The black-sheep show of the DC Universe returns for a second season even more confident in its quirks.
Doom Patrol is cheap.
Ok, perhaps that’s being a little aggressive out of the gate. It’s not as inexpensive as, say, the CW DC Comics adaptations or even Teen Titans, its DC Universe streaming cousin. But in comparison to most superhero content, Doom Patrol (now an HBO Max original for its second season) is being made for pennies on the dollar. And thank God for that.
Doom Patrol, after all, is the story of these characters who, in so many ways, exist apart from the world around them. The awkwardness the budget foists upon the show thus becomes a strength. If they looked too good, too real, they’d simply fit and that energy would dissipate. The juxtaposition of the real and the blatantly artificial is what gives the show its kick.
For example, Cyborg’s (Joivan Wade) metal “enhancements” obviously cost significantly less than his big-screen DCEU doppelganger’s look. However, especially given Patrol’s world and context, it works so much better. It's strange, clunky, vaguely unnerving -- perfect for the homespun nature of the show.
Season two is replete with those moments of the real and the unreal grinding against one another. Robotman’s (Riley Shanahan in body, Brendan Fraser in voice) metal body, Negative Man’s (Matthew Zuk in body, Matt Bomer voice) crackly inner “negative” spirit, and Dorothy Spinner’s (Abigail Shapiro) primate features are back of course. But we are also treated to several of Dorothy’s “imaginary” friends including a giant spider, Dr. Jonathan Tyme and his literal clock head, and immortal sadist Red Jack (Roger Floyd). The last one especially looks like an unused makeup job from something like Farscape. Again, though, it's all to the good. The more elements clash, the better the world seems to be realized.
It would be a mistake to reduce the show entirely to its ramshackle appearance alone. A very necessary part of its alchemy is the performances; if the actors failed to also meet the show’s necessary energy in either direction, it could topple. For one, Patrol deserves tremendous credit for how it reduced two charismatic performers to voice performances and ended up with career-best work from both. Bomer is preternaturally attractive, so it initially seemed a wild choice to reduce his role to the occasional flashback to Larry Trainor’s pre-Negative Man days. But his voice work is wonderful, giving Trainor this rich melancholy tone while never becoming a bore.
Fraser, on the other hand, feels like he's been given free rein to be as big as ever. His abrasive foul-mouthed work as Robotman’s voice fits perfectly with Shanahan’s body language. It gets even better when, in flashback, we see how “small” and hesitant he could be around his girlfriend and father.
I don’t want to lose track of April Bowby's work as Elasti-Girl/Rita Farr while praising the more attention-getting performances above. For one thing, she nails the Middle Atlantic accent that she, as a Golden Era screen star, would likely have had to put on all the time. It goes beyond the accent though. In the three episodes of season 2 provided for review, you can see her growing as both a person and a hero. She has quietly become the cornerstone of the team and with that, the show’s heart.
The more elements clash, the better the world seems to be realized.
Last, but not least, is the matter of the plot. Showrunner Jeremy Carver remains delightfully unafraid to keep Doom Patrol's story moving pell-mell from episode to episode. While united by an overall plotline -- “Chief” Niles Caulder’s (Timothy Dalton) quest for immortality to protect the world from Dorothy’s most dangerous “friend”, the Candlemaker -- Patrol is animated by a willingness to introduce and resolve conflict in a single episode. In a landscape where serialized storytelling increasingly dominates, the briskness of the show’s pacing is a welcome treat.
The pace helps maintain the theme of unreality forcing itself into the recognizable world. In just three episodes, we’re treated to the aforementioned Dr. Tyme and Red Jack; a tiny Doom Patrol; a giant spider with a sense of humor; people sprouting butterfly wings; and, well, one could go on for several more lines. The quicker the show goes, the more it grounds the viewer in its truly askew context.
Frequently funny despite being a show almost entirely about life-ruining traumas, Doom Patrol season 2 is, all told, a weird wild delight. Even for someone who loves the more mainstream comic book action like the MCU, it offers a welcome change of pace.
Doom Patrol is currently screwing things up for the better on HBO Max and DC Universe.