DC’s most screwed up set-of heroes came together in Doom Patrol‘s debut season to critical acclaim, despite being criminally under-watched on the (confusing) DC Universe streaming service. Now, the series is sliding onto HBO Max, which suggests a wider audience under normal conditions and seems optimal now, given that nerds are currently starved for new superhero content at the movies. All of that works in the show’s favor, which should resonate with its unconventional take on superpowered outcasts, and last year, not much felt off limits in terms of strangeness for this show. A giant, talking cockroach that doubles as a doomsday prophet? Sure. A living, breathing, and sentient street named Danny who identifies as genderqueer? Absolutely. And don’t forget about Karen, the most dangerous Crazy Jane sub-personality of all.
If you haven’t caught the first season yet, and you are intrigued, I will endorse that batch of episodes in the strongest-yet-sketchiest way I can imagine in this era of bloated streaming seasons and run times: Doom Patrol‘s debut was so methodically paced, well-written, convincingly-acted, and special-effected that not even the daunting cumulative airtime — 15 episodes, all running nearly an hour apiece — could detract from its quality.
Those are strong words, I realize. It’s also quite something to see a fourth-wall-breaking effort by a post-Deadpool comic-book property that doesn’t feel obnoxious, but Doom Patrol does it. The challenge, then, is for the series to achieve the standard it already set. HBO Max has whittled down the second season to nine episodes, three of which were released to critics. The good news is that this series’ complicated, traumatized souls are still as endearing as they were during their debut.
The slightly worse news is that the second season launches a bit depressingly and less joy-ride-y. That’s actually to be expected, given where the first season finale placed the team: Cliff Steele/Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Larry Trainor/Negative Man (Matt Bomer), Rita Farr/Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Joivan Wade), and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) all learned that mad doctor Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) was responsible for the horrible tragedies (and subsequent powers) that befell them. So, they’re disenchanted while struggling to cope, and seeing them wallow in their own self-pity (and this continues even outside of the Niles-betrayal context) is an experience.
Still, a lot of this disillusion is exorcised through humor. In particular, Brendan Fraser is having an absolute ball while voicing former race-car driver Cliff, who (in mini-form, since the group is shrunken to toy size in the season premiere) works out his rage by dropping enough f-bombs to rival Sam Jackson and beating the hell out of rats. His failingly macho struggles come to a surprisingly poignant place, though, which illustrates the careful, almost precarious balance achieved by the writers. Doom Patrol‘s never afraid to get grubby, and whether its tactics are banal or nuanced, it pushes against political correctness but still strives to land on the right side of history on social issues. That’s the case whether we’re talking about Matt Bomer’s multi-layered portrayal of a gay superhero or Diane Guerrero’s 64-shaded embodiment of mental illness and recovery.
Amid all of the nuance, the show still remembers that comic-book fans want action and entertainment. So, we get some time-travel and, more importantly, some honest-to-god roller skating, and the show pulls out the stops with its adaptation of comic villains (including Red Jack, who fancies himself to be a cross between Jack the Ripper and God) that swirl through the newest episodes. There’s also a reckoning of sorts in the Underground when all of Jane’s personalities decide that a confrontation is in order. Oh yes, we do receive a dose of Karen here.
As always, there’s a lot going on with Doom Patrol, which has arguably established itself as the most complex and best superhero series on TV right now (other than Amazon’s The Boys, but that’s more about the dismantling of superhero stories). Here, HBO Max got selective with the DC Universe entries, it seems, and it picked the right one to illuminate. Doom Patrol also accomplishes much of what the current DC movie stable fails to do: feeling fresh and inventive while not shying away from darkness and shadows. This show does so without going “gritty,” and it does not forget that levity is also of the utmost importance.
As this series progresses, those immortal words from Cliff Steele — “I’m not a man. I used to be. I was a different person then. A lesser person” — keep growing more true for these oddball characters. They’re all spawning dimensions, which is literal with Jane, but even Rita’s picking up shades while moving beyond “faded screen siren” and toward getting down to hero-ing. Her developing friendships with Larry and Cyclops bring everything back to these characters finding their way together, and just maybe, becoming a family. We also get to meet the newest group member, Niles’ daughter, Dorothy (Abigail Shapiro), who’s tossing out Wizard Of Oz flavor that isn’t easy to wrap one’s arms around yet. Surely, there’s groundwork being laid here for what materializes later, before the show peeks behind that curtain. In the meantime, it’s time to hop back on the Doom Patrol bus for more of the same raucous ride.
‘Doom Patrol’s second season will drop three episodes on HBO Max on June 25 (with subsequent episodes streaming on a weekly basis).