despite their excessively dated outfits and personalities.
The longevity of the institution is why today’s TV Flashback is fair game, despite the particular series only being off the air for about a year. Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is the 2010 iteration of the franchise, one which sadly flew under the radar for much of its run. However, the complete series has recently been made available on Netflix instant, and it’s worth a watch. Developed by Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone (Duck Dodgers, The Looney Toons Show) and the likes of Victor Cook (The Spectacular Spider-Man) on staff, this series strived to make Scooby Doo cool again, not ironically, and without alienating fans of the franchise. That’s a tough promise, considering it’s exactly what the live action movies in the 2000s tried to do, but to varying degrees of success.
How does Mystery Incorporated answer the call? By remaking the original series’ mystery-monster-in-a-mask format, but tying in an overarching mystery featuring a legacy of Mystery Incorporated groups throughout history, which leads to a transdimensional-spanning mission to save the world from an evil Lovecraftian cosmic horror derived from Babylonian mythology, ancient astronaut lore, recurring arc words like “Nibiru” and “The dog dies,” and world-shaking finales that have Scooby and Shaggy fight Nazi robots with machine guns for a Scooby Snack. …Yeah.
In addition to this, the show features extensive references to and parodies of genre favorites like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw, and even the likes of Twilight. Season one’s “The Shrieking Madness” introduces an expy of H.P. Lovecraft (voiced by Jeffrey Combs) as a recurring character, along with Harlan Ellison himself, voiced by the Harlan Ellison. Oh, and let’s not forget the major plot points that directly reference and parody—not kidding here—freakin’ Twin Peaks of all things. (Massive spoilers in that link.)
So in a nutshell? Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is absolutely insane. It combines the familiarity and nostalgia of the franchise, with the the irony and self-awareness of the live-action films, with the tongue-in-cheek fun of A Pup Named Scooby Doo, with the darker, horror-style of the late 90s animated reboot films. It sheds everything obnoxious or silly about it, and leaves the absolute best the franchise has to offer…and then takes it a step further and makes it incredibly unique. This is a weird show, but it’s also smart, following in line with the Adventure Time-styles of programming Cartoon Network especially has made itself known for recently. And it’s funny; it’s fast-talking Buffy-speak at its best, with loads of one-liners and sarcasm to suit the teens, old school references and clever satire for the older viewers, and still plenty of colorful and broad sight gags for the younger folks. When I say this is a Scooby Doo show for everyone, I don’t mean it’s just a “family” show. I mean there’s literally something for viewers of any age.
There are still plenty of references to the most famous villains from the original series right from the first episode, and obscure characters from the various Scooby Doo shows appear in larger roles. For instance, it features Vincent Van Ghoul from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, as well as the Hex Girls from Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost, and has one of the funniest Scrappy Doo references in the franchise. And it turns the sprawling Hanna Barbara cartoons of the 1960s-70s into an inclusive universe, with various season two episodes tying characters from Johnny Quest, Blue Falcon and Dynomutt, Sealab 2020, and even Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor together. Season one’s “Mystery Solvers Club State Finals” has a full homage to Hanna Barbara in the classic style, including the likes of Jabberjaw, Captain Caveman, Speed Buggy and more.
Gushing aside, there are points at the beginning that may be (and has been) a bit off-putting to some, initially. The first few episodes of the show can be a bit of a chore, with most playing out like updated versions of the original formula with very loose, slow burn additions to the story arc. I’d liken it to shows like Fringe or Arrow, though, where trucking through the early season weirdness ultimately builds the foundation for the brilliance and near-perfection that comes down the line. Even at that, there are still numerous gems and lines within the first batch of episodes, like Velma’s “Anybody with hair that perfect has to be guilty of something!” Or take the conversation between Fred and his dad: “Kids my age are into making traps and solving mysteries!” / “…No they’re not, son.” The pilot was even highlighted on The Soup when it premiered.
