Recently, I was browsing Netflix in search of something to watch. I needed a show that wasn’t too demanding if I missed a scene, yet still entertaining enough to keep me company. The answer popped up on my recommendations almost at once: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
Netflix was right to recommend this series. In fact, I think it’s the best iteration of Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, Scooby, and Velma ever.
Growing Up With Scooby-Doo…
When I was a kid, there was always a rerun of Scooby-Doo somewhere on TV–but it was a crapshoot whether I’d get an episode from the original series or a Scrappy-Doo nightmare. I’d aged out of the franchise by the time the direct-to-video renaissance happened in the 90s, but you should check out my fellow Poptonic writer Kaitlin’s ranking of every movie.
After the success of the live-action film in 2002, Scooby-Doo returned to Saturday morning cartoons with What’s New, Scooby-Doo? and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! But it wasn’t until Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. rebooted the franchise again in 2010 that things got interesting. And weird.
… Then Scooby-Doo Grows Up
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated was a twisted, bizarro version of the beloved series, borrowing elements from classic horror films, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Twin Peaks. It embraced a series-long story arc while tackling a “monster of the week” each episode, something that the franchise hadn’t tried to do before. The show was darker, scarier, and more self-aware than ever. It only ran for two seasons, but Mystery Inc. packed a lot of amazing moments (and sometimes cringe-worthy missteps) into those fifty-two episodes.
While it might be a little too scary for young kids, it’s perfect for tweens who aren’t quite ready for Riverdale. Or for adults who like their Saturday morning nostalgia served with a healthy dose of absurdist humor and H.P. Lovecraft references.
The Main Voice Cast Is Superb
The main cast is a mix of long-time veterans and relative newcomers, but they work incredibly well together. Frank Welker, the only cast member to have been with the franchise since the beginning, is back as Fred. Since 2002, Welker has also been voicing Scooby-Doo! He’s still convincing as a teenager, which is an impressive feat.
Prolific voice actor Grey DeLisle voices Daphne; she first took over the role in 2000. Mindy Cohn (Facts of Life) joined the Scooby-verse in 2002 as Velma and does excellent work in Mystery Incorporated. Casey Kasem, the original voice of Shaggy, makes a handful of cameos as that character’s father. However, Matthew Lillard stepped into Shaggy’s shoes after proving that he was perfect for the job in the live-action movie.
The Supporting Cast Rocked, Too
Once you hear Patrick Warburton’s voice, you’ll always recognize it. While my favorite Warburton role will always be Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, he’s great as the goofy, self-important Sheriff Bronson Stone. Likewise, Gary Cole (Office Space) is equally smarmy and threatening as Fred’s dad, the town mayor with secrets of his own.
Viveca A. Fox has a recurring role as Angel Dynamite, the Pam Grier-inspired radio DJ who sometimes helps the gang. Linda Cardellini, who played Velma in the 2002 live-action film, returns to the franchise as Marcie “Hot Dog Water” Fleach. Lewis Black plays the sinister and mysterious “Mr. E.” And Udo Kier, best known for his serious dramatic roles in films by Gus van Sant and Lars von Trier, voices a sociopathic parrot named Professor Pericles. Did I mention that this show is bonkers yet?
Surprisingly Beautiful Animation
The visual style for Mystery Incorporated is unlike other shows in the series. While they stick with a slightly updated version of the classic character designs, the overall production design is more like an art-house horror film than a kid’s cartoon.
Every backdrop is textured with brushstrokes and splatter marks, creating a moody atmosphere. The color palette tends toward eerie purples and radioactive greens. You can never tell if it’s the 70s, the 90s, or some point outside time–which makes sense for a reboot of a long-running franchise featuring teenagers who never grow up.
Honoring the Scooby-Doo Legacy
Unlike other incarnations of the series, this version doesn’t try to completely redesign the gang. But the continuity goes way beyond that. All the old familiar catchphrases are in play, and there’s no attempt to make the show feel more modern or “cool.” It looks like Scooby-Doo, only darker and weirder.
