TV Reviews

Binge Report: Doom Patrol’s First Five Episodes

In the ever expanding world of streaming services, DC Universe is certainly a thing that exists. I don’t know how many subscribers it has or how many of those subscribers actually like the service’s original programming, which thus far consists of Titans, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, a new season of animated cult fave Young Justice, and a daily news show in which a panel of influencers – Kevin Smith’s daughter, for one – discuss the latest in DC comics, movies and TV.

What I do know, however, is that my Twitter feed has been blowing up with rave reviews for Doom Patrol, which recently completed its 15-episode first season, and Swamp Thing, which just debuted last Friday. So, I finally bit the bullet and signed up. I’m now five episodes into Doom Patrol, and since those five episodes form a bit of a unique story arc with an obvious endpoint I thought I’d pause my binge long enough to share my first impressions:

I like it.

Hear that, DC Daily? That’s the level of insightful analysis I bring to the table. Sign me up, please.

What do you mean a one-sentence review isn’t quite deep enough? Fine, I’ll elaborate:Doom Patrol is an adaptation of one of DC’s more off-the-beaten-path superhero teams. First introduced by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani in 1963, the team we meet in the series consists of Negative Man (Matt Bomer), Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), and Ealsti-Girl (April Bowlby). They all have their own tragic origin stories – Negative Man was a closeted test flight pilot who suffered a crash so severe he has to cover his entire face with wraps as if he’s the Invisible Man, Robotman is actually just a brain in a robot’s body since he lost his actual human form in a car accident, and Elasti-Girl was once a Hollywood actress who has struggled to literally keep herself together ever since being exposed to a chemical on a film shoot in Africa. Crazy Jane, meanwhile, has over 60 distinct personalities, all of them with their own superpower.

Plus, Cyborg is also around as the de facto team leader for some reason

They live together in a giant mansion where they hide from society, bonded together by their shared outsider status. If that didn’t already make the X-Men comparison obvious enough, they also have a wheelchair bound, possibly mad scientist figure, known simply as Chief (a sparingly used Timothy Dalton). To be fair, the Doom Patrol comic books actually predate the X-Men, and series co-creator Arnold Drake went to his grave believing Stan Lee ripped him off. However, there have now been 12 X-Men movies, and outside of a showcase episode during Titans this TV series is the first live-action appearance of the Doom Patrol. So, yeah, the competition seriously beat them to the punch here.

The first five episodes of the season are devoted to establishing the characters and their backstories, with each character getting their own showcase episode full of flashbacks. Since Cliff/Robotman is the first member of the team we meet and the focus of the pilot, he sometimes feels like the central character, but in truth it’s an ensemble series.

Even with all the flashbacks, the overall story of the first episodes is the team’s efforts to save Chief from a mysterious, third-wall-breaking villain known as Mr. Nobody (played to devilish delight by Alan Tudyk).

If you think that some of these superhero names – Mr. Nobody, Robotman, etc. – sound hopelessly antiquated, Doom Patrol is delightfully aware of that. Since Mr. Nobody’s ill-defined power set includes omniscience and a Deadpool-like ability to speak directly to the audience, he pulls double duty as the narrator. As such, he’s usually around to hang a lantern on all the tropes and clearly-plucked-from-the-60s comic book names which would otherwise make some of us want to roll our eyes.

For example, the first lines in the pilot come from Mr. Nobody, and he uses them to mock the hubris of thinking anyone needed yet another superhero show:

“Ready for a story about superheroes? Ugh. More TV superheroes. Just what the world needs. Be honest, have you hung yourself yet? Or, what if I told you this was actually a story about super zeroes, losers, achingly pathetic metahuman goose eggs? How about it? Ready to feel better about your miserable lives for the next hour or so?”

The whole “this is actually a show about a bunch of superzeroes” approach is remarkably similar to Netflix’s Umbrella Academy and CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, but neither of them have ever outright stated that ethos in such a meta way. To be honest, after 5 episodes of Doom Patrol I still prefer those other shows, but there’s a lot more season yet to go.

That doesn’t mean I dislike Doom Patrol. In fact, I’m pretty sure I said I liked it. Yep, totally did. Right up there in the article a couple of paragraphs back. However, the truth is the superhero TV game is super saturated right now. Titans tried to break through by having Robin say “fuck Batman” while curb stomping bad guys, which, wow. #TryHard. Doom Patrol, like Legends of Tomorrow, takes a more creative approach to cutting through the clutter. Its big attention-grabber is simply how wonderfully, sometimes sophomorically weird it is.

Out of context examples include:

A donkey which farts messages into the sky

A floating blue horse head which acts as an oracle and also keeps trying to sing “A Horse with No Name”

An adorable black pug capable of inadvertently bringing about the apocalypse.

And a grandstanding, power-hungry cockroach voiced to hilarious perfection by Curtis Armstrong.

That’s why one of the most used lines is some variation on “What the fuck!?!” or “Holy shit!”, most of the time by Robotoman. There’s a feel of self-congratulation to it, though, as if the show is nodding toward the audience and pleading, “Don’t you want to meme that? Come on, you know you do! We need that sweet, sweet internet traffic!”

The reason I might think that is 5 episodes is simply too early to fully care about these characters yet. The quirk for quirk’s sake is there to get attention and add some unusual flair to an increasingly tired genre, but what will keep us watching is story and character. Thus far, I’d say the show is preciously light on the former but rather promising on the latter. I’ve seen enough to get how tortured they all are, and there’s certainly early signs of the dysfunctional family they’ll eventually become. Negativeman and Elasti-Girl as the bickering parents, Robotman the cool, say-anything uncle, Crazy Jane the daughter who doesn’t care about anything, and Cyborg the son who cares too much.

My favorite character, however, is only in two episodes, a bit part played by Marc Sheppard and best described as “older John Constantine.” In just two episodes, he brings the perfect energy to the series, clearly comfortable working with showrunner Jeremy Carver given their time together on Supernatural. With him around, Doom Patrol earns its weirdness. Without him, it feels slightly affected, like a series flexing just a tad bit too hard to get attention. But, hey, it worked. It got me to watch, and now I’ll get back to my binge.

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