“A sense of humor helps around here,” a mummy-looking stranger with sunglasses tells Cliff Steele, ex-NASCAR star whose body has been replaced by a hunk of metal. They’re sitting together outside on a warm, vividly green spring day — you can actually hear birds chirping. “So, you’ll work on that.”
This is Doom Patrol, the newest live-action series on DC Universe. Based on the eccentric superhero team created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, and Bruno Premiani in 1963, the Doom Patrol are disfigured misfits and generally former assholes who initially lived together to heal but now work together for a greater good. And while Doom Patrol has the freedom of a streaming service show to have all the nudity, cussing, and violence one could want, it’s its earnestness, sentimentality, and budding bond that makes it sublime.
In its fresh exploration of staple themes of superhero stories — the belonging of outsiders, bonds forged by circumstance, and victory from perseverance — Doom Patrol is perhaps one of the best, under the radar shows of the year. It’s like The Addams Family, if the Addams resented the Justice League.
Streaming now on DC Universe and premiering new episodes weekly, Doom Patrol is a spin-off of Titans, though you don’t have to do the homework of actually watching Titans. (But do it anyway, it’s also good.) With recasting in the form of ex-Bond Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser, and no mention of the Titans, Doom Patrol has the accessibility of a prestige graphic novel — just pick it up and let the story take you where it goes.
In the series, kind but stern philanthropist Dr. Niles “Chief” Caulder (Dalton) takes care of a group of scarred individuals who live in comfortable isolation in Chief’s mansion. When a spontaneous trip to town results in its destruction, they take responsibility and try to use their gifts to save the world. And they’d be good at it, if they could stop bickering.
The Justice League, they are not. The Doom Patrol includes Robotman, (Fraser, in what is easily his comeback role), a NASCAR superstar and hedonist whose brain is transplanted into a robotic body after an accident; Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a young woman with 64 personalities and 64 superpowers; Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), an icon of the Hollywood Golden Age turned into a shapeshifting blob; Negative Man (Matt Bomer), an Air Force pilot with a secret who was scarred after his plane burned; and soon, Cyborg (Jovian Wade), a once star athlete and now solo crimefighter who can manipulate machines.
Yes, they’re freaks. And yes, they’ll find redemption! We know this story. Doom Patrol knows we know this story. A sarcastic Alan Tudyk, as narrator, always says what we’re all thinking. And that’s the show’s advantage. Though Doom Patrol pokes fun at its own familiarity, it’s never apathetic.
Sure, superheroes have been around so long that even satires, from the X-Force in Deadpool 2 to the Guardians of the Galaxy, share familiar beats. So does Doom Patrol. But unlike a lot of parodies, Doom Patrol is 100% earnest in the story it’s telling with the characters it’s got. Despite the hysterics and handful of fourth-wall breaking gags, Doom Patrol never makes a fool of itself. And yeah, it’s foul. You haven’t heard this many f-bombs since South Park’s heyday. Bless the freedom of subscription TV, because unlike Rocket, the Doom Patrol can actually bite.
Doom Patrol ultimately succeeds in its story of outsiders — or rather, outsiders who were once the definition of being insiders. In their previous lives, almost all of the Doom Patrol were image-conscious celebrities (and very white) who were taken down a million pegs because of their arrogance and privilege.
But give them five minutes, and these jokers might win you over, with style, wit, and personality that’s lacking in superhero pop culture. Their honesty towards each other, foul-mouthed as it may be, is refreshing in TV. True, it’s still very early in its run, and there are adventures yet to be had. But based on what Doom Patrol has exhibited so far, I see no reason why this weird TV family can’t become your new favorites whom you can’t wait to hang out with every week.
Somewhat ironically, what with its dozens of references to the Justice League, Doom Patrol is a harsh reminder of where the DCEU went wrong. 2017’s Justice League wasn’t a failure because it was white noise with CGI, though it was, but because I felt nothing for the bond those characters shared in that movie. The archetypical superhero team finally had a major movie, and I had a hard time believing they could even be friends, let alone save the world together.
The Avengers met in their first movie too, and by the post-credits scene in the shawarma joint you knew they all had each other’s backs. The Doom Patrol have a long way until they’re as rock solid as the Avengers, but they already have a better chance than the JL.
Big aside: If Doom Patrol sounds like Marvel’s X-Men — rich guy in a wheelchair who houses do-gooder “freaks” — the comparison is not unwarranted. The X-Men and Doom Patrol’s similarities and mere three months separation from their first appearances (Doom Patrol in June 1963, X-Men in September) have been a point of curiosity for decades. But because it takes a long time to make comics, chalk it up to crazy coincidence.
Despite delightfully cheesy trailers that did it no favors to stand out against contemporaries like Deadpool, Doom Patrol is truly one of the freshest new shows this season. It is easily in league with “prestige” superhero shows while being the perfect counter-programming. It ain’t afraid to crack wise (lighten up, Daredevil) and it’s content being straightforward (hello, Legion). Come see Brendan Fraser do the work of his career. Stay for the company.
Doom Patrol is streaming now on DC Universe. New episodes will air weekly.