The weirdest bit to most viewers about the series, however, is definitely the romantic troubles between Fred/Daphne and Shaggy/Velma, respectively, both of which are very big parts of the early episodes. It’s an understandable point of contention from the start, and it admittedly doesn’t exactly look good to have the only two main female characters pining over the only two main (human) males. But the show excels in how it handles this new territory for the iconic characters, crafting believable rifts within the group (even between Scooby and Shaggy!) and finding engaging ways to bring them back together. Like a good Joss Whedon ensemble, much drama is derived from the group’s inner conflict and dysfunction, but that makes it more rewarding when they remember how much they love each other in the eleventh hour. Much of the romantic tension and drama is taken to its natural conclusion, and the show ends up having a lot to say about the importance of these people in one another’s lives.
About midway through the first season of Mystery Incorporated, it becomes apparent that these clues are leading to something big, and by the second season the show has full-on embraced the serialized storytelling. It’s clear that the creators knew the show wouldn’t be continuing after the second season, which allows the final 26 episodes to be impeccably paced and with no threads left hanging, better than “final seasons” of a lot of primetime dramas. And for a franchise built on the status quo, this show ends up doing whatever it can to mess with it, the results of which, if you haven’t caught on to words like “transdimensional,” “ancient astronauts,” and “Lovecraftian cosmic horror,” are downright awesome.
The main cast’s personalities are mostly unchanged from their original versions, with more focus placed on expanding them to be real people, helped by a stellar voice cast including Matthew Lillard, Mindy Cohn and Grey DeLisle. The biggest surprise is Fred, voiced by the actor who’s voiced him since 1969: the incomparable Frank Welker. Even with the oblivious personality adapted from the live action films and A Pup Named Scooby Doo, Fred becomes one of the show’s most tragic and sympathetic characters, a long way from the generic guy Fred was at his conception. The supporting cast is also golden, with Patrick Warburton as the antagonistic but endearing Sherriff; Gary Cole as Mayor Jones, Fred’s father; and Vivica A. Fox as Angel Dynamite, a character who at first appears to be an awkward stereotype, but turns out to be one of the most important characters in the series. Likewise with Linda Cardellini (who played Velma in the live-action films) as “Hot Dog Water,” a character created for a running gag who goes to become vital and well-developed as the series progresses.
What really works about Mystery Incorporated is that it takes Scooby Doo to an epic, fantastical scale, but still keeps the series in the realm of science, even if that cartoon science is a bit ridiculous. An ever-divisive element of Scooby Doo is whether “real monsters” belong in the franchise; they’ve been thrown in as early as 1980, with incarnations fluctuating between real and fake after that, as has support one way or another. The oft-quoted Carl Sagan praised the original series in his book The Demon-Haunted World for its encouragement of skepticism, for example, while the entire “the monsters are real” tagline of the 1990s films is known for revitalizing the franchise at the time.
Mystery Incorporated has its cake and eats it too in this regard; it gets thoroughly weird by the end, but retains that all the supernatural weirdness and unnatural entities are still grounded in (pseudo-) science and string theory. In fact, one of the big character beats for Velma towards the end of the show is how she has a harder and harder time explaining the insane things she encounters, but learns the importance of keeping a level head and holding onto the belief in science and answers in the face of that insanity. There are also major threads about the corrupt adults purposefully trying to sabotage the teens’ mystery solving so the monsters can stay around and make the town money as tourist attractions, and the teens’ inability to trust their own parents as a result. The show is still heavily about questioning authority and unraveling the truth, perhaps even more directly than any other iteration. I’d hesitate to say the original series was really trying that hard to make this point, but Mystery Incorporated takes those nigh-invisible themes buried in the original show, brings them to the surface and runs with them.
But even with all that, this show is, ultimately, about friendship. It sounds childish and silly to say that, but that’s it at its heart: it’s a group of weird, mystery solving misfits, brought together by destiny and transdimensional machinations, who learn to love each other even in their darkest hours. That, in turn, allows them to unravel the greatest mystery of all time in truly epic fashion. It’s also incredibly funny and entertaining, and has one of the most satisfying series finales as of late. If you’re a fan of Scooby Doo and aren’t watching Mystery Incorporated…then where are you?