[Ed. note: This review of Doom Patrol season 2 includes spoilers for season 1.]
In quality, 2019’s Doom Patrol TV series was up there with HBO’s Watchmen. Its comic-book parent debuted in 1963 as an uglier, more misanthropic version of Marvel’s X-Men — until Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s acclaimed 1980s run on the series took that idea and ran with it, taking the group of superhero misfits on a series of surreal adventures. The Doom Patrol TV series took that idea and ran even further, creating something that was weirder, more colorful, and far, far more joyously queer than audiences had seen in mass-market superhero TV or movies to date.
Unfortunately, it was only available to DC Universe subscribers. But with the second season of the show launching on both DC Universe and the higher-profile HBO Max this week, it’s worth wondering: Can Doom Patrol keep it up for a second year running?
Judging by the first three episodes of the season, the answer is, “Well … kinda.”
Let’s start with what’s missing from the second season, because that answer is simultaneously simple and slightly more complex. It’s no surprise to anyone who watched Doom Patrol season 1 that Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) wouldn’t be around this year. Nonetheless, the show suffers from his absence; not only was he one of the show’s most obviously fun elements, but without his self-aware narration and constant puncturing of the show’s pretension and tendency toward emotional melodrama, what’s left is … the show’s pretension and tendency toward emotional melodrama.
Not that those are necessarily bad things. Taking the lead from its comic-book inspiration, Doom Patrol is as interested in its characters’ internal lives as it is in more traditional stories of superpowers, fights, and how the two collide for endless spectacle. When it comes to consistently using powers and heightened abilities as a stand-in for emotional states, it’s up there with the longtime champion of that particular metaphor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
If anything, the metaphor has only been amplified in the opening episodes of the new season, with a renewed emphasis on the characters’ trauma and their emotional needs over the episodic plot demands expected from a superhero show. What appears to be the A-plot of each episode — can the group be restored to full size after last season’s cliffhanger? Can the team find the rare mineral the Chief needs? — takes a clear backseat to what’s happening inside the characters’ heads, literally in the case of Crazy Jane (Diane Guererro) and newcomer Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro).
The show’s focus on its characters’ emotional states is worthwhile — and it’s useful in differentiating Doom Patrol from the countless other superhero movies and shows out there. But for every successful zinger about shared psychological pain, it wouldn’t entirely be a bad thing if the creators paid a little more attention to the plot every now and again. Pacing and structure are recurring problems in the first three episodes of season 2 in a way that wasn’t the case in the show’s debut year, in large part because Alan Tudyk was there to provide cutting remarks and quick escapes from scenes before things went too far down the road toward navel-gazing.
There’s also the problem that, even allowing for the last-episode reveal that the Chief (Timothy Dalton) was responsible for the accidents that turned Cliff (voiced by Brendan Fraser), Rita (April Bowlby, easily the underrated highlight of the show) et al into the self-described freaks they are, each of the main characters have completed their emotional journeys already. There are subplots surrounding how Larry (Matt Bomer) feels his absence from his kids’ lives as they’ve grown old, or Rita’s desire to become a superhero, but at this stage in the season, they feel underwhelming and unnecessary, especially compared with what’s happening elsewhere at the same time.
Thankfully, it’s not all sophomore slump. As dark as the season opener “Fun Size Patrol” gets, the show’s humor pushes back to the fore in “Tyme Patrol,” the second episode, with a centerpiece that also restores some of the enjoyably camp quality that made the first year so special. Admittedly, a showdown with a time-traveling scientist permanently stuck in a roller disco in the 1970s isn’t quite the return of everyone’s favorite transgender sentient street, but Danny the Street is still around as Danny the Brick, and almost guaranteed to return before too long.
In spite of the plot imbalances, the show’s character work remains note-perfect, with showrunner Jeremy Carver and his writers managing to find new depth and connections to characters seemingly exhausted decades ago in their comic-book incarnations — there are parallels drawn between Jane and Dorothy here that feel entirely fresh — while similarly finding ways to explore and expand on comics stories that first appeared more than a quarter-century ago.
And the cast is as good as ever. Bowlby’s uptight Rita is still a favorite, but everyone involved delivers fine work and seems to be enjoying doing so. There’s a particular joy in Brendan Fraser’s increasingly frustrated exclamations as Cliff that’s almost impossible to describe, and Guerrero’s Jane remains charmingly subtle even as her storyline demands more and more from her transformations. Seeing Timothy Dalton get more chances to interact with the cast as a Chief is similarly a thrill, as is a scene where Dalton either demonstrates an unerring ability to sing poorly on purpose, or else proves that no one can make “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” sound good. (It is, admittedly, somewhat unclear which is the case.)
Doom Patrol’s second season may not be as on-point as its debut year was. But based on its first three episodes, it’s still a show that zigs where others zag, and it manages to find new spaces and new stories to explore in a genre that feels increasingly crowded. Even if it missed a step as it starts over, it’s still one of the best superhero shows on television, and well worth watching.
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