The superhero genre is definitely overcrowded. With all the Marvel steaming spinoffs and movies, the CW superhero shows, the DC Universe and just about every streaming platform now featuring a superhero drama in some way, both hero and anti-hero, it’s hard to get settled into yet another concept involving people with super human abilities and their every day struggles. At least that’s what I thought when Doom Patrol premiered back in 2019. Great writing and production team, an intriguing mix of actors, but another hero show? How good can it be?
Now that I’ve taken the plunge and binge watched on my HBO Max subscription, it’s insanely good. So here I am again, 15 years after I found a little show called Supernatural by accident in it’s third season, wondering why haven’t I heard much about this show before now! It’s a must see.
I do have a bias though, but that was only enough to get me started watching. This show is produced by a favorite writer/producer of mine, Jeremy Carver. Even though it’s created by someone I deeply respect and have gotten to know a little over the years, I still had unfinished business with that other show preventing me from jumping into something new. Now I just feel dumb that I waited this long.
How do I even describe this show? It’s nuts, but a really good nuts. It’s wildly unpredictable but strangely easy to watch. This show has a mixture of a great cast with great chemistry, really strong writing that pulls together in a logical way the stranger elements of the Doom Patrol comics, and devotes its production to reining in that wildness to still push the bound by trauma dynamic of the main characters in a deeply emotional way. It's very funny at just the right times, with the humor contributing to the overall weirdness while making it fun. Who knew that a robot spouting the F words countless times in just the right spots creates great comedic timing? In other words, when blending everything together, it really works.
The premise is an unlikely ensemble of misfit characters who are all brought together by unfortunate, disfiguring accidents over the years by one offbeat scientist who has seen his share of some really strange adventures. They all live together in a big mansion, Doom Manor, and find themselves dragged into one insane adventure after another, being pushed to be heroes, even though most of them would rather hang out at the Manor and read or play with toy cars. They’re all broken, feel out of place, and spend more time fighting their own personal demons than each other. Coming to each other’s aid is not even a second thought. They will do it in a heartbeat, even if their own hearts are broken.
It’s because of the easy going, go with the flow mentality of this team that the show is so easy to watch. I mean, real crazy s*** happens each episode. There’s some very heavy sci-fi elements to some of the plots but they are so clever. The dialogue is crisp and fun, the plots are well integrated, and each character has an engrossing backstory that made them misfits even before their accidents. This is not traditional superhero genre.
The pilot starts off with Cliff Steele, an asshole big time NASCAR driver with a penchant for banging the babysitter played by Brendan Fraser. After a horrific crash involving his family, his brain is the only thing salvageable. His brain ends up in a robot body (the robot played by Riley Shanahan with Fraser’s voice), causing a whole realm of challenges. Given his horrific fate, he adapts pretty well, thanks to a really cool toy car set in his room and his acceptance that his old life is ruined. It helps pass the years until the whole end of the world thing challenges his complacency.
Larry Trainor, played by Matthew Bomer, is an ex-military test pilot from mid-century America that has a mysterious alien living inside him. Negative Man merged with Larry when he flew into space and he's what keeps him alive all these years. Because of Negative Man, Larry survived the fiery high speed crash from space that grossly disfigured him, leading him to wear bandages all the time (the bandaged guy is played by Matthew Zuk with Bomer’s voice). Larry is also a closeted gay man that was living a double life between his wife and kids and his male lover who was stationed with him, a real struggle for a man in the 1960's, let alone a test pilot. His inner being won’t let him forget his past mistakes, causing a lot of strife between the two. His inner being can also do some wickedly awesome things that service the plot rather well.
Rita Farr, played by April Bowlby, is a former Hollywood starlet that suffered an on set accident involving toxic gas, allowing her body to morph into an absurdly gelatinous state. Her main struggle is maintaining control over her body, as well as dealing with a dark secret from her past. She has been at Doom Manor the longest and is the one who often has to bring reason to the team.