The show pays homage to the highlights of the previous series–and sometimes pokes fun at them, too. Crystal Cove even features a museum of the previous unmasked bad guys from the original series!
Those Meddling Kids!
Every episode of the series includes a version of the classic villain send-off: “And I would have gotten away with it to, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
Mystery Inc. plays with the formula with lines like, “I would have succeeded too, if it weren’t for you meddling brats probing my crustacean-themed revenge scheme.” That one was from a disappointed villain whose “Man Crab” disguise didn’t pan out. A personal favorite, from the Cthulhu-themed episode The Shrieking Madness, is this zinger: “That’s when he had to fall. And he would have, too, if it weren’t for the dark elder forces conspiring in the inky black of time’s most foul… Oh, and you meddling kids.”
Season-Long Arcs With Real Consequences
Until relatively recently, most animated kids’ shows didn’t bother with major plot arcs. Instead, they hit a hard reset at the end of every episode so that the fun can start all over again next week. Not so in Crystal Cove, where a centuries-old mystery is uncovered over the course of the entire series.
Not only that, but actions have consequences here. Velma chooses to keep a secret from her friends, and not only does it impact the plot of the episode, but it ultimately provokes the breakup of the gang at the end of the first season. Can you imagine any other Scooby-Doo series splitting up the iconic fivesome for more than a single chase scene?
Now With Actual Character Development
If you watched Scooby-Doo as a kid, then you know that Shaggy and Scooby are cowards who love to eat, Velma is the smart one, Fred is the leader, and Daphne is the pretty one. While those character archetypes are certainly a major part of Mystery Incorporated, the show explores more than just the surface.
Daphne is smarter than she’s given credit for being, but as the youngest and least impressive daughter of a wealthy family, she sells herself short. Fred isn’t just obsessed with traps–he also has the emotional intelligence of a brick. The more we learn of his backstory, however, the more it makes sense that he’s emotionally stunted.
Romance in the Air (For Better or Worse)
Here’s one area where I felt like Mystery Inc. made a major miscalculation. While Fred and Daphne were always #endgame throughout the franchise, things play out a little differently in this version. At the beginning, Fred is completely clueless while Daphne is hopelessly devoted to him. That relationship dynamic continues even when they–spoiler alert!–get engaged near the end of the first season. Then they break up and we see Daphne dating other guys for a while.
While I didn’t love the “clueless dude being managed by a smarter woman” dynamic between Fred and Daphne, I hated it between Velma and Shaggy. That’s right, in this series Velma and Shaggy are canonically a couple. But not a happy one. Way too much of Velma’s early screentime is devoted to trying to change Shaggy by nagging him about his appearance and diet. Even worse is the jealousy between Velma and Shaggy. When their relationship finally tanks for good, it’s a relief.
Too bad the show wasn’t able to give Velma the love interest she deserved–but more about that at the end of this journey.
Crystal Cove: Twin Peaks for Kids
Watching this series as an adult, I kept thinking that it was the kind of kids’ cartoon that David Lynch would have made. Everything is just a little bit off. The town where they live, Crystal Cove, is a timeless vortex of weirdness. It reminds me of another great show that was ahead of its time, Eerie, Indiana, as well as Gravity Falls.
No one ever seems to catch on that every bad guy will turn out to be someone in a suit… but in this series, there’s an undercurrent of the adults in town pretending to believe in the supernatural in order to make a profit. Mayor Jones and Sheriff Stone try to stop the gang from solving mysteries because they’ve already made souvenirs to sell to the tourists. And Velma’s parents run a “haunted” bus tour and wax museum featuring many of the hoaxes that the kids debunked.
Walking the Line Between Parody and Homage
Mystery Incorporated is well aware that the whole premise of the show is absurd. How can Shaggy and Scooby house that much food? Why do so many people in a small town commit crimes that involve elaborate costumes? The show asks you to accept the rules of the world, but it still acknowledges the silliness.
