Shit My Son Watches: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated
Between 1969, when Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! debuted and 2017, when I started watching various iterations of Scooby-Doo with my three year old son Declan something unexpected happened: Scooby-Doo got good. The “classic” version of Scooby-Doo we remember, incorrectly, with no small amount of fondness is, to put it delicately, complete shit, just the fucking worst. I don’t want to be too hard on a kid’s show, but in its original version, Scooby-Doo was unwatchable garbage. Then they added Scrappy Doo to the mix and it got even worse.
Throughout the 1970s, the exact form Scooby and the gang’s adventures took mutated but Hanna-Barbera’s commitment to lazily pandering to the lowest common denominator provided a sense of consistency and continuity. In The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries, the runtime of each mystery was doubled and real-life guest stars like Jerry Reed, Phyllis Diller, Sandy Duncan and Cass Eliott were added to the mix, thrilling young people of the time.
Then there was the laugh track, that awful, awful laugh track. I was not wrong in thinking that Hanna-Barbera was particularly egregious and obnoxious in how they used laugh tracks. In fact, they made their own damn laugh tracks because the commercially available ones apparently weren’t irritatingly over-the-top enough. The Wikipedia entry on laugh tracks has a whole section devoted to Hanna-Barbera that includes this choice quote from a historian named Paul Iverson: "the Hanna Barbera laugh track did more to give laugh tracks a bad name than Douglass's work could ever have done. Using the same five or so laughs repeatedly for a decade does not go by unnoticed, no matter how young the viewer is."
In 1976, Scooby-Doo was forced to share an hour with lesser animated canine Dynomutt on The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour. The next year it became Scooby's All-Star Laff-A-Lympics, which found Scooby Doo figuring prominently in a cartoon rip-off of Battle of the Network Stars, leading a team whose members included Shaggy, Scooby-Dum, Dynomutt, Blue Falcon, Speed Buggy, Captain Caveman, Hong Kong Phooey and others. It’s all too easy to imagine a sad-eyed, coked-up Scooby on set thinking, “I used to be a detective. Solved fucking crimes. What am I doing in this fucking shit show? When did I become an athlete? Why are Hong Kong Phooey and Captain Caveman my teammates? What madness is this?” Then came Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo to end on a terrible decade on a particularly terrible note.
So you see, even back in the 1970s, the people behind Scooby-Doo were continually experimenting with form and structure, albeit in the tackiest, corniest, most shamelessly mercenary manner imaginable.
These days, properties like Scooby-Doo are like superheroes in comic books: if something catches on the way the Mystery Gang has, and endures the way Scooby and his pals have, then there is seemingly no limit to the number of wildly diverging iterations it can be produce. It can go on and on for eternity, continually changing shape and form to keep up with the times, being reborn over and over and over again.
I just watched the first episode of Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, the latest television incarnation of the deathless franchise, which asks the question, “What if a Scooby-Doo cutaway gag on Family Guy was an entire television series?” It’s a glib joke-fest unmistakably in the smart-ass vein of Seth McFarlane’s juggernaut and while I wouldn’t describe it as hilarious, or even funny, it is mildly amusing. Now that I am a dad out to find entertainment that pleases my son, and, to a lesser extent, myself, “mildly amusing” almost invariably falls into the loose category of “Good enough.”
It’s great when Declan likes something genuinely wonderful and special and important, like Sesame Street, but I’m generally willing to settle for something that will not make me want to stab my eyeballs with a pencil in horror and mortification.
I am happy to say that Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated fits that criteria smashingly. You would be surprised how much Dex watches or listens to that does not. The elevator pitch for Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is essentially “Scooby-Doo by way of Twin Peaks, with a whole lot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer thrown in.”
This fits into a larger trend of entertainment originally intended for children or family audience, or, in the case of Scooby-Doo, dim-witted, glassy-eyed mouth-breathers, being reimagined as gritty adult fare. This is the same weird tendency that gave us in Riverdale, an Archie and Jughead all too cognizant of the unrelenting horror of contemporary existence, and in D.C’s Justice League franchise, a superhero universe more characterized by brooding and sadness than derring-do.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated has a sense of ambition, gravity and seriousness that sets it apart from the rest of the franchise but thankfully it also has a sense of humor about itself. It’s sly and satirical and overflowing with meta, self-referential jokes riffing endlessly on Scooby-Doo’s well-worn mythology, with its meddlin’ kids, traps, ascots, Scrappy Doo and monsters that turn out to be all too human.
But the show is also serious in its re-imagining Scooby-Doo as a fundamentally serious show that depicts the Scooby gang’s hometown of Crystal Cove as an animated version of Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sunnydale or XFilesvania, where the supernatural television program X-Files takes place. There's a Twin Peaks episode of course, but also an episode-length tribute to Nico, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.
