It is in no way hyperbole to state that the Doom Patrol tv series, airing on DC’s streaming service, has set a new level for superhero television shows.
From the old Adventures of Superman series, through the Batman show in the 60s, Wonder Woman in the 70s, and into the early seasons of Smallville, superhero shows had been very much a villain of the week genre. By the time Smallville ended, this had developed into longer arcs, entire seasons built around a single villain and their master plan, with other enemies showing up while the main story developed. The Arrowverse has been constructed around this format as well.
I have to give Titans credit for breaking that mold. The entire first season was built on one major story arc, which still has not concluded, but spent its time really developing the characters. Still, these were heroes that a larger audience would have been familiar with. It was not as much of a risk.
The Doom Patrol made their live action debut in a great episode of Titans, but even that barely scratched the surface of the severely emotionally crippled group of misfits.
Their own 15 episode series has reached new heights with storytelling, but this is only partly due to the source material, largely derived from Grant Morrison’s run on the team. But the tv series adds other twists, sometimes drawing from earlier runs of the book, sometimes putting in brand new elements of its own.
The opening credit sequence, which reminds me a bit of Westworld's, really sets the tone for the series. It's captivating, disturbing, and just so very strange.
The series begins as Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman and Crazy Jane deal with the Chief being captured by Mr Nobody. At the start, none of these characters are heroes, they are more like patients, hiding out in the Chief’s house, enjoyably named Doom Manor. Cyborg is the one real superhero, and when he gets pulled into the situation, he galvanizes the others to take action to find the man who has taken care of them for so many years.
Brendan Fraser gets to swear a blue streak as Cliff Steele, and does an amazingly impressive job with his character, given that the robot body is limited in movement, and without expression. He achieves so much through his voice, and rises to the challenge exceptionally well. I ought to mention that we do actually see Fraser in most of the episodes. There are a lot of flashback scenes for all the characters, which really helps when it comes to the two whose bodies are completely encased in the present day parts of the story.
Matt Bomer plays Larry Trainor, the airforce pilot who becomes Negative Man. In a wonderful alteration from the comics, Larry had been living as a closeted gay man, married with children, before the accident. So his challenges in dealing with an energy being inside him that he does not want parallel perfectly the hidden desires he spent years trying to control before the accident.
I am constantly blown away by April Bowlby’s performance as Rita Farr. Every precisely spoken syllable and perfectly thought out movement and gesture convey the character’s past as a movie star from the golden age of cinema. Her Elasti-Woman powers threaten to reduce her to a massive glob of goo when she is not maintaining control over herself.
I have to admit, in the first episode I was underwhelmed by Diane Guerrero’s Crazy Jane. This had little to do with her performance, and more to do with the apparent reluctance to show the physical changes that manifest as her 64 different personalities battle for dominance. But as the series went on, it no longer shied away from such visuals, and she really won me over. One personality in particular, Karen, who had not been seen in the comics, really steals the show when she manifests.
Timothy Dalton plays Niles Caulder, the Chief. He gets the least amount of screen time, and is a prisoner of Mr Nobody for most of the season. But his performance is commanding, and he manages to cast his shadow over the story even when he is not onscreen.
Joivan Wade brings a needed energy and drive to the series. The other members of the team are content to wallow in their own misery, and it’s Cyborg who consistently pushes them to be more than they believe they are. He gets some development as the series goes on, and things are not perfect for the former athlete whose body was largely destroyed and rebuilt by his domineering father. But geez I wish he would put something on other than that massively bulky track suit. I think it’s meant to convey that he has big cybernetic parts underneath. We occasionally get to see his metallic chest, but it does make me wonder if everything other than his face and arms is now artificial.
I also need to mention Alan Tudyk as Mr Nobody. He appears in most of the episodes in the first season, and functions as the narrator as well. His bizarre nature helps spread that tone throughout the series. As in the comics, Mr Nobody was a rejected member of the Brotherhood of Evil, who underwent a very strange transformation, which affected both his mind and body. Really, Tudyk makes this villain an absolute delight.
Many of the storylines will be familiar to readers of the Grant Morrison series. You can find plot elements, and even visuals, drawn from Crawling from the Wreckage, the Decreator story arc, Going Underground, and even The Nature of the Catastrophe, among others. Danny the Street, a sentient gender queer, teleporting city block, is handled really well, as is Flex Mentallo, who demonstrates a certain power that never made it to the comics. Sadly, copyright issues prevent Flex’s actual origin from making it onto the show.
This is truly ground breaking television, and a feather in the cap for everyone involved in the project. With this and Titans under its belt, the DC streaming service has set the bar very high for their upcoming series, Swamp Thing and Stargirl.