There are even several episodes that feature “guest stars” from other Hannah-Barbera cartoons. Captain Caveman, Jonny Quest, Jabberjaw, Dynomutt, and the Funky Phantom all make appearances throughout the series. The show might sometimes dip into self-parody, but it never stopped trying to tell a real story and honor the spirit of the original.
So Many Incredible Guest Stars
In addition to the onscreen visitors from other cartoons, the actors who lend their voices to each episode are truly impressive. Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World) shows up first as a singing mermaid and then as Judy Reeves, Fred’s birth mother. Legendary voice actor Jennifer Hale drops in to voice one of Daphne’s older sisters as well as a rocker named Thorn–but more on that in a moment.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear Mark Hammil, Beverly D’Angelo, James Hong, Tricia Helfer, James Marsters, and Geroge Takei. My favorite guest voice has to be Powers Booth as the ghostly sheriff Dead Justice. Oh, and gravel-voiced Clancy Brown unsurprisingly voices the ultimate evil during the series finale.
You Won’t Guess Who Wrote the Theme Song
90s rocker Matthew Sweet had a few hits back in the day, including “Girlfriend” and “Silent City” from the Buffy movie soundtrack. But unlike many of his peers, Sweet pivoted his musical career in a new direction instead of retiring.
He wrote and performed the all-new theme song for Mystery Incorporated, which was miles away from the original jingle that most of us can still sing by heart. It signaled that this wasn’t the same Saturday morning favorite you remember. The theme is a lot less groovy, more closely resembling the opening credits song from The X-Files.
The Hex Girls Legitimately Rock
While I dig the new theme song, it can’t compare to the Hex Girls. Am I crazy, or are they really good? As someone who went through a goth/punk phase as a teenager, I’m pretty sure I would have bought and listened to a Hex Girls record without irony.
The Hex Girls aren’t unique to Mystery Incorporated, having first appeared in Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. Jennifer Hale sings lead vocals, with backup from Jane Wiedlin and Kimberly Brooks. The trio also wrote the original songs. There’s a universe where the proposed spinoff featuring the eco-goth rock band was picked up, but sadly, we don’t live in it.
They Know Scrappy-Doo Was the Worst
While the series honors its roots, it also acknowledges that there were some really bad decisions made by former showrunners. The most obvious is, of course, Scrappy-Doo. Does anyone like him? When Daphne and Fred encounter a statue of him in the town’s wax museum, he holds her close and tells her to look away.
Another figure in the wax museum is Flim-Flam. Added as an attempt at diversity for The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, he was an irritating, racially ambiguous street urchin. Thankfully, he didn’t last long… but Mystery Inc. never forgets.
Vincent Van Ghoul Returns
A much more welcome return to the franchise is Vincent Van Ghoul. The Vincent Price parody also appeared in The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, but instead of a warlock, he’s now a washed-up B-movie actor. Shaggy and Scooby are his biggest fans, and they often spend their downtime watching marathons of his campy horror movies.
When Van Ghoul appears as a character in one of their mysteries, he proves to be a sympathetic character. Maurice Lamarche reprises his role from the early series but puts a more comedic spin on the performance. And if his voice sounds familiar, it’s probably because you grew up watching Pinky and the Brain!
This Famous Author Guest-Starred as Himself
By far the weirdest guest star–perhaps not just on the show, but in television history–is Harlan Ellison playing himself. Ellison is a lecturer at Darrow University alongside his rival, H.P. Hatecraft. Velma is his biggest fan, and yet when she meets her hero, he just tells her that “jinkies” is not a real word. Ellison was famously abrasive in real life, so his character wasn’t really much of an exaggeration.
While Harlan Ellison was a well-known speculative fiction author, I’d hardly consider him a household name. The fact that he is part of the Scooby-verse is so wonderfully bizarre. Sadly, Ellison passed away in 2018, but there’s a whole bunch of kids out there who now know his name for the most absurd possible reason.
