We live in an age of superhero cinema. Movies and TV are currently overflowing with all kinds of comic-book characters, from the larger-than-life icons of Avengers: Endgame to the local legends of the CW’s Arrowverse. But even amid the crowd, Doom Patrol stands out.
Summarizing all of the things that happen in Doom Patrol season 1 (which climaxes with the season finale, “Ezekiel Patrol,” this Friday) is a daunting task, but suffice to say there were Nazi puppets, malfunctioning robots, a living genderqueer street block, a dimension inside of a donkey, and more. But you may not have heard much of that before, because Doom Patrol lives on the DC Universe streaming service (watch it here if you have a membership). Thankfully, DC recently made the entire first episode free to watch on YouTube, but things only get crazier from there. Here are some reasons why the whole season is worth checking out.
Superheroes who don’t think they’re superheroes
Towards the middle of the season, one episode ends with Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) being told to find the Doom Patrol. “What the f— is the Doom Patrol?” she asks, our first indication that the characters don’t think of themselves the way we do. We think we’re watching a superhero show, but Jane and her erstwhile housemates don’t think of themselves as conquering crusaders. They’re just lost and lonely people stumbling their way through an absurd life. Because of their unusual powers, the team often finds themselves fighting villains or trying to save lives, but they barely win most of the time. In the season finale, one character tries to rattle off the team’s win/loss record, and it is…not impressive.
Another way of saying this is that while most superhero shows feature a different villain or crisis every episode, Doom Patrol spends an entire hour in a group therapy session, as the characters wrestle with their own internal struggles and the resentments they see in each other. They’re not trying to save the world; first, they have to find themselves.
Watch Diane Guerrero balance 64 different personalities
Coming off a role on the multi-camera CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, Diane Guerrero recently told EW that she wanted something completely different for her next project. She found it on Doom Patrol playing Crazy Jane, a character with 64 distinct personalities — each of which has a different superpower. One of the biggest highlights of Doom Patrol is watching Guerrero shift seamlessly between the different characters-within-a-character.
Guerrero’s personal favorite to play is Dr. Harrison, a silver-tongued psychiatrist who can telepathically persuade people. There’s also a personality literally called Silver Tongue who can manifest her dialogue as physically sharp words that can be hurled at opponents. Some of Jane’s personalities are easy to figure out (like the teleporting Flit, who manifests whenever the team needs to get somewhere fast) while others are delightfully extreme (like Sun Daddy, a giant figure with a supernova for a head who can shoot fireballs). Each of the main characters gets a focus episode, and Jane’s introduces viewers to the intricate architecture of her mind, a subway system that the different personalities can move around in called the Underground. The deep trauma at the source of the Underground is heartbreaking even in its absurdity.
Blended physical and soulful performances
While Crazy Jane is one actor playing multiple characters, the reverse is true of Robotman and Negative Man, characters who are each played by multiple actors. Robotman and Negative Man are physically performed by Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, while Brendan Fraser provides the voice of the former and Matt Bomer the latter. Both Guerrero and showrunner Jeremy Carver attest that these dynamics presented a filmmaking challenge, but the resulting performances tied into the nature of the show. When Doom Patrol begins, racecar driver Cliff Steele (Fraser) wakes up to learn that his body was destroyed in a car crash and his brain has been transplanted into a robot body — and not a particularly good one, either. Shanahan’s performance embodies the feeling of not being at home in your physical form, while Fraser provides the caustic sarcasm (and occasionally uncontrollable rage) of a man trying to make sense of a ridiculously tragic situation.
We see a little bit more of the human side of Negative Man, a closeted Air Force pilot whose plane went down in the ‘50s, but the push-and-pull between Bomer and Zuk also resonates with the dynamic between Captain Larry Trainor and the Negative Spirit that now lives within him.
Normalcy vs. oddities
Too often, the battle between superheroes and supervillains on screen amounts to one character with powers battling another character with nearly identical powers who chooses to use them for evil. Doom Patrol gives you something different. The main characters are marginalized outcasts from the fringes of society, and their powers are often manifestations of their traumas: Crazy Jane’s powerful personalities were created as a defense mechanism to help her survive abuse, for instance, while the Negative Spirit often stands in for Negative Man’s complicated relationship with his homosexuality. On the other side, many of the show’s villains belong to a government organization called the Bureau of Normalcy, which seeks to eradicate absurdity and enforce heteronormativity in American society.
One of the Bureau’s biggest opponents (and the Doom Patrol’s most powerful ally) is Danny the Street: A living, teleporting street block that identifies as genderqueer and provides a home for lost people across the world.
Magic, madness, and sadness
At one point in the animated series Adventure Time, the scientist Betty (Lena Dunham) is trying to figure out what makes wizards tick. She identifies three core characteristics of all wizards: Magic, madness, and sadness. Doom Patrol works off a very similar formula, often shifting between crazy comic book absurdity and soulful pathos within the same scene.
Aside from the Bureau of Normalcy, the show’s primary villain is Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), an interdimensional mastermind who kidnaps team leader Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) and manipulates everyone else. Several episodes are narrated by Mr. Nobody, and he takes pleasure in riffing on the show itself and talking to directly to viewers even as he derides them as “Reddit trolls” and “Grant Morrison fans.” But as the show goes on, the emptiness at the heart of Mr. Nobody is revealed, given how much he was ignored and derided as a “nobody” in his human life, even by those closest to him. You even start to feel for him by the end.
Danny the Street is another main vector for the magic, madness, and sadness of Doom Patrol. After the team rescues a superpowered muscleman named Flex Mentallo (Devan Chandler Long) from decades-long imprisonment by the Bureau of Normalcy, Flex gets to reunite with his old friend Danny. When Danny asks after his wife Dolores (Susan Williams), Flex sadly has to confess that Dolores was killed by the Bureau. Danny goes to comfort him but doesn’t have arms to hug, so one of the wacky waving inflatable tube guys on Danny’s block embraces Flex instead. Where else can you find a multi-emotional visual like that?