Welcome to the first “real” edition of Third Thursday Television. To start us off, I want to look at one of those multivariate cephalopod-like properties that has everything necessary for a media/marketing juggernaut – nostalgia value for Gen-X parents, new series and movies for the kids, umpteen million products on the market, and a lovable scamp of a main character – Dennis the Menace*cough* I mean Scooby Doo in its various incarnations. (Does anyone actually like Dennis the Menace? I digress.)
Full disclosure, my daughter has yet to discover the Scoob, but my son was about her age (4ish, that is) when he started wandering down spooky paths with the meddling kids. This is important mainly because I haven’t actually seen anything Scooby Doo related since the early days of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated in 2010. I’ve done a little digging for the purposes of this post to refresh my memory about some things – and dig up some handy links to provide context for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, but some of the details are lost to the ether. To wit, I can’t remember if we started with the classic Scooby Doo, Where are You? series that we all remember running in syndication in the 70s, or the then-current within a couple of years, What’s New, Scooby Doo? on Cartoon Network. Regardless, I’m pretty sure that within a year, we had seen all circulating episodes of both of those shows, plus the limited runs of The New Scooby Doo Movies, The Scooby Doo Show, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, A Pup Named Scooby Doo, and goodness knows what else. By the time he moved on, in part thanks to the abysmally retrograde Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, we had accumulated dozens of movies, series DVDs and other media, ranging from the delightfully cheesy to horrifyingly bad.
We happened upon Scooby during a renewing zeitgeist. What’s New was still pretty fresh, and continues to be my favorite of the Scooby slate of offerings. The live action films with Sarah Michelle Geller and Freddie Prinze Jr. had just come out. Because I’m a fan of anything that helps get my children dressed (and a pretty big pop-culture junkie in my own right), the availability of Scooby PJs and tee shirts were to some degree a bonus. Son was also a totally capable, but reluctant, reader, so the novelizations were a boon for us in early elementary. Because I had a lot of nostalgia for the original series, I didn’t really think much about the things that I didn’t really notice as a kid, namely the casual racial and ethnic stereotypes that are glaringly obvious today, witch doctors and spooky Indians and Shaggy and Scooby impersonating Chinese -Americans by slanting their eyes and holding their hands in prayer position while bowing. There were some interesting and important conversations about why repeating some of these behaviors is not acceptable. Because of this, nostalgia for the original incarnation of Velma notwithstanding, I really have a hard time recommending this version without some serious parental editing, or at least awareness. Much like the day when I had to turn off the original Warner Brothers cartoons, it is really kind of amazing to see how far we’ve come on a lot of levels in 40 years.
By far the best of the Scooby cannon, in your narrator’s not so humble opinion, is the What’s New series. The live movies are kind of fun as well, but What’s New manages to keep a lot of the original charm, and actually heightens the best aspects of all the characters. Velma is not just whipsmart, but witty. Daphne is downright clever and turns the stereotypical blonde Fred-struck glitz on its head when she regularly saves the day with the assorted contents of her purse. Fred actually seems to have a brain. And Shaggy and Scooby are marginally less like stoners, while still retaining their lovable goofball charm. In short, these are characters of the ‘Aughts, not the 70s and it works. There is still some humor that is borderline appropriate vis class and ethnic stereotypes, but not nearly along the lines of the original or some of the filler series of the 80s and 90s (short version – they are incredibly cheesy, my son loved most of them and Scrappy Doo is just as annoying as you remember him being).
Sadly, the latest incarnation, Mystery Incorporated pretty much throws all of the What’s New development out the window. It plays much more like a nostalgia vehicle. To that end, it is jam packed with references that your kids will hopefully never get for another decade or two (depending on just how early you plan to introduce slasher porn). I had high hopes for this as some fresh blood (seriously, no pun intended), as the first ongoing narrative with an underlying multi-episode mystery underlying the standard single show plots. It looks like it was going to be a darker, slightly older skewing show. Which is essentially what it was. And then they fucked around with the characters. I might have forgiven the bow in Velma’s hair, but there was no forgiving her throwing herself at Shaggy and picking fights with him over his friendship with Scooby. Daphne has no agency and is nothing but Fred centered arm candy. And the guys have barely any personality to speak of. I never thought I would be grateful for Spongebob or Pokemon, but this spelled the end of our Scooby affair.
All of that said, I’m not sure how relevant Scooby Doo is for parents of today’s pre-schoolers and young elementary, which is probably the only age group other than nostalgia seekers even watching. The moment seems to have passed, making me wonder to some degree why I wrote this post, but it’s almost done now. On a larger level though, it does strike a cord on a larger level. There are regular rumors of a Josie and the Pussycats reboot, and other classic shows have a regular life on Boomerang and other nostalgia-based television networks. I see parents all the time saying they want to avoid the sex and violence in current kids programming in favor of the “safe” things they watched as kids, which kind of makes me raise my eyebrows, given how sanitized and age segregated so much of today’s programming is. So, even if you care not about Scooby, let me leave you with this – By all means, check out the shows you remember with your kids and have fun with them. But don’t think there will be no tough questions while watching them. As an aside, and because evidently I’m incapable about writing about my kids without considering how their gender might play into their differences, I do wonder if the early introduction of super heroes with my son led to him discovering Scooby Doo in pre-school at an age via Batman cartoons on WB, whereas she is still perfectly happy watching Nick Jr for the most part. Then again it could also simply be that we haven’t exposed her to Scooby for reasons that may well be obvious if I read my own writing.