H.P. Lovecraft Gets a Redemption Arc
Ellison’s main rival at Darrow University is H.P. Hatecraft. And yes, he’s definitely inspired by Lovecraft. He appears in two episodes, first as a suspect in a Cthulu-like monster attack, and later as a more sympathetic character who helps the gang research a strange artifact they found.
While the real Lovecraft’s legacy is tarnished by racism and xenophobia, Hatecraft isn’t a bad guy at all. The character is voiced by Jeffrey Combs, who portrayed Herbert West in the Lovecraft-inspired cult classic Re-Animator (1985) and its sequels.
Horror Movie References Galore
Re-Animator is far from the only horror film referenced in the series. The writers and animators draw on a wide variety of sources for inspiration, from Babylonian mythology to Lovecraft. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, and even Saw.
Other episodes draw heavily from Carrie and The Terminator, but my favorite nod to the horror genre is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in “The Hodag of Horror.” Sheriff Stone (voiced by Patrick Warburton) picks up a puzzle box that is actually the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser. When someone arrives at his door offering to show him such sights… Stone slams the door and calls him a weirdo.
Not Afraid to Get Scary
While the horror references are more like easter eggs for grownups, the actual show gets surprisingly dark and scary at times. In fact, the episodes are marked as being too frightening for kids under seven on Netflix. I’m an adult and therefore immune to fear, but I can see how younger viewers might have an issue with some of the scenes.
The monsters aren’t quite as goofy as previous incarnations, with glowing eyes and slavering fangs. An early season one episode with sinister yokels dressed as were-gators has all the tension of a classic horror film.
More Creative Chase Scenes
While I enjoyed the classic “chase montage” from the original series, where it was clear that they recycled the animation but you didn’t care because of the groovy music, Mystery Inc. ditches a lot of that Looney Tunes goofiness.
Instead of the same half-dozen visual gags used by earlier versions of the show, this series isn’t afraid to be more serious. And, frankly, they also weren’t afraid to spend a lot more money on their animation budget. Don’t worry, though–Velma still loses her glasses regularly.
A Whole New World for Scoob and the Gang
Previous versions of the show didn’t really develop the universe that the characters inhabit. In part, that’s because they didn’t need to–the lack of plot arcs or continuity from episode to episode meant that each mystery existed in a vacuum. But for the first time, it feels like the supporting characters on the show had other stuff going on when the gang was off-screen.
In Mystery Inc., there’s time to get to know the town of Crystal Cove. Not only do we meet Daphne, Fred, Velma, and Shaggy’s parents, but we also learn the history of the town. One of the biggest drivers of the main plot is that another group of four mystery-solving teenagers and their animal mascot existed twenty years ago, and their actions set terrible things into motion.
The Scripts Weren’t Dumbed Down
The scriptwriters behind the show seemed to have carte blanche to make grown-up jokes and allusions–and to drop some serious vocabulary words. Who was the audience for the line about Harlan Ellison being out of town at a “misanthrope’s convention”? (Answer: It was me.)
The sheer number of pop-culture deep cuts, faithful interpretations of myths and legends, and impressive vocabulary makes the show feel satisfying as a grownup. Sure, the mysteries were often silly and predictable and the pacing of the season-long plot didn’t always work. But that’s okay, because as Fred quips, “the concept of time confuses me.”
LGBTQ+ Representation… Almost
One last reason why I love this show. Her name is Hot Dog Water. Well, it’s actually Marcie Fleach, and she’s voiced by Linda Cardellini. Marcie was originally introduced as a one-off villain, but she later returns in a much more significant role. She and Velma are especially close. And by “close,” I mean that they were absolutely 100% dating.
I don’t want to give away too much of the finale, but series co-creator Tony Cervone later confirmed that Marcie and Velma were always planned to be a romantic couple in the end. Sadly, we never get to see that play out onscreen.
Velma has been a queer icon for decades, so knowing that she almost got a canonical girlfriend is bittersweet. In the decade since Mystery Incorporated ended, more and more cartoons are showing queer and trans characters being their authentic selves. I’d like to think that if this series had been made today, Velma could have been out and proud.