This Doom Patrol review contains spoilers.
Doom Patrol Episode 1
Superheroes are weird. Set aside the DC holy trinity, and you still have a guy whose cosmic jewelry doesn’t work on anything yellow, another who talks to fish, and a Martian. And I love it. Yet, despite the acceptable level of weirdness we have learned to embrace from the movie A-listers of Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, and now Aquaman — and the TV headliners of The Flash and Green Arrow — there is still The Doom Patrol. And this crew so weird they are in a League of their own.
Which is what brings us to DC Universe’s new show, a fun celebration of the super-weird that almost feels like a capes-and-tights tale via Ryan Murphy. Let’s call it American Super Story.
Glimpsed at in a standalone Titans episode last year, and based on characters introduced in 1963, Doom Patrol arrives as its own series via showrunner Jeremy Carver (Being Human, Supernatural). In the pilot directed by Glen Winter (Supergirl), these misfits exist as hermits in a mansion under the auspices of their benevolent maker/caretaker Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) – at least until they decide to explore the world, make a scene, and eventually open an interdimensional portal via a donkey fart.
Even with the brilliantly zany antics of DC Comics brethren Legends of Tomorrow aside, as well as Netflix’s also-enjoyable Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol is a stand-out example of a show that embraces the flaws and inherent oddness of super heroes. And it does so by swearing a lot.
The series begins with a noirish villain’s origin of Mr. Nobody, a bad guy from 1948 who pops up in meta commentary throughout the series to poke fun at sentimental moments, and remind viewers that, like Titans, critics will hate the show. Voiced by Alan Tudyk (an actor I can confidently say is a damn genius, and deserves recognition as one of the most talented chameleons around), Nobody frames the backstory, and sets up the threat for The Chief/Caulder’s outcast project.
As we learn through the POV of Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), a race car driver from 1988 who meets a bad end and wakes up decades later in a Robotman’s body (voiced by Fraser, and performed by Riley Shanahan), Caulder “saves” hopeless causes, attempts to fix them, and brings them to his dilapidated manor.
There is the former 1950s Hollywood starlet Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a vain Elastic-Woman who became a rubbery Blob-like being with variable viscosity; Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), a 1960s hotshot pilot and “American god” whose sexuality already made him feel like a monster before becoming transformed into a Negative Man of pure energy, one wrapped in Invisible Man bandages (and portrayed by Matthew Zuk); and, eventually, Crazy Jane (Dianne Gurrero), a young woman who might appear “normal,” except for the 64 alt-personalities within her, each with a separate power. And the half-man/half-machine Cyborg (Joivan Wade) is on the way, which should be interesting since Robotman is also technically a Cyborg.
Decades pass, and they adjust to their reality, and come to gel with one another as housemates. They maintain their sanity in various ways. Rita watches old “pictures,” Cliff builds a room-sized racetrack, Larry tends garden in an old school bus. And, along the way, we see flashbacks told with a visual style unique to each of their eras. But when they get a moment to break free for a field trip on the town — upon the urging of Jane and the absence of Caulder — all hell breaks loose, and they end up on the radar of Tudyk’s villain of chaos.
The series of characters are most famous for their 1989-93 arc under writer Grant Morrison, and the series nods to that (at least once very specifically in the first episode). But the show works as its own thing, without having to be familiar with any of their comic origins. This is largely due to the self-aware tone of the show, and the actors who make up the dysfunctional family.
Brendan Fraser is great as a man-boy with a lot of vices, then relegated to a body where he can’t taste or smell anything. His relationship with Jane is charming. Gurrero’s arrival on screen upsets the normal order of the Doom Mansion, and her performance of the few alters we see is compelling, but I’d like to see more diversity with future personalities. Bomer/Zuk convey sadness under those wrappings; he is a man who was once gorgeous and on top of the world, and now only wants to order a beer he cannot drink. And Bowlby’s Rita is likely the worst character of the lot, but she’s compelling as a woman who maintains her sense of movie-start entitlement long after her star faded, or melted. Dalton, meanwhile, seems to be having a great time as Caulder, who is a softer version of the mad scientist we encountered in Titans. He has his mysteries, and personal demons, but feels less like a captor here than a caring, if flawed, father figure.
The team’s rebellious excursion to town is full of satisfying moments, that range from tender to sad. They are all desperate for normalcy, and try to convince themselves that they can simply walk into a diner, or bar, and (literally) keep it together. And I enjoyed how the town reacts. The story is set in the DC Universe, so people may look at the new strangers in town, but don’t immediately freak-out at the sight of a giant talking Tin Man.
But as good as the characters are, the story is all over the place. The reluctant-hero plot, and the reality-sucking portal caused by a donkey fart, is a bit of a mess. The stakes aren’t entirely clear yet, and as good as Tudyk is in the role, the pilot would have been better served explaining more of why he’s showing up. It seems the show had an interesting set up for these outsiders, but didn’t know what to do with them after their origins were told, and they got out of the house.
Still, this is an odd bit of super hero fun. Doom Patrol is not trying to convince anyone it’s a serious comic book show. The big challenge is whether it can continue to entertain, or if the meta commentary, swear words, and forced heroics will wear thin. I hope not, because I enjoy this weird little League so far.