Doom Patrol‘s opening moments begin with Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), the villain and narrator, opining “More TV superheroes, just what the world needs.” with all the palpable weariness of a viewer fatigued by all the shows based on comics dotting the landscape. What makes Doom Patrol so special it thinks it can stand out from the pack and justify yet another subscription? How about featuring, in the very first episode, a flatulent donkey that’s also the doorway to another dimension?
This isn’t even remotely the last of the very weird things that happen in Doom Patrol, as things only escalate in strangeness from there. The sheer oddness present in the pages of silver age comics is embraced to a degree that something like Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy (2019) tried but ultimately failed to grasp. It feels like a deliberate middle finger to every other superhero show and is absolutely invigorating to see throw every kind of idea at the wall.
But rest assured, there is plenty of heart among the weirdness, and characters to get attached to. Fittingly, the season kicks off with the birth of Robotman, aka Cliff Steele (played in flashback and voice by Brendan Frasier, then embodied by Riley Shanahan), a NASCAR driver who had thrown his family aside before being killed in a car accident only to be resurrected as a brain in a retro-styled robot body. Now under the wing of Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), Steele tries to adjust to his new life while getting to know the rest of the team.
There’s Rita Farr (April Bowlby), an actress from the ’50s whose powers cause her to melt into a blob puddle under duress while former pilot Captain Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer doing the voice work and flashbacks while Matthew Zuk plays him as Negative Man in the present) has an alien entity living inside of him that comes out whenever it feels like it, and then there’s Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) who has sixty-four distinct personalities living inside of her all with their own unique abilities. Cliff serves as the surrogate for the viewer, the everyman who has to take in all the weirdness in stride and come to terms with his newfound existence. Brendan Fraser imbues the character with so much regret and sadness, (plus delightful, existential, anger-fueled outbursts with plenty of f-bombs) making it hard not to like Cliff.
Not the only one with issues, there’s plenty of baggage to go around as the inaugural season has each character grappling with their own individual traumas while dealing with Mr. Nobody’s inter-dimensional shenanigans, a secret government bureau that wants to enforce normalcy, and the kidnapping of Dr. Caulder who is the glue that’s (barely) holding the team together. Rita must acknowledge her role in the abusive, patriarchal Hollywood of the ’50s, Jane is hiding from her personal pain, and Larry has spent decades of regret over having to hide his homosexual relationship from the military and his family. Even Cyborg (Jovian Wade), whose conventional heroics rub the rest of the team the wrong way, has to sort out his feelings about his overbearing father.
Every character is a broken misfit, and when not dealing with Nazi puppets or talking cockroaches with biblical delusions they’re more apt to look the other way and shrink from danger than face it. Unlike other shows, there’s the acknowledgment that there’s no easy path to acceptance for any of the characters. By the end of the season, we don’t get our emotional catharsis where everyone is fixed and ready to do battle with the villains, it’s one of the few times you see it stated that dealing with trauma is about getting one tiny iota better than you were before and the season demonstrates that wonderfully.
Still, it’s not a perfect season by any stretch. The high concept weirdness is brought down by the limited budget, and the dodgy CGI is sometimes noticeable. Realism isn’t something you should be looking for in a comic book show like Doom Patrol, but it’s still jarring nonetheless. Mr. Nobody, the cackling villain whose kidnap of Dr. Caulder (affectionately dubbed “The Chief” by the team) sets off the events of the first season, never really approaches the level of true malevolence. He comes off more as a fourth-wall-breaking jester than anything else, and Crazy Jane’s multiple personality routine can come off as hammy and cliched, but Guerrero pours in so much energy it’s hard not to find it endearing.
There’s less connective tissue between the episodes or overarching grand plot at play, instead most episodes play fast and loose and it has a more oddity-of-the-week feel to it than other shows that have a big “To Be Continued” at the end of the season with lingering questions. The ploy of kidnapping The Chief is mostly there to let the characters wander around trying to figure out how the hell to be superheroes while finding out about themselves as individuals. There are far more moments of self-discovery than epic battles, and when there is a fight, the team is often horrified at the aftermath more than anything else.
Doom Patrol‘s anarchic attitude to comic book lore belie its deep emotional underpinnings. Every character dealing with their pasts in a realistic way is the real anchor of the show and to watch them progress (albeit very slowly) into somewhat functional people, hopefully turning into a real superhero team down the line, is the best reason to dive into the first season of DC’s brazenly offbeat superhero show. Budgetary restraints inside, it’s a surprisingly strong debut of some of DC’s most off-the-wall ideas to date and just might justify having even more superheroes in a TV and movie landscape that is already glutted with them.