Doom Patrol, season one episode one "Pilot"
Starring Brendan Fraser, Matthew Bomer, April Bowlby, Diane Guerrero, Timothy Dalton, and Alan Tudyk
Directed by Glen Winter
Written by Jeremy Carver
Airing on DC Universe
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
The comparisons between DC Universe’s Doom Patrol and Netflix’s Umbrella Academy would have been unavoidable, even if the two shows hadn’t come out on the same day. Both feature teams of profoundly dysfunctional and damaged superhumans. Both feature unlikely families forged against the unlikely backdrop of an untrustworthy eccentric. And both properties have been defined by Gerard Way and his avant-garde sensibilities.
But whereas Umbrella Academy often smooths away comic book eccentricities for a more grounded and accessible take, Doom Patrol leans hard into its off-kilter source material - and given that stance, it’s refreshing to see how often this pilot sticks the landing. While the obligatory superhero action slows things down a bit, Doom Patrol is at its best when it focuses on its strange characters - with some of its least expressive characters stealing the show at every turn.
A race car driver. A test pilot. A 1950s movie star. There’s another world where an executive might have shied away from the crazy, dissonant parts of Doom Patrol, but this pilot embraces them, giving this series a texture and an edge that has eluded other, more straight-laced superhero fare. It’s tragic in the same way that the original X-Men films used mutant powers as LGBT allegory, only taken to the extreme - these are all people profoundly damaged by their so-called “gifts,” but watching them at least attempt to grasp a flicker of normalcy is what makes these characters so likable.
The heart of this pilot of course comes from Brendan Frasier’s Robotman, a NASCAR driver and habitual philanderer whose family life comes to abrupt halt after a horrifying car accident. Seeing his recovery through his eyes is some of the pilot’s most experimental moments, but that’s what helps set the tone of the series. And while the actual design of the Robotman outfit can’t help but feel a little clunky - it never quite captures the pure expressiveness and humanity that Nick Derington’s art so effortlessly conveyed - Frasier adds such a lovely sense of humanity to the character. Perhaps the best moment in the series is when Robotman learns the truth about his family - while the actual robotic shell doesn’t convey the sense of heartbreak, the man behind it does. “I can’t feel pain. No matter how hard I hit, where I hit, what I hit, I can’t feel pain,” he says. “That’s mighty shitty of you, Doc.”
Another standout in the same vein is Matthew Zuk and Matthew Bomer teaming up to form the Negative Man. Talk about two actors really transcending what they’re given - in lesser hands, Larry Trainor would have been a total cypher, but there’s a real sense of texture and specificity to Zuk’s physical performance and Bomer’s voice acting, immediately giving a presence to the fully-bandaged character that you wouldn’t expect. (There’s also a welcome new wrinkle in Larry’s backstory that I hope the series will delve into further in later episodes.) Timothy Dalton also delivers a similarly surprising performance as Dr. Niles Caulder - despite what comic readers already know about the manipulative mentor, you can’t help but be seduced by Dalton’s performance, sort of a dark mirror image of the trustworthy idealism of a Charles Xavier.
That said, there’s still room to grow for some of the other characters. Diane Guerrero’s Crazy Jane acts in the sort of Wolverine/Hawkeye mold of being the team irritant, but given how her origin story is glossed over, I can’t help but wonder if she’s cannon fodder for future episodes. Meanwhile, Elasti-Girl has often felt a bit one-note in the comic books, and that characterization is hard to shake in the pilot. April Bowlby isn’t given the sort of wild physical comedy she was given in her Titans appearance, where we watched her wolf down an insane number of calories to maintain her figure. That said, she’s given some heartfelt bits, like her spectrum of emotions as she runs into a fan of her 1950s film career, or her abrupt unveiling of Robotman’s horrifying visage: “Everyone deserves the truth,” she tells Niles.
That said, Rita’s powers come across as a bit of a plot device to kick off the inevitable superhero action climax, which is where Doom Patrol falters the most. It’s understandable that there’s an expectation for a superhero fight, but that’s not the strength of this series - and even as Robotman inevitably steps up to keep the rest of the team together after their powers run amok, his shift to heroism feels more tacked-on, given how much of a screw-up the character was convincingly portrayed as through the rest of the episode. (And tonally, the series’ strangeness doesn’t lend itself well to the apocalyptic supervillainy at play here, with a giant goat fart punctuating the end of the episode feeling more juvenile than clever.)
That said, there’s often a deliberateness in tone and character development in Doom Patrol that I think isn’t often duplicated in weekly superhero shows - perhaps Black Lightning is the only other DC show at the moment that feels as well-realized and three-dimensional as this series, but even the CW-verse at its wildest moments doesn’t feel as crazy as already one episode of Doom Patrol does. This show’s ability to really channel the sensibilities of Gerard Way’s comic book writing just might eclipse the Netflix show that he’s actually an executive producer on — but perhaps most importantly, it shows that this world actually is big enough for both Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol. And given the dire straits these characters have come from, that might just be the best prognosis viewers could hope for.