After the epic misfire of the dismally bleak, tonally one-note Titans, WarnerMedia’s super-niche streaming service, DC Universe, is back with its second offering, Doom Patrol. Rather than deliver a pack of violent, sociopathic vigilantes with daddy issues, some of whom are closer to being household names than others, this new series brings in a group of Z-list nobodies whose status as “gifted misfits” make them, at first glance anyway, like the Dollar Store X-Men. For much of the first two episodes made available to critics ahead of the show’s premiere, that’s what the series feels like, as the similarities between Doom Patrol and Marvel’s merry mutants extend to more than just their designation as groups of super-powered social pariahs — they are both led by brilliant but emotionally brittle men confined to wheelchairs, and they both make use of palatial mansions as their respective bases of operations. Yet, Doom Patrol’s emphasis on detachment and isolation has more to do with its navel-gazing fixation on specific traumatic events in each characters’ past, rather than societal intolerance toward the group’s “otherness.”
The weight the series places on the relatively micro concerns of its woebegone figures is the primary advantage Doom Patrol has over its ostensible Marvel Comics counterpart. That advantage isn’t relegated solely to surface-level comparisons across publishers, either; it is also the primary reason why Doom Patrol is more successful at launch than DC Universe’s flagship title, despite being comprised of characters many viewers have likely never heard of (before the team’s brief appearance in Titans season 1, at any rate).
Executive produced and written by Jeremy Carver (Supernatural, Being Human), Doom Patrol still has many of the same “mature” aspirations as Titans, including a pilot episode that not only features plenty of nudity, but also drops F-bombs as though its main point of reference for how people talk is Goodfellas and The Departed. And though those aspects, like Titans and the first few misfires of the ostensibly defunct DC Extended Universe, are conceivably informed by a misreading of Christopher Nolan’s for adults (but not really) approach to superheroes in his Dark Knight trilogy, they also feel more at home with this group of weepy weirdos than, say, a bloodthirsty interpretation of a hero who was previously referred to as “Boy Wonder.”
Strangely, the series’ cast boasts more recognizable names than Titans, with Brendan Fraser, Matt Bomer, Timothy Dalton, and Alan Tudyk as its ostensible leads. It’s worth noting, though, that the first two names are basically voice-acting performances, as Fraser and Bomer’s onscreen appearances are relegated to flashbacks in which NASCAR racer and Ricky Bobby doppelgänger Cliff Steele’s (Fraser) philandering ways destroy his marriage and, eventually, his body. Meanwhile, Bomer’s Neil Armstrong-like test pilot, Larry Trainor, has a close encounter while venturing into the Earth’s atmosphere that leaves him looking like H.G. Wells’ the Invisible Man. The end result is that neither Fraser nor Bomer are physically present in the roles of Robotman or Negative Man, which, on any other show might be too weird to really work, but here it just adds to the overall bizarre vibe and weird nature of the program.
Elsewhere, Dalton’s Dr. Niles Caulder (or Chief), along with April Bowlby as Elasti-Girl, and Diane Guerrero as Crazy Jane make up the rest of the primary cast (in the premiere, anyway), as the personas of the latter two only occasionally require special effects to get the character’s abilities/plight across to the audience. Tudyk, meanwhile, plays Eric Morden, or Mr. Nobody, a former henchman turned into a mostly CGI monstrosity, who is also the show’s narrator. That decision, to have the villain serve as the voice of the series, is a shrewd choice in terms of how the show intends to represent itself this early in its run. It not only makes great use of Tudyk’s talents (which were largely wasted on NBC’s failed superhero comedy Powerless), but it also demonstrates Doom Patrol’s deliberately mordant sense of humor and desire to have fun with its off-the-wall characters.
Doom Patrol’s level of success is in some ways indirectly related to lack thereof in the series that preceded it. As such, if this were the first offering from DC Universe, it might be more readily categorized as “fine but unremarkable.” Instead, with its inherent playfulness and fixation on the persistent emotional consequences of physical and emotional trauma in a world filled with unexplained phenomena and superheroes, the series comes across more like a necessary new beginning for the fledgling streaming service.
There are hints that Doom Patrol could become more than just another serviceable comic book TV show, however. The first episode is largely spent doing the heavy lifting of explaining the characters to the audience, and with that largely out of the way in the second episode, Doom Patrol commits itself to exploring the idea of how these misfits relate to one another on a level that both incorporates and moves beyond their personal trauma. In doing so, the series demonstrates a willingness to grapple with its fractured individuals’ inner demons with as much gusto as it does Tudyk’s super-powered Mr. Nobody.
Doom Patrol premieres Friday, February 15 on DC Universe.