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Why HBO Max's 'Velma' is considered by some to be 'most hated show on TV'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So it debuted as a widely anticipated animated revamp of a beloved character from the Scooby-Doo universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VELMA")

MINDY KALING: (As Velma Dinkley) My name is Velma Dinkley. And this is my origin story.

CHANG: But HBO Max's new series "Velma" has drawn criticism, including from fans put off by some of the more adult themes in the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VELMA")

KALING: (As Velma Dinkley) I've decided to finally share the bone-chilling events that drove me to assemble the greatest team of spooky mystery-solvers ever. Yeah, it was me, not Fred in his weird sex van. This is my story, told my way.

CHANG: All right. NPR's own TV critic, Eric Deggans, joins us now to talk about what happened. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: OK. So even though there was a lot of buzz around "Velma," it's gotten some pretty harsh reviews, right? Like, I saw that The Telegraph, a British newspaper, called this the most hated show on TV. First of all, is that fair? Like, what happened here?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, the simple answer is it's a comedy that's just not funny.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: But I think if you look at it more expansively, the show's trying to accomplish a lot of things at once that symbolize these big trends in modern TV shows, and it's failing at a lot of them. For example, "Velma" tries to modernize the characters from the Scooby-Doo universe by making them more cynical, more sexual and more self-centered. Velma herself is this odd, revengeful high school outcast who hates the cool kids and may have driven her mother to leave her family.

CHANG: Wow.

DEGGANS: (Laughter) And she doesn't get along with the other characters who will eventually become part of the Scooby gang. As we can hear, we've got this scene where Velma first meets Fred, who's the good-looking blond guy in the group. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VELMA")

KALING: (As Velma Dinkley) It's Velma from school. You cheat off me in Spanish because you think I'm Mexican.

GLEN HOWERTON: (As Fred Jones) Maybe. I have a disease where I can't recognize people who aren't hot. My doctor says it's basically sickle cell for rich guys.

KALING: (As Velma Dinkley) Is it called rudeness?

HOWERTON: (As Fred Jones) It is. You're, like, smart.

KALING: (As Velma Dinkley) Oh, wow. Thank you.

HOWERTON: (As Fred Jones) Yeah, not a compliment.

CHANG: Dang, that's kind of nasty.

DEGGANS: Yeah. It's a little different dynamic than they had in the original cartoons. And, you know, that upset some fans who really love the franchise.

CHANG: Well, that voice we just heard, I mean, that's Mindy Kaling. She's the executive producer of the show. She voices Velma. And I understand that she's gotten a lot of criticism for the whole series even though she didn't create the show. So, like, why do you think so much of the reaction has been focused on Kaling?

DEGGANS: Well, Kaling's getting criticism from two different camps. Now, in modernizing "Velma," they did a couple of things that many TV shows do these days. First, they changed the race of the character. They made her South Asian like Kaling. And then they also show her having a crush on a female friend, leaning into these ideas that the character has always been gay. So there are fans who object to the diversifying of classic pop culture franchises, complaining about the series being too, quote, "woke." But there's others who note the way that Velma has this crush on Fred. It shows a South Asian woman seeking romance and validation from a white guy.

CHANG: Ah.

DEGGANS: So Kaling's getting criticism from both sides of the pop culture, sociopolitical spectrum.

CHANG: Can't win. Well, overall, what do you think all of this blowback means for HBO Max? Because they've already taken criticism for, like, cutting costs, taking all the episodes of "Westworld" off the platform.

DEGGANS: Well, ultimately, I'm not sure this is going to have a lot of impact on HBO Max. But "Velma" is an example of a TV project that can really go off the rails if there isn't a solid vision for why the show should exist in the first place. I mean, if you think about those live-action Scooby-Doo films, they were always careful about how they modernized the characters 'cause they knew that nostalgia was a big reason why people would show up for them. Now here, by changing the character so radically with no real creative benefit, you wind up with a show that removes the reason that the fans originally fell in love with the characters without giving them any new reasons to care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.