Crazy Jane, played by Diane Guerrero, is easily the most complex character. She suffers from dissociative identity disorder. She has 64 different personalities due to a dark childhood trauma and thanks to awful experiments (the whole mad scientist thing) each now have their own superpower. That makes her wildly unpredictable because you never know which personality will show up and which power will happen when. That cuts things a bit close more than once the team. She and Cliff have formed a real bond and often are there to help each other through major predicaments.
In the second episode, Cyborg is introduced, played by Joivan Wade. He is a superhero and a creation of his scientist father after he was blown up in a lab accident that killed his mother. It’s a life he didn’t choose. He surfaces when he finds out the Chief is missing. His struggle is a contentious relationship with his father and his technology is on a suspicious path.
All of these characters are together because of the Chief, brilliantly played by Timothy Dalton. This guy has a very long backstory and the catalyst for the season is that he goes missing. There are flashbacks about him as well back in his early days at the Bureau of Oddities, not to be confused with the Bureau of Normalcy, which is a major foe to the team.
The characters chosen for the main team are just a few of the many characters that exist in the comic over the years. This revolving door of characters allow the writers freedom to tell some pretty wild stories. There’s your mad scientists, like Heinrich Von Fuchs, former superheroes, like Flex Mentallo whose mind bending abilities create a moment that most of the team will never forget, and new metahumans caused by even more freakish accidents, like Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man. There’s an actual sentient living city block running from the government named Danny the Street, a farting words donkey that serves as a portal to another dimension, and a cockroach and a rat with a complex that like to wreak havoc here and there. There’s a rogue magician that pops in for a crazy save the world adventure and a guy who can hunt heroes by absorbing beard hair (yeah, it’s pretty gross). The big bad is a guy fired from his villain job, has his meta-human enhancement go wrong, and takes the name of Mr. Nobody because he is.
The Flashbacks Work
Remember Supernatural season 8 when Jeremy Carver took over as showrunner and chose to use flashbacks to tell the story of Sam and Dean’s year when they were separated? It was meant to turn the narrative to emotional, character based stories first instead of the usual sci-fi lore. After all, how many times can two guys save the world? The result met with mixed success. Turns out, bringing that storytelling device into an already proven show half way was problematic.
Doom Patrol uses the exact same playbook, but it really works here. This, despite the heavy sci-fi, is first a character based show. Each episode features a detailed flashback about one of the main characters woven into the adventure of the week. Why does it work here? It’s easier when you’re starting from scratch and have decades of source narrative to pull from. It also helps to have a full ensemble of misfit characters rather than the focus on two brothers that have already been well fleshed out by season 8.
What’s remarkable is how these characters really sell their trauma and sense of displacement, and that’s amazing considering one is a robot with a human brain and one wears bandages all time. They are even played physically by different actors! There’s no facial acting to sell their story. Ditto for Crazy Jane, who has so many personalities surfacing it’s hard to follow what’s going on inside, but you still connect with her. That’s where dialogue and story is crucial, because of the physical limitations. But they pull it off somehow.
For example, Larry Trainor in tracking down someone ended up on Danny the Street, the sentient, gender neutral living street that can teleport and is always hosting one hell of a party. It’s home to the Dannyzens, misfit characters that don’t belong anywhere else (sounds familiar huh?). It’s a place that LGBTQ people feel welcome to live as they want to live, which was right at home for Larry, who all these years is still trying to accept who he is as a closeted homosexual. His time with Danny shifts back and forth between his flashbacks of struggling with his identity in the military. There’s a really sweet karaoke scene in the cabaret that gives a real glimpse of what Larry would be like if he got to be the person he wanted to be.
Each character has these epiphanies at one point or another. Cliff finds out his daughter survived the car crash that killed him and his wife, and tries to engage with her without telling her who he is. This leads to a rather wild encounter with a supercharged killer alligator in a Florida swamp with one very bittersweet outcome in the end. One of the most powerful episodes of the season is when Cliff travels down into the recesses of Jane’s mind thanks to Negative Man. To see what goes on inside of that mind is rather dark. It also exposes the trauma that made Jane what she is, making her story all the more tragic.
