[* Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own. *]
Sometimes life kicks you in the ass, and sometimes an ass sends you a message by farting (and sometimes, they’re not even mutually exclusive). For the residents of Doom Manor, what matters is how they respond to these provocations.
They aren’t a superhero team. They’re not even the Doom Patrol (as comes out in episode six, “Doom Patrol Patrol”) but the Chief (Timothy Dalton, channeling his Penny Dreadful days) invited them to live at his mansion and now he’s been kidnapped by Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk). Doom Patrol Season 1, which streamed on DC Universe, follows their attempts to get him back.
It may take them a while to get used to working together, but sharing the spotlight is an integral part of the series as a whole. Based on the characters created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani, Doom Patrol isn’t Orange is the New Black. Where Orange usually told one character’s backstory at a time, Doom Patrol tries to get all of the origin stories out of the way, by using the pilot as a crash course on their powers.
Rita Farr (April Bowlby) was an actress in the 50’s whose condition, of turning into a gluttonous blob, started during a film shoot in Africa.
Larry Trainor (played, and voiced, by Matt Bomer in the past and Matthew Zuk when he’s wrapped up in bandages) was a pilot whose plane crashed in the 60’s, bonding him to a Negative Spirit.
Cliff Steele (played, and voiced, by Brendan Fraser in the past and Riley Shanahan as a robot) was a racecar driver in the 80’s who almost died in a car accident until his brain was put inside a robot.
Jane’s story takes a little longer to unpack but we do meet a few of her 64 personas (all played by Diane Guerrero until episode seven, “Jane Patrol”) and Cyborg (Joivan Wade) joins the show in episode two. The series constantly changes up the teams, so you get to see how different people work together.
To save Niles, though, they have to leave the house, and that’s easier said than done. It’s not just that they don’t have the most practical superpowers, or the greatest knowledge of how they work, but that they’ve all experienced trauma. They’re all on a journey to self-acceptance but none of their breakthroughs feel pre-planned. One of the season’s most successful arcs is the one that Rita goes on. Especially if you’re only familiar with Gerald Way’s Doom Patrol, which Rita isn’t in much, outside of the Milk Wars, it’s possible to forget she’s Elasti-Girl and wonderful to remember.
Fraser’s vocal performance is another marvel because, despite all the comments about Larry’s bandages obstructing his attempts at comedy, Zuk is able to bring a physicality to the role. Shanahan is much more restricted as a robot, because while the costume’s beautiful and intentionally low tech, it’s stagnant, at portraying emotions, all of which have to come from Fraser.
Fraser does it, though, and the reason Doom Patrol works is it’s willing to take risks. You’ve got classic, comic book flourishes, like punching Nazis (or, in Jane’s persona, Silver Tongue’s, case, weaponizing words). You’ve got beloved Doom Patrol characters like Danny the Street and Flex Mentallo (Devan Long), and guest stars like Mark Sheppard, who seem to appear in every great show. You’ve got Cliff turning group therapy into a rallying call and Bowie’s “Lazarus” playing at the end of episode two (complete with a homage to Bowie’s music video).
Pop culture references aren’t new to comic book TV shows, but Doom Patrol still makes some great ones, and the special effects are both practical (a shimmer effect to let you know when Jane’s changed personas) and enabling, so nothing’s too off the wall for this crazy show.
Some explanations get skipped along the way, like how Larry’s radioactivity got brought under control. Tommy Snider’s Beard Hunter pushes on being too gross, and while Cliff’s violent outburst in episode three needed addressing, it’s never properly resolved. That’s how the show works, though – it eats through ideas, so nothing becomes too precious. These are characters who let themselves settle for decades. They’re not going to settle anymore, and if there’s, “no more fun place to be / than in your imagination,” than let Doom Patrol be an example to all.
Doom Patrol: The Complete First Season is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD and includes a gag reel, deleted scenes and a “Visit Georgia PSA.”