Doom Patrol reimagines one of DC’s most beloved groups of superheroes: Robotman aka Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), Negative Man aka Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), Elasti-Woman aka Rita Farr (April Bowlby) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), led by modern-day mad scientist Niles Caulder aka the Chief (Timothy Dalton). Each member of the Doom Patrol suffered a horrible accident that gave them superhuman abilities, but also left them scarred and disfigured. Traumatized and downtrodden, the team found their purpose through the Chief, coming together to investigate the weirdest phenomena in existence. Following the mysterious disappearance of the Chief, these reluctant heroes will find themselves in a place they never expected to be, called to action by none other than Cyborg (Joivan Wade), who comes to them with a mission hard to refuse. Part support group, part superhero team, the Doom Patrol is a band of superpowered freaks who fight for a world that wants nothing to do with them.
Doom Patrol is finally to be available for streaming in the UK, via the Amazon Prime sub-subscription service StarzPlay. So, after raving so hard about The Pilot at launch on DCUniverse (and then watching it all again on Blu-Ray), it was time to do the season review.
To go over the basics of it all: Cliff Steele is an arsehole race car driver who dies in a car crash, then arsehole Dr Niles Chandler puts his brain in a robot body that just about works. He then gets introduced to the violent, clinically insane, and hyper-powerful arsehole Crazy Jane, the aloof and snooty ex-filmstar now malleable blob arsehole Rita Farr, and the sulky, standoffish, and hideously disfigured arsehole Larry Trainor. And I say that with affection, because they have all lived incredibly shitty lives and got thrown together by… well, you’ll find out. Oh, and Cyborg (normally a member of Team Titans and making his first ever Doom Patrol appearance on TV) turns up and is an arsehole, because he’s having a shitty life and is about 21.
After being arseholes to each other, due to their shitty situations, the singularly biggest arsehole of the series turns up: a near godlike mega-arsehole called Mr Nobody. He’s also the narrator of the show, adding in what starts as a load of postmodern wall-breaking and then ends with “oh… oh my…”. Over the course of 15 episodes the “team”/hyper-dysfunctional-10-legged-argument try to track down the chief, fight Mr Nobody, find out what the hell is happening to them/has happened to them, and goes toe to toe with a bunch of villains that include the Anti-God, psychic rapists, revenge driven squirrels, Nazis in Brazil, and The Bureau of Normalcy that are almost (but not quite) the biggest arseholes of them all.
Over the course of all this, the Patrol gradually reduce their arseholeness and become people you can actually like. This mostly happens through them coming to terms with the shitty cards they got dealt and just trying to be better people who do the right thing. Yeah, the adventures they get up to are cool, and often very strange, but it’s the interpersonal dynamics, the personal developments, and the parts of their lives that just make you go “well, I don’t think I could handle that awfulness” that really make you stay around.
Because as well as chewing through a bunch of larger than life bad guys, it also takes on a number of down to earth topics. Child abuse, institutional malpractice, LGBTQ+ repression, sexual assault, gaslighting, the fear of losing a loved one, workplace harassment and the cost of fame all get looked at in sympathetic, and believable, manners. I’ve not seen real issues dealt with this well since Black Lightning, as these situations (and the characters overcoming them) are baked-in elements of their personalities rather than problems of the week.
Not that this is a misery fest. For all the shit the Patrol have to swim through, there are moments of honest and open happiness. They are hard fought for, and often hard accepted, but they are there. Again, that makes it more real. Matt Bomer’s evolution of Larry Trainor is probably the best example of this, as a closeted gay man comes to terms with there being nothing wrong with him or how he reacted to a world that thought he was a freak before he got possessed by a Negative Spirit. That his cover of People Like Us is to die for, both as a performance and a dramatic moment, is just the cherry on the cake.
