Within seconds of the beginning of DC Universe’s Doom Patrol, the show’s narrator-slash-villain Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) sneers: “More TV superheroes, just what the world needs.” He is, correctly, absolutely exhausted.
Beyond Marvel’s Netflix shows, its ABC series, its Hulu series, its upcoming Disney streaming series, Fox and FX’s X-Men shows, and DC’s Arrowverse, there are hundreds of hours of superheroes doing their thing on TV, to say nothing of their big screen, big budget counterparts. Doom Patrol, which premieres today on the DC Universe streaming platform, is itself a spinoff of Titans, another show on a streaming service that almost no one has subscribed to. What are we even doing here anymore?
But Doom Patrol is, somehow, pretty fun. The show follows the titular squad of misfit superheroes as they attempt to protect a small town. There’s Robotman (voiced by Brendan Fraser), the brain of a race car driver named Cliff Steele plopped into a bulky metal body. There’s Negative Man (voiced by Matt Bomer), a World War II-era pilot possessed by a nebulous energy being and transformed into a deeply anxious version of the Invisible Man. There’s Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), a tightly wound ’50s actress who goes gelatinous in the face of stress. And there’s Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), who has a different superpower for each of her 64 personalities.
These are all rather generic, well-trod origin stories, but Doom Patrol manages to enjoy going through the beats one more time, largely by playing them for comedy: Within the first five minutes of the show there’s a shot of Fraser as a bloated, mulleted version of Robotman in flashback, decked out in full ’80s regalia boning his nanny. (This might be enough to justify Doom Patrol’s existence on its own.) The events that give the team their powers are themselves depressing and mundane: Elastigirl falls through a boardwalk and conks her head, Robotman is caught in a car accident during a fight with his wife, Negative Man crashes in a flight. The members of the Doom Patrol are, essentially, the products of horrific workplace injuries.
That’s part of Doom Patrol’s broader willingness to go for jokes, which helps it avoid the self-seriousness of many superhero properties. (Even all of the ribbing in your average Marvel movie is still employed with the ultimate goal of myth-making.) This is, admittedly, part of the formula Doom Patrol s playing with — if there’s one creative decision more reliable than a superhero thing, it’s making fun of superheroes. But rather than going full-bore into the goofiness of something like Deadpool, Legends of Tomorrow, or even Teen Titans Go, Doom Patrol throws itself into a sort of operatic brokenness, like a version of Suicide Squad where everyone is a touch more self-aware but just as deadly serious.
Superhero stories have gotten bigger and bigger, and even the cases where they dive completely into narrative fantasy, rely on a degree of gravity: Consider every single shot of Willem Dafoe solemnly nodding in Aquaman, easily the high points of a wonderfully ridiculous movie. But without immediate access to the aura of Willem Dafoe, how is TV supposed to respond?
Doom Patrol gets around this problem primarily by utilizing the voice talents of its big stars. Fraser’s Robotman is physically played by Riley Shanahan, while Bomer’s Negative Man is played by Matthew Zuk. In the pilot, at least, Bomer and Fraser show up only for brief flashback scenes depicting the characters’ bodies before their transformations. As Dr. Niles Caulder, Timothy Dalton seems prepared to show up for a few minutes every couple of episodes before vanishing back to the sixth season of Penny Dreadful of my dreams. This decision minimizes the characters a bit, but that’s part of the joke.
In that vein, Doom Patrol’s main strength is that it recognizes a fundamental truth of superhero stories: The villain is often, if not always, more interesting than the hero. In this case, that’s Alan Tudyk as Mr. Nobody, a man given reality-warping powers by a Nazi scientist. Though we don’t know the full extent of those powers, at least one of Mr. Nobody’s abilities is sucking up attention from the other characters — Tudyk narrates Doom Patrol, and almost everything in the show happens on his terms. He’s also aware of the fictional nature of the series.
At one point, Dr. Caulder asks who he’s talking to and Tudyk responds, “Grant Morrison fans, Reddit trolls with DC subscriptions, and the three new fans who stuck around after the donkey part.” This type of winking narration has been done before, but having Alan Tudyk mock how nerdy your show is helps take the edge off.
More than that, the gags highlight what could be Doom Patrol’s biggest strength, or its greatest weakness: It feels more like a normal TV show than an attempt to do a full superhero story. None of the members of the team know how to use their powers. Instead, the Doom Patrol has, somehow, spent decades holed up in their mansion hideout. (With the possible exception of Crazy Jane, none of the team members seem to age.) where the lovable misfits in your average outcast superhero team are forced into action to save people, the pilot’s climax is entirely driven by the members of the Doom Patrol themselves; when Elasti-Woman freaks out, she goes full blob and threatens to consume the town’s main street. Their most impressive use of superpowers is just Robotman picking up a section of road to stop her.
Other than the costume designs, the Doom Patrol could be any other group of self-consciously “weird” TV characters, inhabiting a comically idyllic town that looks like a soundstage, and plays up a 1950s, classic Americana vibe, complete with oddly clean diners and drives. (We have yet to see any drive-ins, but I’m sure they exist.) That makes an odd amount of sense: The series’ TV creator Jeremy Carver spent a few years working on Supernatural, another show that uses all of its bizarre genre trappings in service of a soapy, Byzantine, and yet, improbably, grounded story. Doom Patrol probably won’t make it to 14 seasons of Winchester-level drama, but I’ll be happy if it is given enough room to create a family half as weird.
Eric Thurm is the founder, host, and overall doofus behind Drunk Education, which started as a party at his house that several people had to be tricked into attending. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club, and other publications, and the author of a book on board games forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019.