I’ve always had a soft spot for the ghost-hunting adventures of Scooby-Doo, though I’ve had to admit that–even in their purest, original form–they were never very good.
Yet the characters are exceptionally appealing; 42 years after their debut in Saturday morning’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, people still know Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby. Can the same be said for any of the mystery-solving quintets that followed in their wake? Can you name (without looking them up) the kids in Jabberjaw, Fangface or The Funky Phantom?
For four decades, Mystery, Incorporated has been meddling into the schemes of unscrupulous, mask-wearing “ghosts” haunting mansions, gold mines and amusement parks across America.*
But it’s only now that they’ve had a show truly worth watching.
Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Incorporated–which has been airing on Cartoon Network for the past year–is easily the best iteration of the series.** Not only are the teen sleuths characters instead of merely caricatures, there’s romance, legitimate frights, lots of in-jokes and–most surprisingly–a relatively complex meta-plot.
Okay, the overarching story isn’t as complicated as, say, Lost. Still, this is a Scooby-Doo series in which clues and personalities from previous episodes resurface as elements of a conspiracy surrounding the original Mystery, Incorporated: a prior generation of ghost busters who seemingly vanished long ago. Our modern-day heroes find themselves manipulated by hints from the corpulent Mr. E (voiced by comedian Lewis Black) and the sinister talking parrot*** Professor Pericles.
There’s a lot going on in the kids’ hometown of Crystal Cove (“The Most Hauntedest Place on Earth”). Daphne hails from a wealthy family of hot redheads, including four identical sisters. Velma’s folks run the local Spook Museum. Fred’s dad is the mayor, and seems fed up with his trap-happy son’s attempts to debunk the tourist-friendly ghosts. (Or is he up to something else?)
Meanwhile, love is blossoming. Over the course of the season, Daphne has managed to hook her trap-obsessed Freddy into proposing to her. And there’s been an on-again, off-again romance between Velma and Shaggy, of all people. The latter has been complicated by Shaggy’s close attachment to Scooby, and the resulting “triangle” has had the side-effect of making Velma come off kinda mean at times. It sounds like much more of a soap opera than it really is, but again, this is Scooby-Doo; the fact that they’re even bringing it up is remarkable.
If cartoon love stories aren’t your thing, there’s also a lot of humor and in-jokery. Mystery, Incorporated draws on past Scooby lore. Vincent Van Ghoul (from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo) is a recurring character similar to aging actor/horror movie host Peter Vincent from the movie Fright Night. The Spook Museum has statues of 13 Ghosts co-star and kiddie con-artist Flim-Flam (said to be serving 25 years-to-life), as well as the infamous Scrappy-Doo (about whom they’ve sworn never to speak).
This is a show that has had famous curmudgeon Harlan Ellison playing himself, and has built an entire episode as a parody of the Japanese monster movie War of the Gargantuas, complete with a rendition of its classic torch song, “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat.”
Tonight will be the season finale, and I’m psyched for it. Which, again, is pretty remarkable.
*As a kid, it bothered me that the classic Scooby-Doo formula inevitably involved a phony ghost. Not only because I felt that a show about ghosts and monsters should have “real” supernatural elements, but because even then it struck me as very unlikely that anyone would repeatedly encounter villains who believed that the best smokescreen for their crimes was to put on a rubber mask and chase teenagers. Maybe once…
**An admittedly low bar.
***Yes, I wrote “sinister talking parrot.”