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“Mystery Incorporated” revamps an old time favorite

Asher Elbein

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COLUMN | Television

By Asher Elbein

The excellence of “Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated” may come as a surprise. The latest in a long line of Scooby Doo shows, the plot and characters remain, at first glance, unchanged. Four teens and a talking dog drive around in a minivan, solving spooky mysteries. People in monster suits are foiled. Meddling children are complained about. But “Mystery Incorporated” throws a spin on this right from the start, just by adding three things: character development, an overarching story, and a willingness to play with formula.

Prior Scooby Doo programs have tended toward flat characterization. Fred was brave. Daphne was pretty. Velma was smart. Shaggy and Scooby were alternately hungry and terrified. But “Mystery Incorporated” digs deeper. Fred’s bravery and obsession with traps is gradually shaded into something deeper and almost tragic. Daphne’s interest in mystery solving springs from a desperate desire to stand out. Velma acts self-destructively even as she races to prove how smart she is. Every character is developed beyond their archetype, and that lends them a weight that earlier incarnations didn’t possess. The story is also surprisingly compelling. The gang’s hometown, Crystal Cove, bills itself as one of the most haunted places in America, and the town has built an economy out of its ghost sightings. While this provides a constant source of frauds for the gang to unmask, it also clues them into a deeper plot. Slowly, they begin to uncover pieces of a larger puzzle, one that hints at the existence of an earlier mystery-solving group that vanished some 30 years before.

The addition of serialized storytelling is a smart move, allowing for a building sense of tension and momentum. Early hints are followed up on in later installments, and the show’s strong sense of pacing rewards those who chose to watch the show in marathons. The format – standalone episodes with a linking narrative – also gives the show a chance to deploy its strongest trick: its awareness of its own structure. On “Mystery Incorporated,” formula exists to be played with, and the show has a finely tuned sense of its own ludicrousness. From the start, the writers delight in toying with audience expectations. A given episode’s end may be predictable , but the route that takes us there is often so willfully deranged that it’s hard to look away. The classic line about meddling kids is delivered just once, and ever after is used in increasingly baroque and strange combinations. Monsters are explained in ways that have only the vaguest relationships with plausibility. As the series continues, the experimentation becomes increasingly wilder, culminating in a direct commentary on the formulaic traditions within which the Scooby Doo series has always operated. Most of this is mined for humor, but the writer’s playfulness keeps the plot snappy and unpredictable as well.

“Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated” is not going to be a series for everyone. But if you like smart, character-driven shows that manage to update a stale formula in an entertaining way, you’ll want to give it a shot.

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“Mystery Incorporated” revamps an old time favorite