All this is helped by the show keeping a brisk pace and maintaining quality throughout. There is no set format or beat-sheet, each episode has its own beats and themes, but it all feels like parts of a whole. Even the more stop-start sections eventually make sense, the syncopation coming through as crafted intention rather than misshape. It also looks fantastic and is probably the most “real” looking of the current DC crop, which is impressive on a TV budget and with such out-there characters. The show deals with a lot of very unreal situations, but it has a contemporary simplicity (and often grubbyness) to it’s design that keeps things firmly grounded.
On top of this, the performances of the main cast are all just excellent and everyone hits things just right. If I had to play favourites, I would say April Bowlby as Rita Farr just manages to slink into “Performance of the Series” by having some truly tour-de-force moments that mix real feelings with Golden Era cinema hammery. She takes on the fluidity of her character and uses that to build allegorical pathos and charm. If you ask me tomorrow, I may change my mind to Diane Guerrero’s Crazy Jane, as she plays 15+ personalities in one body and makes each of them unique. There isn’t really a bad performance either, Joivan Wade’s Cyborg is probably the most (to me) annoying character but that’s how it is intended to be. Timothy Dalton’s Chief could be at the top of the arsehole rankings, but he manages to give the role enough humanity for you to see the reasons behind his decisions.
The main plot-arc for the show is, fairly conventional: Mr Nobody kidnaps The Chief in episode one to enact revenge on him for reasons the Patrol slowly uncover. The first half of the season is the team trying to find and rescue the person who brought them together whilst we discover more about them as individuals, and a brief side-story about them defeating the Anti-God. The second portion presents the hidden antagonists from The Chief’s past, The Bureau of Normalcy, as well as allies Flex Mentallo and Danny The Street, and sees the progression of the main characters to some catharsis and acceptance of their past. Technically all but two of the episodes are “one and done”, however there is so much foreshadowing and interconnection that they work best as a single flowing narrative. There is also, for the core team, sufficient focus spread between each character that it feels like a true ensemble and your favourite will get a focus episode to rave about.
As a life-long Doom Patrol fan, I can’t really say how well it will sit with those not versed in the teams’ lore. I think it’s taken a very complex – and often surrealist – set of stories and made something both approachable and interesting to new viewers. Cliffe Steele is the start point of the show and operates as an excellent “everyman” for the audience to explore the setting with. Also having Bredon Frasier yell “what the fuck?” with conviction and belief lets the audience feel fine about not knowing exactly what is going on and just get stuck into the moment. And when the moments get incredibly violent, it’s also about having him standing there and losing his mind because, holy-crap, he just killed a lot of actual people!?
For the old hands it’s something pretty special as well: an amalgamation of various parts from almost all the different phases of the Doom Patrol stories, turned into something very much its own. The plots borrow heavily from the Grant Morrison run on the comic, but not slavishly and with a willingness to run with new ideas. There is no worry about contradicting established lore or rules, as it’s clearly signposted as a different (but comfortably thematically similar) universe for the DC “Hard Luck Heroes” to be repeatedly gut-punched in.
So, does all that mean it’s worth watching on StarzPlay? Now that is a tough question. StarzPlay is £4.99 a month (on top of your Amazon Prime subscription), but it’s currently doing a week’s free trial and you could probably binge the series in that time. Or you can get the BluRay from Amazon at around £15 with exactly the same content. Given that it’s sister show, Titans, ended up on Netflix in the UK, that HBO has the streaming rights for in the States, and that it did well enough to get a second series in production, it’s also a tough question as to how it ended up on such a backwater streaming service at all.
Superheroes are hot right now, and this is probably the most unique approach to the genre out there. This isn’t a deconstruction of tropes (Umbrella Academy) or a gritty retelling of stories you already know (Titans, almost everything else DC are pumping out); this is taking things to the next level by seeing what can be done with the format and concepts. Like the series from it’s first comic onward, Doom Patrol is presenting superheroes as broken people and using it to show us ourselves. It’s taking risks and giving representation, finding hope in the darkness, and offering something new for you to enjoy and feel warmed by.