On September 27, 2014, the CW Network cut animation out of their Saturday morning bloc. They were the last network to do so. It was replaced with live-action family-friendly series, mirroring a general trend away from expensive, skilled labor needed for cartoons and toward that of child celebrity. That the progenitor of this trend, Dan Schneider, has parted ways from Nickelodeon due to child abuse allegations (largely of the foot variety: a pedo-pedophile), speaks volumes about the implications of such a move, but, sadly, shouldn’t surprise anyone. The received wisdom goes that children want to see better versions of themselves on their screens, and this wisdom has killed the cultural Methuselah that is the Saturday morning cartoon.
Such perceived narcissism was also cited as the success factor of the Hanna-Barbera series Scooby Doo, Where Are You? The story goes: Scooby and the gang are young and hip, the villains are old and evil and wrong. Children would therefore identify Abbie Hoffmans in the heroes, cantankerous Richard Nixons in the villains. As Christopher Orr notes recently in The Atlantic: “Even the show’s signature line, ‘And I would’ve gotten away with it if not for you meddling kids,’ sounds like it could have been uttered by Richard Nixon.” In the Scoobyverse, McGovern wins, the US pulls out of Vietnam, and the mask is pulled off the American flag to reveal a series of old men engaged in scare tactics to protect what’s theirs. But, children are not narcissists. They do not know of a self to be projected. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the identity of children should be cultivated by lawmakers, or, rather, the culture these laws foster. As a result, it’s likely not the case that children feel affirmed by CBS throwing youth culture a bone. They also did not speculate that Shaggy and Scooby’s hunger was caused by cheap weed, nor that Fred and Daphne were busy giving in to their hormones, nor that Velma was a closet lesbian. Later generations would retroactively read these salacious theories thanks to historiographical cartoonification of 60s culture and the sheer fact that the Scooby universe would stick around and reinvent itself for every subsequent generation. Lawmakers would indeed change the culture, and culture would change Scooby-Doo.
The newest iteration of Scooby-Doo, Scoob!, reflects our era of stock, staid comic book characters taking themselves very seriously. The stakes have never been higher than this narrative: Shaggy (Will Forte) and Scooby (Frank Welker, reprising the role he’s voiced since 2002) are ousted from the gang by Simon Cowell (himself) for not fitting in with his vision for their brand. They’re whisked away by other Hanna-Barbera properties, Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and Dynomutt (Ken Jeong). These properties are trying to stop yet another Hanna-Barbera property, Dick Dastardly, from finding this particular film’s McGuffins which will inevitably raise hell. Along the way, Scooby and Shaggy get into an uncharacteristically serious tiff, but everyone learns a valuable lesson about friendship by the film’s end. There is no mystery, and the third act has a real “Avengers, assemble” battle sequence — additions, again, befitting what children are used to seeing and producers are used to making these days. It’s different, sure. But how different is different?
After the initial run of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (a mere two seasons), the gang would morph to meet the needs of marketable children’s entertainment. Fred Silverman of CBS took the show with him to ABC and christened it The Scooby-Doo Show: an umbrella-term for the many iterations the gang would take in the late 70s. This set the precedent for the great dane to invade networks, reinvent his never-consistent mythology, and define “youth music” in each iteration (Sonny & Cher guest star in the early 70s while MxPx perform the theme song to 2002’s live-action feature film, Scooby-Doo). While dress code and vernacular are remarkably uniform, one thing does change: the guests. If there’s any real secret to Scooby Doo’s success, it’s the same formula as The Simpsons‘s embarrassingly prolonged life: a bid for docile, innocent, recognizable characters taken on a whirlwind tour of pop culture. Lisa can go Gaga, but Scooby can wrestle with John Cena. In the early days of Scooby-Doo, Hanna-Barbera would use the successful franchise to promote their other shows by throwing in the studio’s other intellectual property. Scoob! signals this with its inclusion of Blue Falcon, Dynomutt, and Captain Caveman (Tracy Morgan). This makes more money for Hanna-Barbera. However, once Hanna-Barbera noticed the positive reaction to these crossover episodes, why not cross over with the highest bidder? Or cross over with the most-viewed classic genre of entertainment: pornography?