Crystal Cove isn’t just the setting. To recycle the hokey old cliche, it’s a character in itself. Crystal Cove is a town where evil seems to have an almost physical presence. It’s a haunted realm of ghosts of various forms full of conspiracies and dark secrets.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated in many ways follows the monster/mystery-of-the-week model of its predecessor but adds an elaborate Crystal Cove mythology that winds through entire seasons, and the series as a whole, and involves the complicated and tragic lives of the original Mystery Incorporated team of many decades earlier, who went missing for predictably unpredictably mysterious reasons. This team includes Mystery Incorporated's idea of a boffo guest star: Udo Kier as an insane, evil talking bird out to rule the world, and, if that's not enough stormy intensity for you, Lewis Black as a figure of similar darkness.
For me, the mythology elements of Mystery Incorporated are among its weakest aspects, although that may say more about my attention span, or lack thereof, than it does about the show itself. Thankfully, you can more or less ignore the Crystal Cove mythology and still enjoy the show on an episode-by-episode basis.
Of course it’s a little easier to add gravity to some of these characters than others. Velma, for example, has always the deepest character. She was the original Janeane Garofalo type, a proto-Juno/Daria who is funnier and smarter and darker than everyone around her. That’s Velma here, to the point where it seems like a bit of a betrayal to give Velma a huge crush on a dope like Shaggy Rogers, even if he’s a more multi-dimensional dope here than he was in earlier incarnations.
Heck, even Scooby-Doo, a goddamn talking dog with a speech impediment and a never-ending case of the munchies, has been blessed and cursed with a little weary dignity and substance.
The second season premiere, for example, finds the Mystery Gang broken up and Scooby-Doo essentially imprisoned on a farm upstate where his roommate and only company is a vacant-eyed cow. When the cow proves understandably indifferent to the anthropomorphic dog’s existential pain, the iconic canine bitterly complains, “Nobody milks Scooby-Doo.”
It’s hard to say what’s more surprising: that an official entry in the Scooby-Doo saga goes all in for an inter-species hand job joke or that voiceover legend Frank Welker’s masterful delivery of the aforementioned hand job joke invests no small amount of pathos, sadness and defiance into a wildly inappropriate scatological bit.
Mystery Incorporated is sometimes painfully hip in an agreeably geeky, pop-culture-crazed fashion. An H.P Lovecraft-themed episode features a caricature of Lovecraft (H.P Hatecraft) and a Lovecraftian/Hatecraftian monster but also legendary crank and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison voicing an irritable professor and writer named Harlan Ellison who, for good measure, looks more than a little like Robert Evans circa 1974. Oh, and, for bonus geek points Hatecraft is voiced by the great Jeffrey Combs, best known, of course, for the Lovecraft adaptation The Re-Animator.
Mystery Incorporated is full of weird meta riffs like that. Hot Dog Water, a sort of off-brand Velma who functions as both an antagonist of the gang and a temporary member, is voiced by Linda Cardinelli, who of course played Velma in the live-action movies opposite Mystery Incorporated star Matthew Lillard, who at this point has made the character thoroughly his own. At this point, Casey Kasem might not even make a top 40 list of the best Shaggys.
Is it any wonder I kind of dig Mystery Incorporated? The theme song is by Matthew Sweet, for fuck’s sakes, which makes me happy in part because I imagine how ecstatic being asked to do the theme song for a Scooby-Doo television show must have made Sweet.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated was shamelessly made for people like me the same way the original Scooby-Doo was laser-targeted at the very stupidest and most easily entertained people in existence: small children. Like the similarly over-achieving direct-to-video movies, at least one of which I have written about here, Mystery Incorporated was made by people whose palpable affection for the material did not burden them with any undue reverence, or even respect for a television institution that, like so much “classic” Hanna-Barbera managed to become beloved and iconic while remaining completely worthless.
There isn’t just one episode named after the notorious Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried: no, The Night the Clown Cried is a two-parter featuring Crybaby Clown, a wicked clown in the vein of a certain duo from Detroit I’m a fan of. I cannot tell you how proud I was that Declan, who is shaping up to be every bit as obsessive, and pop-culture-obsessed as me, wanted to watch The Day the Clown Cried saga over and over and over again. I’m hoping that when he reaches the appropriate age, Declan will become a fan of another duo featuring a Shaggy that similarly always seems to be high.
People like to talk about how Hollywood is sexually desecrating their childhood by either making inferior versions of stuff they grew up with, or by taking children’s entertainment in an unwelcome, and unwanted adult direction. Mystery Incorporated is the opposite of that phenomenon. It takes something from our collective childhoods that was loved despite being crap and improves upon it by making it funnier, smarter, hipper and more adult. Mystery Incorporated is not perfect, and I probably would not be watching it if it weren’t for Declan, but I very much enjoy watching it with him.
The show has also led me to think that maybe we shouldn’t be so precious in how we treat properties like Scooby-Doo. Thinking, perhaps a little too hard about this particular universe, I found myself thinking it’d be cool if James Gunn, who wrote the abysmal but promising Scooby-Doo live-action movies before he blew up as a blockbuster filmmaker, returned to this world to create, I dunno, an R-rated live-action version for Netflix.
Or maybe that’d be a terrible idea! Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated proves that sometimes ideas that sound insultingly bad or hopelessly trendy on paper, like a gritty, surreal deconstruction of fucking Scooby-Doo can actually be pretty fucking terrific in practice.
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