'Doom Patrol': TV Review

Weak on stakes and drama, but strong on fun.
2/15/2019

DC Universe's second live-action original is a leap forward from 'Titans,' favoring irreverence and fun over grungy edginess.

Say what you will about DC Universe's new superhero dramedy Doom Patrol — it's a structural mess, but an improvement of epic proportions over DC Universe's Titans — nobody will accuse it of not being in on the joke, whatever the joke happens to be.

In fact, it's basically impossible to review Doom Patrol positively or negatively without insecurity that you might be falling right into the show's aggressively meta trap. This is, after all, a show that has its perpetually wry narrator say that critics compared one of its main characters to "a poor man's Deborah Kerr," followed by, "Critics? What do they know? They're gonna hate this show." So is a positive review me trying to prove my coolness to DC and creator Jeremy Carver? Is a negative review proof that I'm just as predictable and dismissible as the show believes?

I don't know. All I can say for sure is that no matter what the narrator might have expected, I don't hate Doom Patrol. Whatever that means.

Based on the island of misfit toys superhero crew created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani, Doom Patrol has been spun out of an early Titans episode and yet the first two episodes are among the most aggressively expositional I've ever seen for the genre. The two episodes sent to critics are three or four different superhero origin stories rolled into one, occasionally tip-toeing in the direction of a bigger ongoing narrative, without seeming wholly interested in anything more than being quippy, clever and, in its best moments, oddly sweet.

"Ready for a story about superheroes? More TV superheroes. Just what the world needs. Be honest. Have you hung yourself yet?" asks our narrator, who turns out to be Alan Tudyk's Eric Morden, who submits himself to scientific experiments courtesy of Nazis in 1948 Paraguay and becomes... something-or-other. His is the first origin story in the decades-spanning pilot, directed by Supergirl veteran Glen Winter, but far from the last or really the most important.

Of more emotional consequence is Brendan Fraser as Cliff Steele, a philandering race car driver who, after a 1988 accident, becomes a brain somehow integrated with a robotic body (played by Riley Shanahan, accompanied by Fraser's voice) by Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton, acting with a twinkle), a wheelchair-using genius who has turned his rural mansion into a halfway house for individuals with special gifts or curses.

Cliff is just the latest addition to Caulder's menagerie. There's Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer in voice and flashbacks), a Right Stuff-era test pilot who encountered some sort of shimmering entity in space and now wanders around looking like the Invisible Man (Matthew Zuk is in the bandages). There's Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a second-tier '50s movie star who, after a prima donna display on an African movie set, nearly drowns, encounters some shimmering entity and acquires the "ability" to deform and reform her flesh. There's Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), who sports 64 differently powerful personalities, but not the ability to necessarily control them. And, starting in the second episode, we're introduced to Victor Stone (Joivan Wade), a Detroit-area crimefighter who has, with technological enhancements, become the character known as Cyborg, already featured in the Justice League movie.

These characters are barely friends, much less a cohesive team of heroes, so when Tudyk's character, gifted with some sort of shimmery power of its own, threatens the nearby town of Cloverton, they're initially reticent to even attempt to save the day from a situation that includes a noxiously farting donkey and a sinkhole into another dimension or alternate reality or nightmare-scape or something that prompts the narrator to snark, "Bored of our pretension yet?" in what sure felt like a broadside against FX's trippy, narrative-resistant Legion.

As a story, there are many things about Doom Patrol that didn't work for me. The core end-of-the-world dramatic stakes are introduced in a way that's somewhere between sloppy and disinterested. The sarcasm and self-referentialism are often funny, but undermine the idea that I'm supposed to care about the bigger picture of the series. It's an investment in amusement and cleverness, nothing more. The series' sense of time and causality is also off. Why does it take Cliff 30 years to get a rudimentary sense of his new body? What have Rita and Larry and Jane been doing all these years? Am I supposed to wonder these things? Or care? The narrator hasn't given me his withering answer yet.

There's also an uncertainty, somewhat intentionally since these characters are still figuring themselves out, with introducing our anti-heroes' powers and their origins and their gifts, hence my reference to all the CGI-shimmering things the show has going on. I think at least one shimmer is "a being of pure energy" and one might just be an unexplained gas and one might be just a manifestation of a superpower that we're just supposed to accept as a thing that happens. It's hit-and-miss when the show over-explains and when it under-explains, as is its prerogative.

Carver's writing has a cheeky energy that's truly sold by a very, very good cast, making the most out of what are interestingly split characters. I wish Fraser had been able to play the Robotman side of Cliff's character, since it would have been a lovely extension of the physicality that made Fraser such a logical muse for James Whale's interpretation of Frankenstein's monster in Gods and Monsters. Instead, Fraser just infuses his character's voice with droll comic timing and a sense of regret and loss that grounds the series. I'm not sure Bomer makes nearly as much of his vocal work, whereas in contrast Tudyk's performance is, thus far, nearly all vocal, which isn't a bad thing since he's such a good voiceover actor.

Bowlby and Guerrero end up giving the best of the live-action performances. Bowlby nails the clipped tones of a retro movie queen, shades of Gloria Swanson, and does nice things with a woman whose entire life was based on a precariously maintained exterior that's literally slipping away from her. Bowlby's effects are also among the show's best/grossest. We've only seen maybe a half-dozen of Crazy Jane's personalities and I don't think Guerrero makes them all completely autonomous, but she definitely displays a lot of colors and her erratic control over the personalties probably makes her the perfect embodiment for the series.

Doom Patrol is full of swearing, violence and even, within the first 10 minutes, some sex and nudity. Only the latter felt comparably gratuitous in the way that Titans was constantly bashing you over the head with how gritty and mature it's trying to be. Doom Patrol is, in fact, utterly immature, and that's its proud brand. I don't know if I'd permanently watch a show built on that foundation in which I don't care about the stakes. Here, it's at least an interesting start.

Cast: April Bowlby, Diane Guerrero, Joivan Wade, Brendan Fraser, Alan Tudyk, Timothy Dalton, Matt Bomer
Creator: Jeremy Carver, from the comic by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani
Premieres: Friday (DC Universe)