It was about the time I saw Brendan Fraser‘s bare ass-cheeks dutifully pumping away five minutes into the pilot that I realized Doom Patrol might be divisive. The third original series after Titans and Young Justice: Outsiders for the still-young DC Universe streaming service, Doom Patrol is a weird trip down the rabbit hole, a surreal, darkly comic ode to misfits and outcasts that occasionally comes off like it’s trying too hard to be strange—including a Doors needle drop so obvious I audibly groaned—but in an endearing way. For all its oddities and awkwardness, Doom Patrol is a show about a fucked up family finding each other, and it works really well because all these characters are so unique, each wonderfully brought to life by the cast and creative choices. “Critics, what do they know? They’re gonna hate this show,” Alan Tudyk says in the first episode as Doom Patrol‘s main villain/self-aware narrator Mr. Nobody. For the first time in the history of talking about comic books on the internet, Nobody is wrong.
Based on characters created by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney with artist Bruno Premiani, Doom Patrol is essentially the origin story of DC’s least socially acceptable superhero team. Cliff Steele (Fraser), a.k.a Robotman, a NASCAR driver whose body was destroyed in a car accident, but his brain was implanted into a welded-together frame by team leader/mad scientist Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton). Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a.k.a. Elasti-Woman, a Golden Age Hollywood actress whose brush with an unusual substance in Africa left her body prone to melting into a Blob-like monstrosity under stress. Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), a.k.a Negative Man, a pilot whose exposure to deep space radiation left his skin horrifically scarred (he bandages up like Universal’s Invisible Man) and a separate entity sharing his body. They’re eventually joined by Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a woman with 64 different personalities—eat that, McAvoy—each with a separate superpower.
It’s a set-up that makes Doom Patrol a difficult show to talk about right now. In terms of tone, performances, and overall enjoyment, Doom Patrol is a blast. But as a single, isolated piece of story, the pilot—the only chapter not under embargo*—can be a front-loaded chore to get through. It’s less a full episode than it is a series of colorful vignettes, like the first act of Suicide Squad, in which writer Jeremy Carver (Supernatural) works overtime to show us the backstories of these characters. Again, it’s often a ton of fun, but for three-quarters of the episode the crew is in the modern-day timeline just sitting around Doom Manor. In fact, a time-jump halfway through suggests the team sat around the house for 13 years, and they’re all so fundamentally unchanged on the other side you’re left wondering why the show includes such a significant time-jump at all.
Luckily, for the most part, it’s a cast you don’t entirely mind sitting around with. Bomer and Fraser both drew the lucky sticks; outside of flashbacks, both Robotman and Negative Man are physically embodied by Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuck, respectively, with Fraser and Bomer providing the voices. Bomer isn’t tasked with much early on outside of deep sighing—and I’m relatively sure hiring Matt Bomer and then not showing his face is, in some states, an actual crime—but Doom Patrol is actually a pretty impressive voice-acting turn from Fraser. The once hearty action star has entered a much-welcomed second stage of his career through projects like The Affair and Trust that ask him to be professionally weary. That’s a compliment, and it works well for Robotman, a machine who still carries the worst memories of a human life lived poorly. (Cliff’s wife and daughter died in the accident that took his body.) Fraser is able to inject a lot of unspoken regret into a line directed at Robotman’s creator: “I can’t feel pain. That’s mighty shitty of you, doc.”
As the two characters with actual faces, occasionally deformed as they are, both Bowlby and Guerrero are stellar as Elasti-Woman and Crazy Jane. Bowlby channels the Gardners, Hepburns, and Kellys of the world into a performance that easily could have been a caricature of old-timey talk if the actress didn’t cut it with so many flashes of humanity. In becoming the melty Elasti-Woman, Rita Farr has become what she once despised, a “freak”—in the pilot, Rita gets a focus puller fired from set because his amputated arm is an “eye-sore”—and Bowlby plays that contradiction with a steely resolve that breaks whenever someone isn’t looking directly at her.
Guerrero is tasked with a…different sort of burden. As the show’s go-to cuh-raaaazy character, Jane is saddled with some truly terrible bits of dialogue. Guerrero leans all the way into lines like “which one of you motherfuckers wants me to jerk a knot in your ass?” and devours them like the cheesy meal they are. It’s a big, hit-or-miss performance played to the people in the cheap seats, but with the overall over-the-top-ness of this show you’re in for a penny, in for a pound at that point.
And when the team finally gets out of the house and explores the world, things do go from pleasantly weird to capital-goddamn-w Weird in a hurry. Rita devolves into her true form, a nauseating bit of CGI that looks Jabba the Hutt mated with a ball of Silly Putty. An entire town is sucked into a swirling vortex. A mysterious donkey shows up to literally fart an ominous message into the sky.
Fortunately, once the show officially goes off the rails—and starts telling an actual story—Tudyk’s Mr. Nobody arrives. The Firefly alum is nothing short of a nefarious delight in the villain role; not only is Nobody’s character design the most impressive on a show filled with impressive character designs, but Tudyk gives the show focus, an appropriately insane Big Bad for an insane show. (Without giving a single detail away, Nobody has a line in episode 2 that’s so good I genuinely can not wait for the world to experience it. We’ll meet back here to discuss.)
Overall, Doom Patrol is assuredly not going to be for everyone. (In the first few hours after Warner Bros. made screeners available, I had a colleague reach out to recommend it immediately and another that noped the hell out forever.) But if you can get behind the type of comic book storytelling that swings wildly for the fences in that superhumanly macabre way only comic book storytelling can, Doom Patrol is both your jelly and your jam. If every streaming service needs a breakout original to give it a personality, DC Universe might have found one. And folks, it’s fucking strange. Ah, what the heck, play us out Jim.
Doom Patrol premieres Friday, February 15 on DC Universe.
*Cyborg (Joivan Wade), a pretty integral character, doesn’t appear until episode 2