The last thing any of us want to do is sign up for yet another in the seemingly endless proliferation of subscription streaming services. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Shudder, Crackle, Vue, Tribeca Shortlist—the list quickly grows unwieldy, and massively expensive. Most of us stick to a few favorites, chosen mainly because we’re fans of one or more of the shows or films they possess. Which is why it pains me to report that you may have to add another service to your monthly bill, at least if you’re a fan of the superhero genre: DC Universe has debuted Doom Patrol, and the show is absurdly watchable. Bananas, yes, but enjoyably bananas.
“More TV superheroes, just what the world needs. Have you hung yourself yet?” the unseen narrator (Alan Tudyk) sneers in the opening seconds of this unabashedly nihilistic and meta blend of superhero dramatics and absurdist comedy. Like a combination of AMC’s equally gonzo Preacher and the fourth-wall-breaking snark of Deadpool, the series delights in taking the air out of puffed-up comic book conventions even as it simultaneously delivers them. There are multiple moments in the first episode alone that threaten to sink the show into mean-spirited bile, only to instantly pivot into goofball antics that rescue it from succumbing to the nastiness hovering around the edges.
Thank nearly 60 years of comics lore for the mashup of tones. Originally launched as a superhero title in the early ’60s, Doom Patrol has been rebooted multiple times over the ensuing decades, though it reached its creative apex with Grant Morrison’s run, and his influence is keenly felt in this adaptation of the material. The setup is simple, even if the show’s running color commentary by the narrator (quickly revealed to be a villain called Mr. Nobody, also Tudyk) deconstructs it as it progresses: Following a car crash that shatters his body, race-car driver Cliff Steele wakes up in the palatial manor of Dr. Niles Caulder (a.k.a. The Chief, played by Timothy Dalton), who has transplanted Cliff’s brain into a stilted metallic body, leaving the world to think the hotshot speedster has died. Cliff’s fellow outcasts at the residence include the wholly bandaged Larry Trainor (Matthew Zuk’s body, but Matt Bomer in flashbacks and voice), a former test pilot who has a separate being of pure energy living in his body; Rita Farr, a Hollywood starlet from the ’50s who hid from the world after an unknown substance transformed her flesh into a sagging, mutated mass that can expand or contract; and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a woman with 64 personalities, each with their own power.
This motley assemblage of “four lovable losers,” as Mr. Nobody dubs them, want nothing more than to be left alone, but after an unplanned trip into the nearby town alerts the world to their presence, enemies of Dr. Caulder are soon descending upon their hideaway, intent on causing pain. Luckily, Detroit-based hero Cyborg (Joivan Wade) also arrives on the scene, ready to help out his old friend the Chief. Although it’s technically a spinoff from DC Universe’s first original series, the dour and unfun Titans, there’s no prior knowledge required to enjoy this series. In fact, not knowing anything about it might be preferable, as the continuous inventive character reveals and agreeably bonkers plotting constitute a great deal of the fun.
Stylistically, Doom Patrol is a welcome combination of old-school effects and a barrage of baroque CGI weirdness that would’ve been hard to pull off even a few years earlier. The characters of Robotman (the nom de hero for Steele’s metal man) and Cyborg are pleasingly retro, with Steele a hulking, slow-moving Frankenstein of a being, making Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man look downright lithe in comparison. Cyborg’s mechanical implants are largely practical as well, with only Rita’s powers necessitating digital effects for every use. But what use: Without giving anything away, there’s a moment in the pilot when her face suddenly appears, and it’s somehow both a laugh-out-loud gag and a genuinely sad character beat.
But the abrupt toggling between postmodern snark, stiffly earnest emotional arcs, and ridiculous plot twists are what make the series stand out in an increasingly crowded TV landscape for the genre. Anyone can have people with super-strength pummeling one another. How many shows have the villain’s grand plan involve a farting donkey that can consume a small town? Such lowbrow silliness masks some fairly smart storytelling from showrunner Jeremy Carver, a Supernatural veteran whose years on the CW series presumably helped him conquer this blend of over-the-top conceits and very human heroism. And the performances are across-the-board solid, with Guerrero the standout, her Crazy Jane a blitzkrieg of distinct personas that don’t quite match the laser precision of James McAvoy in Glass as of yet, but she’s well on her way.
From slapstick montages to moments of quiet nobility that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Superman film, Doom Patrol gleefully jumps into every trope and tack, a refreshing if occasionally jarring tale of misfits learning to rely on one another and re-enter a world they fear has no place for them any longer. It can get too cute by half (“Ugh, critics—they’re gonna hate this show,” Nobody muses at one point), but it’s heartening to see a superhero series take big, messy swings for the fences. It’s not elegant or subtle, but it’s a pleasure to see unfold, farting magical donkeys and all.