The following contains light spoilers for the pilot of Doom Patrol, which is available to stream on DC Universe now.
When describing to friends what makes his new superhero series unique, Doom Patrol star Alan Tudyk knows the moment they’ll blink themselves out of polite half-attention, lean forward and say “wait…what?”
“When I mention the donkey that farts sky writing it stops them,” he says.
Yes, as the weird-seekers among you may know by now, DC Universe’s Doom Patrol’s pilot concludes with the donkey familiar of Tudyk’s villainous Mr. Nobody farting and releasing gas into the sky that spells out “The mind is the limit.” There’s a born-again Evangelical talking cockroach thrown in there for good measure too.
Television is a more hospitable place for weird ideas than ever. Even the TV superhero sub-genre has never been friendlier to outright weirdness than it is right now. Every week on The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, some of DC Entertainment’s most beloved fringe characters make a trip through time for wacky adventures, including even kidnapping themselves as babies. Hulu’s Runaways looked at the comic’s velociraptor, Old Lace, and said “yeah, we can probably adapt that,” and they did. Then there’s FX’s Legion, which stretches the concept of weirdness so far that it often brushes up against incoherence.
Still, when Doom Patrol debuted on DC Universe on February 15, it immediately pushed itself to the front of the pack of the “weird superhero” aesthetic through sheer force of will. This is a show that so actively wants to be strange, transgressive, and stylish, that you can practically hear the strain of it. Doom Patrol is a different kind of weird – a kind of weird that adeptly captures the underdog nature of its comic book origins. Or as Tudyk puts it: “It’s new weird.”
For Doom Patrol, “new weird” means the villain as narrator breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience from the show’s first moment on. “Ready for a story about superheroes?” Tudyk’s Mr. Nobody asks before continuing. “Ahhh more TV superheroes. Just what the world needs. Have you hung yourself yet?”
Mr. Nobody has a solid understanding of how many superhero stories we’ve seen (and in some cases: endured) by now. Doom Patrol may be new weird for television but its origins date back decades. The story of The World’s Strangest Heroes is best read about here. For a quick primer though: Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, and Bruno Premiani brought the Doom Patrol to comics in 1963’s My Greatest Adventure. From moment one they were designed to present a different kind of hero. Rather than devastatingly attractive and confident ubermensches, Doom Patrol imagined heroes as the kind of damaged freaks they always probably were.
It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, however, that Doom Patrol really found its weird voice thanks to the stewardship of comic-dom’s most adeptly strange individuals: Grant Morrison. Morrison and Richard Case’s run on Doom Patrol helped bring the characters to life and establish a chaotic tone that resonated with readers. In 2016 Umbrella Academy writer Gerard Way continued Doom Patrol’s legacy of bizarreness with a run of the series through his Young Animal imprint for DC.
It’s a kind of comic-worthy cosmic coincidence that Doom Patrol and the series it most closely influenced, The Umbrella Academy, debuted on the same day on two different streaming services. Both have been received well thus far critically but Doom Patrol seems to have a slight “lead,” as it were, holding a 69 Metacritic score and 93% Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer, which compares to 60 and 73% to Umbrella Academy.
In comparing the two franchises, the weirdness probably works in Doom Patrol’s favor. But as the cast sees it, Doom Patrol isn’t just weirdness for weirdness’s sake. Diane Guerrero (Crazy Jane) says the show reflects the time.
“I honestly feel what we have been living in our ordinary lives has been really wacky so why not include a donkey that you can teleport inside in?” she says.
Perhaps a Doom Patrol comes along whenever a medium is craving a little Dada-ist spirt, or reality is simply ready to reflect it. Morrison’s Doom Patrol helped comics as a medium open its third eye and find a new level of high strangeness. Now the Doom Patrol TV series is set to do the same. Still, this is first and foremost a superhero story and there are the usual superhero trappings to be maintained.
