When I was a child, I remember being very eager to visit my grandparents due to one thing: they had cable. Back before the age of the internet, cable was something of an elusive wonder. It had the one channel that I would actually devote myself to: Cartoon Network.
My favorite show to watch on that channel were classic episodes of Scooby Doo, but I never understood why I liked the show. I remember very specifically that I always watched Scooby Doo. But I couldn’t articulate the reasoning until now.
When I speak further, I am referring to the series that most of us are familiar with. As the series has grown over the years, it has gone through the hands of many writers in its various incarnations. In spin-offs, the rules often change. In some, there are supernatural elements that turn out to be true. In others, there’s the introduction of other characters (don’t get me started on Scrappy). For the purposes of this article, we are referring to the original series.
Those Meddling Kids
The best place to start is with the cast of characters. Unlike other animated series, which often use the medium to create fantastical or whimsical characters, all the human characters are ordinary people. Like many animated series aimed at younger audiences, they are all very flat characters. All of them are boiled down to a handful of character traits, mannerisms, and their character designs.
Scooby Doo, by contrast, is a talking dog. He and Shaggy are meant to perform the role of comic relief on the show. Fred is the trap engineer and planner of the group. Daphne serves as the damsel in distress, and Velma is the one who knows obscure information that ends up progressing the plot.
The villain changes each episode, allowing the gang to face a new foe each time.
Let’s See Who the Monster Really Is!
Each plot follows a very standard formula. While out doing normal teenage activities, Mystery Inc. gets wind of a mystery. They are introduced to the supporting cast and learn more about the monster in question.
They investigate, often with Shaggy and Scooby eating copious amounts of food, characters spouting off their catchphrases (Jinkies!), and the occasional bribery of Scooby Snacks.
Fred will suggest that the gang split up(which they do unquestioningly), Shaggy and Scooby run into the monster. Fred devises a trap. It often fails, but the villain is caught anyway.
Then, there’s the great unmasking. The true identity of the villain is revealed, it’s one (or more) of the supporting cast members introduced earlier.
The Wikipedia article specifies this further. Joe Ruby, Ken Spears, and Bill Lutz had a very specific formula in place for the series:
- The Mystery, Inc. gang is driving in the Mystery Machine, returning from or going to a regular teenage function, when their van develops engine trouble or breaks down for any of a variety of reasons (overheating, flat tire, out of gas, etc.), in the immediate vicinity of a large, mostly vacated property (ski lodge, hotel, factory, mansion, cruise ship, etc.).
- Their (unintended) destination turns out to be suffering from a monster problem (ghosts, Yetis, vampires, witches, etc.). The gang volunteers to investigate the case.
- The gang splits up to cover more ground, with Fred and Velma finding clues, Daphne finding danger, and Shaggy and Scooby finding food, fun, and the ghost/monster, who chases them. Scooby and Shaggy love to eat, including dog treats called Scooby Snacks which are a favorite of both the dog and the teenage boy.
- Eventually, enough clues are found to convince the gang that the ghost/monster is a fake, and a trap is set (usually by Fred) to capture it; or, they may occasionally call the local sheriff, only to get stopped by the villain half-way.
- If a trap is used, it may or may not work (more often than not, Scooby-Doo and/or Shaggy falls into the trap and/or they unwittingly catch the monster another way). Invariably, the ghost/monster is apprehended and unmasked. The person in the ghost or monster suit turns out to be an apparently blameless authority figure or otherwise innocuous local who is using the disguise to cover up something such as a crime or a scam.
- After giving the parting shot of “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids”, the offender is then taken away to jail, and the gang is allowed to continue on the way to their destination.
One could argue that knowing the formula ruins the experience, but I’d argue the opposite. Analyzing the patterns behind a story helps us to understand what it’s trying to convey. Some of the things that Scooby Doo does best are invisible to its youthful audience and it took me a while to really appreciate what it was trying to do.
So what do I really enjoy about Scooby Doo?
The protagonists crack the case by using logic and reason. They are not bestowed from on high with superhuman abilities, anyone can use the skills they possess. Through gathering clues, they find out how the villain was able to deceive people. At no point does a deus ex machina save the day. The protagonists solve their own problems.
The villain is never a monster. They are always a regular person using the myth of the monster to frighten people away and cover their own deceptive, illegal, and immoral practices.
Ultimately, what Scooby Doo is about is the triumph of rationality over superstition. It is about how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. It is about owning your problems and taking steps to solve it. It is about the fact that the veil of fear created by the myth of monsters can be removed, and what remains is no more frightening than that of a single ordinary person.
That, I believe, is beautiful.