Even the Chief gets a huge Flashback backstory and talk about engrossing. No wonder he is what he is. Come the end of the season, his entire purpose is revealed and it’s not what anyone thinks.
The writing is particularly strong though because what happens in one episode does have consequences in the episodes moving forward. Those events are not forgotten. The episodes blend together very well and build off one another. That is the advantage that comes with shorter seasons, a more cohesive story can be told.
Judging by the themes, you do see where Supernatural had its influence on Carver. Mr. Nobody has a fixation on writing the hero story and controlling the narrative. He often tries to break that fourth wall and loves to mock traditional writing tropes, all with the goal of making the show better! Sound a bit like Metatron? That’s actually fun since Curtis Armstrong has a small role in this season.
The team is considered a bunch of freaks too, something that also surfaced often for the main SPN characters. In this case they are disfigured, disabled, and don’t belong in the regular world. All they have is each other. Freaks like them are hunted by the Bureau of Normalcy, which is a huge metaphor for the world not wanting those that are different to exist. They aren’t pushed to be heroes and spend most of season one flirting with the notion of being heroic to save the Chief. In this season they won’t even call themselves Doom Patrol after meeting the original team and seeing how badly they were broken.
There is also a family dynamic between the characters. They certainly act like a family, the way they care for each other and stick together no matter what. Sure, they fight too, but that is what makes watching them fun. They will do anything for each other, even if they complain a lot doing it.
There’s definitely an homage out there to over-the-top science fiction and it’s obsession with good vs. evil. There’s some moments that you know came from the wild imagination of someone who read lots of comics as a child. The evil Nazi scientist Heinrich Von Fuchs who tells his backstory via a 3 hour puppet show was quite out there, as was the one enthusiastic audience member played by the fabulous Alec Mapa. But nothing was more bizarre than some giant rat on cockroach action that was purely setup as a way for our heroes to escape a perilous situation. It’s really deranged setup, but it works!
Guest Stars From Supernatural Past
You’ll notice a few Supernatural alum in this one! In the first scene, Julian Richings makes his appearance as a mad Nazi scientist Heinrich Von Fuchs, who runs Fuchtopia in Paraguay. He meets a client played by Alan Tudyk. A horrific accident paves the way for Tudyk to become the big bad for season one, Mr. Nobody.
My favorite guest star of season one was Mark Sheppard, playing the role of Willoughby Kipling, a chaos magician. He’s brash, foul-mouthed and knows his black magic. The writers knew the kind of actor he was and gave him pure gold to work with. He appears in two episodes in season one with the goal to force the reluctant heroes at Doom Manor to circumvent the end of the world. There’s a classic rock bent to his spells, which is kind of a nice shoutout to his former show.
Julie McNiven also has a recurring appearance, playing Larry Trainor’s beleaguered wife. Her appearances are limited to the flashbacks, but she nails what it’s like to raise a family of an often absent test pilot whose affections belong to another.
Curtis Armstrong has one very eccentric role, as the voice of Ezekiel the Cockroach, who plots evil but has an unwitting part in saving the Doom Patrol in the season finale, aka the previously mentioned bizarre rat and cockroach adventure.
Even Ed Asner makes an appearance! Fine, he never made it to Supernatural but it was still really cool to see such a legend in TV here. He plays a very old man in a nursing home that has the ear of poor Rita looking for someone to share her guilt. That is a pretty cool cameo!
There are a number of former Supernatural writers and directors too involved in this show. Besides Jeremy Carver, there is Stefan Pleszczynski (director), Rachel Talalay (director), Steve Yockey (writer) and Robert Berens (writer and consulting producer).
Doom Patrol even has a cool opening theme song and credits sequence, something that is often skipped in today’s shows. That again makes it very unique, and a must see. The first season is 15 episodes and easy to binge watch. I’ve already seen a few episodes from season two and I’m still deeply engaged. This show flows well, is able to unfold the complex layers with these characters, and it is written with tons of humor and heart. So, if you have HBO Max, or think you can pay for a subscription for a month, I highly recommend.