Scooby’s river is not the same as when we stepped in it in 1969. But, it was also not the same in 1971. To be angry about this flux is to be angry about the universe, and you’re welcome to scream at that all you’d like.
In 2020’s Scoob!, no crossovers are so readily apparent outside the obvious ploy for the movie to set up a Hanna-Barbera extended universe. Despicable Me and its spinoff hit Minions act as a close parallel to Mr. Dastardly’s arc, and his minions sure do resemble Funko-Pops; but, there’s no musical guest to promote nor free advertising. Netflix gets a punchline from Fred (not Frank Welker reprising the role he’s voiced since 1969, but Zac Efron), but that’s more in line with the film simply making pop culture references in lieu of jokes. Yes, this is still objectionable. But: the real jokes land — an animated rendering of Venice Beach and a nod to the classic monsters in the opening montage look great. I laughed when Blue Falcon’s stupid Mark Wahlberg voice came out of his golden-retriever-ass face and then he dabbed. That was funny. There’s a real movie going on that plays with the gang’s extremely basic building blocks and gives it a mighty fine telos.
The Scooby brand’s race-to-the-bottom style of cross-promotion left the gang a mere shell of itself. Their Faustian bargain for eternal life made their small operation a playground for advertisers. Daphne is the rich sex icon funding the whole operation, Shaggy says “zoinks,” Velma says “jinkies,” Scooby says his name, and Fred looks nice I guess. They have no values other than having a mystery solved. This is on purpose: it is a children’s show that cannot be seen as political, and it must make money. It’s also a perfect blank canvas for contemporary culture to vandalize. The show’s non-position on getting high means legions of teenagers reading Shaggy as the ur-stoner. A non-position on temporal space means the same dog playing with Don Knotts while his compatriots crack jokes about Netflix. And, a non-position on sex means the Scooby gang occupying perhaps the most popular “rule 34” of the internet, the implied tension between presumed lesbian Velma and presumed bicurious Daphne to have at each other enough times, live-action and animated, to fill petabyte servers. I’m sure this is all made in good, horny intentions, yet I can’t help but notice that the same nihilistic factors that would help Scooby Doo succeed in the children’s animation world would also help him in the world of cum.
In his most famous surviving fragment, Heraclitus of Ephesus muses that one cannot step into the same river twice. Once you step in the second time, the river has changed, perhaps imperceptibly, but changed nonetheless. Heraclitus thought of the universe’s archê as one of flux. This is a useful way of thinking about identity in general: perhaps there is no static you, but “you” certainly is a helpful word to describe your actions and memories over the years. Scooby’s river is not the same as when we stepped in it in 1969. But, it was also not the same in 1971. To be angry about this flux is to be angry about the universe, and you’re welcome to scream at that all you’d like. However, if Scooby-Doo has always been anything, it’s always been a little bit of nothing — a little void through which the culture sees itself reflected. When William Hanna and Joseph Barbera dreamt up Scooby-Doo, it was in response to parents who were angry that their Saturday morning cartoons — like Blue Falcon — were too violent for their children. Instead, Mystery’s Five, originally pitched as a pop band, would solve mysteries and sing the hits and sell merchandise. Its influences were The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Mod Squad: colorful fluff. It was made to be loud and bright and keep kids’ attention on the screen for the upcoming commercials.
The real question here — how we can reasonably admire a piece of culture that’s only meant to sell things to children — remains important. I really don’t know how I can reconcile my affinity for Scoob or Scoob!, and I’m sure people who like Batman but don’t like licking the boots of DC Comics feel the same way. Yet how fun it is that Shaggy and Scooby and Batman and Robin can come together and share sandwiches and play detective. May the next generation play with them, too.
You can currently stream Tony Cervone’s Scoob! on Amazon.