The pilot re-introduces the characters first seen in the Titans episode but gives them a proper context for their sad little heroism. Cliff Steele a.k.a. Robotman (Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan) is the brain of a dead racecar driver learning to take his first steps in a robot body. Rita Farr a.k.a. Elastic-Girl (April Bowlby) is an ex-movie star who’s taken to wandering around the Doom Patrol mansion like a ghost. Larry Trainor a.k.a. Negative Man (Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk) is an ex fighter pilot-turned melancholic mummy with a passion for horticulture. Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) is one damaged soul that’s developed 64 distinct personalities. Chief (Timothy Dalton) is their dapper dad, and in some instances creator.
Then there’s Nobody…Mr. Nobody. If any superhero story is only as good as its villain, then Doom Patrol is in great shape. According to Tudyk, Mr. Nobody body appears fragmented because it is – cast about various dimensions, times, and ideas.
“I love that he’s the narrator and he’s a very self-aware narrator,” Tudyk says. “He breaks the fourth wall. There’s even a point where they’re trying to outsmart him and he’s like ‘I’m the narrator. How do you outsmart me? Don’t you get it? Has it not sunk in?’”
Mr. Nobody and his magical farting donkey bring the lion’s share of Morrison-esque mind bending nonsense to the proceedings. Alongside the weirdness, however, are characters confronting challenges that seem much different from other superheroes’ crucibles. Instead of the usual superhero origin stories in which Peter Parker must learn about great power and responsibility, these heroes face the seemingly insurmountable challenge of merely going outside. It’s up the cast to find the humanity inside robot iron and blobby flesh.
“I know it’s a big deal that I get to play this character. And I am so honored to be the first person to bring her to life,” April Bowlby says of movie-star actress turned agoraphobic blob-woman Rita Farr.
There’s a real sadness and reliability to Rita, who had achieved well beyond her dreams but now due to circumstances beyond her control almost literally falls apart when presented with anxiety or stress. That’s a big #superheromood as the kids say.
Bowlby enjoyed playing a more fully rounded version of the character than the light, almost ‘50s era housewife introduced in Doom Patrol’s debut on Titans.
“In Doom Patrol, she’s very narcissistic, vain, cutthroat, judgmental, and not a very likable character. I was like, ‘whoa, guys, do I want to play that?” and of course, yes I do because it’s an awesome thing to play,” she says.
Guerrero faces a unique challenge in Crazy Jane, who has 64 distinct personalities, each with their own power. The show doesn’t come close to depicting all 64 but still, finding several souls in one body isn’t easy.
“I approach it as every personality has a life but they’re all grounded in one thing and it’s this little girl who is severely hurt and traumatized and it wasn’t her fault,” Guerrero says.
Guerrero also carefully tracks the physicality of each character, “shrinking” her body and presence for a character like the meek Penny Farthing or leading with her eyes like a shark for the appropriately named Hammerhead. She compares the experiencing of each personality to the idea of code switching – in which even the non-super-powered among us change our behaviors and personas depending on the environment we find ourselves in.
In delving into the character’s psyche(s) and the full-throated weirdness of DC Universe’s most ambitious venture yet, Guerrero says she has come to appreciate comic book culture more.
“As a person who has been dying to be seen as a hero – and I mean a hero in my own story, a hero in my family, a hero of social justice – It’s a dream come true to get to incorporate this in my work,” she says. I love being an actor…so much that I kind of want to cry right now. To be a part of this huge universe is an honor.”
That huge universe continues to expand in the show’s second episode, which debuts on Friday, February 22. And yes, things gets weirder. The episode, titled “Donkey Patrol,” fittingly sees the return of the pilot’s breakaway star: random farting calligraphy donkey. Titan’s Cyborg (Joivan Wade) makes his series debut in the episode and immediately fits in, joining two other Doom Patrollers on a very strange journey into the unknown where they are finally made aware of Mr. Nobody’s existence.
DC Universe is taking a relatively big risk with Doom Patrol. Like its cousin, Titans, Doom Patrol will debut new episodes weekly but unlike Titans it will feature 15 episodes. Can Doom Patrol sustain its engaging level of weirdness for 13 more hours? Stranger things have happened. But only just barely stranger than the talking cockroach and farting donkey.
Listen to the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast discussion of Doom Patrol: