After a crazy and colorful run of episodes featuring Nazi puppets and a sentient teleporting genderqueer street block, among other things, Doom Patrol season 1 came to a close on Friday. The show about a team of quasi-superheroes who have proven themselves capable of surviving anything climaxed with a confrontation with…what else? A giant cockroach.
So much happened in Doom Patrol season 1 that it’s honestly difficult to summarize. So EW caught up with showrunner Jeremy Carver and asked him how he originally conceived the show.
“When I pitched my take on it, I was adamant that this was a character-first show,” Carver says. “These were not typical superheroes to the extent that they didn’t even consider themselves a team or superheroes. This was about people who have been severely damaged, emotionally and physically, and found themselves stepping back into a world that has long shunned them, and them being just as surprised by the crazy things that ensued as we were. When we originally spoke about it, I came up with the notion that we would at first see it through the eyes of this man who was nothing but a brain in a robot, Robotman, and he would be our eyes into both the pathos and pain, but also the humor and the absolute astonishment of the world he had stepped into.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Robotman is that he’s played by two actors. Riley Shanahan acts out the physical performance in the robot suit, while Brendan Fraser provides the character’s voice and plays his human self (a racecar driver named Cliff Steele) in flashbacks or dream sequences. The same is true of Negative Man, who is portrayed physically under mummy-like bandages by Matthew Zuk while Matt Bomer provides the character’s voice and physical flashback self. Carver admits these dynamics presented a challenge, but the characters came together beautifully.
“It didn’t really hit me until a couple weeks before shooting that we had five-page scenes between Robotman and Negative Man in which neither one has a moving mouth, you can’t see their faces, and the people talking aren’t actually the people in the scene. It felt exciting, but also a little scary!” Carver says. “We took the two Robotman actors, Brendan and Riley, in a room, and they frankly studied one another. Riley studied Brendan’s movements and his acting/speech patterns, and we took something of a risk because we had Brendan perform a scratch track before each episode, but Riley performed the scene on the set. He’s listening to Brendan’s voice and reacting to that, Riley performs it, but even before I see the cut they lay in the scratch track from Brendan which we then refine with additional performance. My point being, it’s not until weeks and weeks after we shot the first episode that we got a sense of whether it actually worked, and by then we were well on to shooting other episodes. It was a moment of relief, and frankly a moment of magic, to see how Brendan and Riley and Matt and Matthew worked so well in concert with one another. It was one of those things that, had it not worked, it could’ve been a disaster! The fact that it did work was miraculous.”
Negative Man’s storyline was one of the most affecting in the show. Captain Larry Trainor was a closeted Air Force pilot in the ’50s who took part in an early test flight for the space program, and ended up encountering bizarre radiation that scarred his body and implanted a Negative Spirit made of pure energy inside his body. Negative Man, like most of the original Doom Patrol comic characters, was originally created in 1963 by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, and Bruno Premiani. The show kept that specific context and worked it into the story.
Each member of the team essentially comes from a different decade. The reason characters like Negative Man and Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby) have survived so long, as we learned in the latter half of the season, was because team leader Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) was searching for the key to immortality, and manipulated all their grotesque accidents in order to test out different methods of prolonging life.
The result was a portrayal of how America has changed across the decades — and, in the case of Negative Man’s story, specifically how attitudes toward homosexuality have transformed over that time. Larry’s struggle to understand the Negative Spirit within him mirrors his years-long journey to accept his own homosexuality, a journey that reaches its zenith with a heartbreaking music cue of Frank Ocean’s cover of “Moon River.”
“We live in a world where we can say the superhero genre is as American as the Western or the gangster movie. What I liked was the opportunity to kind of do a bank shot look at America over the decades,” Carver says. “That was especially interesting to me when you put it in the context of an Air Force pilot who is secretly gay, because through the course of the season we actually are tracking sort of what it was to be a gay man through the decades. That was very deliberate on our behalf. We were absolutely trying to make a statement as much about America as we were making a superhero story. It was an opportunity to add another layer to the show.”
Doom Patrol put a lot of stuff on screen over the course of season 1, but the season finale also left several threads dangling that Carver would be happy to pick up in a potential season 2. For one thing, the team is shrunken down to miniature size the last time we see them. For another, we’ve just met Niles’ young daughter, Dorothy Spinner – and if you’re at all familiar with the ’80s Doom Patrol comics by writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case that were such a powerful influence on season 1, you know Dorothy brings with her many story possibilities.
“We’ve introduced something of a major new character with the Chief’s daughter, and we have still simmering resentments between the team and the Chief that will have to be resolved one way or another,” Carver says. “We have over 60 years of current and Silver Age and Bronze Age Doom Patrol comics, which really have been a lifesaver and an absolute repository of some of the most wonderfully bizarre and crazy ideas, but also beautiful character moments and depictions. We went full steam into season 1 with a ‘smoke ‘em if you got ‘em’ attitude, and we intend to fully continue that in any potential season 2 to come. There’s a lot more where that came from.”
Before Doom Patrol, Carver served as showrunner on Supernatural for years. He says that show taught him very important lessons that he applied to Doom Patrol. It also introduced him to Mark Sheppard, who played Crowley on Supernatural and appeared in two episodes of Doom Patrol as alcoholic occultist Willoughby Kipling.
“Speaking specifically to a person like Mark Sheppard, I learned to know when you have a winner. I wasn’t particularly worried about Mark being known as Crowley, because he’s a fantastic actor, so why wouldn’t I have availed myself of his talents? That was one thing I learned right there,” Carver says. “But there’s a multitude of things. You can go anywhere you want to go with the show in terms of craziness, even into a person’s brain, and as long as your characters stay true to themselves, it will work. That was a lesson very much learned on Supernatural and the places we went there, that I took and applied to Doom Patrol.”
Doom Patrol season 1 is now streaming on DC Universe. Watch it here with membership.