In the summer of 1963 — several months before Marvel’s iconic Uncanny X-Men first appeared in print — DC unleashed the Doom Patrol in a showcase comic book called My Greatest Adventure. Both the Doom Patrol and the X-Men to come were teams of oddballs, led by wheelchair-riding super geniuses. These are circumstances that the charitable will call cross-pollination and the harsh will call plagiarism.
Grant Morrison, one of the best minds in comics, wrote Doom Patrol from 1989-1993. By the time he’d left, the comic book had gone full Dadaist. At that point, the difference between the X-Men and the Doom Patrol was like the difference between a posh prep-school and a sanitarium.
Rather than eager mutants learning to harness and harmonize their strengths, the Doom Patrol were out-of-sorts rejects. In the bright TV version of Doom Patrol, which debuted in February 2019 on the DC Universe streaming channel, the characters were termed “four couch potatoes” by the sometimes invisible, interdimensional super-villain and narrator Mr. Nobody. (The evil Nobody is voiced by Alan Tudyk, “Wash” from Firefly.) This sadistic entity kidnapped their paraplegic Chief, Niles Caulder (a very robust Timothy Dalton); leaving these characters on a quest to find him.
The second season, which kicked off last week, adds a new member, the result of Caulder’s tryst with a female shaman in the Arctic more than a century ago. The bearded, ape-like Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro) is a perpetual 11-year-old capable of conjuring monsters without even trying.
The regulars include Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robotman (a well-deserved comeback for Brendan Fraser). He’s a profane living brain in a janky robot body of whining servos and creaking joints — his forehead studded with thick bolts like an industrial boiler. This metal afterlife is a kind of purgatory for Cliff’s bad behavior when he was on the race circuit: he was a nanny-banger who accidentally killed his wife in a car crash.
Rita Farr (April Bowlby) is subject to literal meltdowns. During the 1950s, while on African location, she caught a rare jungle disease. It leaves the flesh dripping off her skull and with limbs as shapeless as the Elephant Man’s legs. The second season seems built to give Rita more room — to turn her from an annoyed Eeyorish spectator into the flexible Elastigirl she will perhaps become. The angry, proactive Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) probably has more fans, but Bowlby deserves praise for the accuracy with which she recreates the crisp diction and paper-thin poise of a mid-century film starlet. (Asked to do something gross for the team, Rita huffs, “I am a Golden Globe nominee”.)
Larry Trainor, played by a combo of Matthew Zuk and voice actor Matt Bomer, is a would-be Mercury astronaut from the 1961 who had the then-dark secret of homosexuality. As he said, he felt like a monster even before he became one. He’s bandaged like the Invisible Man, after being burnt beyond recognition in an X-15 crash. And he’s literally and figuratively two-spirited, as the Native American expression goes: Trainor hosts a sometimes symbiotic alien creature of pure energy, a man-shaped bundle of lightning.
Three of the four main members did bad, bad things and were punished. Guerrero’s Crazy Jane is the one who is there because bad things were done to her. She’s schizophrenic to the power of 6, with 64 separate personalities, ranging from lisping little girl to giantess with a flaming head. It’s a rare actress who can nail down even one role, let alone three dozen of them. Sometimes I’m not sure Guerrero is that actress.
One facet of Crazy Jane is young “Penny Farthing.” The Cockney urchin voice, as Bart Simpson has repeatedly demonstrated, is tough for even the wittiest mimic. Guerrero had a field day in season one, turning into “Karen” (timely!) a blonde figment from some 1990s rom com, besotted by what was described as “This Nora Ephron bullshit.” But when she’s in her pissed off normal form, the link between Jane and Eliza Dushku’s amoral Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is unignorable. And a Venn Diagram containing Buffy fans and Doom Patrol aficionados ought to be an almost perfect circle.
Needing a straw to stir the drink, show runner Jeremy Carver added one of the best iterations of Cyborg (Joivan Wade), a track-suited man-machine hero who appears in the DC Universe and in the Justice League. It’s important that somebody in this mob knows how to do dashing comic book stuff. That’s where Cyborg comes in, pointing the digital projector in his finger to throw an image on the floor: “There are 37 dimensions in the known universe. As you can see, I’ve mapped them…”
Cyborg has his own sorrows — he’s helicopter-parented by the father who made a cybernetic being out of him after he was dismembered by an explosion. (This intergenerational strife mirrors the problem of Cliff the Robotman. His clumsy yet heartfelt efforts to be fatherly to Jane are met with everything from sarcasm to room-shattering explosions.) Cyborg shows his bravery in the series’ most touching episode, the debut of Danny the Street. Danny is a sentient avenue who provides a haven for sexual outlaws and other rejects. Danny is what Castro Street was, once upon a time. Unlike a real street, Danny can teleport, to flee from the authorities and the landlords.
Doom Patrol cruises around the 20th century, decade-hopping among incidents of banned history, much like The Watchmen. As in the comics, the show is marinated in a bath of old records and comic books. Just one of Crazy Jane’s 64 varieties is “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” a reference to The Incredible String Band’s 1968 album. Robotman slaughters a squad of Paraguayan Nazi puppet-people to the lilting strains of the Dead Kennedy’s 1981 “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” A DK T-shirt is just one of Cliff’s ever-rotating collection of punk rock logoed tops. Beatles lyrics and Janis Joplin’s dental floss are material for a protective spell woven by Willoughby Kipling (Mark Sheppard) a half-drunk visiting sorcerer who looks like Stanley Kubrick.
These disgruntled shut-ins of the Doom Patrol make for perfect viewing during a year of disease and disappointment. They’re beguiling in their endless weirdness, as they mull over the show’s main question of whether anything good can be brought out of trauma.
New episodes of Doom Patrol stream Thursdays on the DC Universe video-on-demand service. Episode four of season two debuts today, July 2.