Of all the properties Grant Morrison has spent his time on throughout his prodigious career, his tenure on Doom Patrol with the incredible Richard Case will always stick with me as what I perceive to be his best work. And really, when it comes down to it, outside of that formative run, there’s still been some pretty terrific spins on DC’s weirdest heroes: the recent Way + Derington Young Animal launch, Arcudi + Huat, Pollack + McKeever, and of course the Drake + Premiani originals. It’s not quite Swamp Thing-level in a property that just consistently has great well-springs of creativity, but it’s darn close.
And, as one can imagine, the first live-action adaptation of the team pulls heavily from that Morrison-Case era, as it’s the most acclaimed period, and gives way to a number of different powersets to play with, themes of trauma to explore, and if they’re daring enough, some really oddball storytelling devices. Now is your chance to change the shape of the Pentagon with muscle mystery, guys!
Only judging a series based on its pilot episode is a potentially treacherous task, one that’s even more fraught with peril than the half-season dumps that used to be more prevalent (my Luke Cage review aged poorly), but it does at least give a viewer an opportunity to grasp the overall shape the first season’s key arcs are likely to take. No surprise here, this initial chapter is built mainly around the origin stories of its core cast.
Brendan Fraser‘s Cliff Steele is the main centerpiece here, with his story unfolding with a very Talladega Nights-style flashback to his past as a 1980’s motorsports hero turned accident victim. It’s super over the top, with a straight-up R-rated sex scene. But once the soon to be departed and then revived Cliff wakes up in his Robotman body, things settle down into allowing the character to act as the audience’s entree into this unique family built by Professor Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) consisting of Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), and Kay Challis (Diane Guerrero) and their present day lives. As Cliff meets each member, we see how each of these special individuals wound up with their abilities and ended up in the care of the Professor, at least Larry and Rita anyway. Kay’s background is clearly being saved for later; though we do get a fabulous shout out to the first issue of Morrison’s run. You’ll know it when you see it.
And these character origins are pretty comic accurate, thankfully. There’s no modernization. Larry is a 1960’s test pilot, Rita is a 1950’s b-movie actress, and they get their powers in the exact way you’d expect if you’re a fan of the property. The character designs are basically in line with their presentation in the most recent Doom Patrol series, even down to Cliff’s t-shirt with little scribbled messages, and Larry’s jacket. From that perspective it’s a show built for the fan in mind.
It’s also hard not to appreciate its attempt at ambition, beyond just the scope of their individual lived-in experiences. The episode is bracketed by the story of Eric Morden (Alan Tudyk), who thanks to an experiment in Paraguay, becomes the two-dimensional (literally) villain Mr. Nobody. This antagonist provides not only a bit of melodramatic voice over work (which could have used a few more writing passes perhaps), but appears by episode’s end – even breaking the fourth wall in a pretty cute wink and nod to the show’s reference material. It’s here where you get a sense of just how off-kilter Jeremy Carver and team are hoping to go, and it gives me hope that this might just be a launching pad for further insanity.
But…there’s always a but with these things. It’s clearly being crafted around a tight budget. The episode I got to screen had what appeared to be temporary ADR and visual effects, and in the big second half set-piece it began to strain some of the credulity I was granting it. Hopefully that will be adjusted when the episode finally goes up at the end of this week. More worrying to me is that the setting outside of the home seems like it will be mostly unchanged throughout the course of the season, and sadly that setting is a pretty dull looking suburban downtown square (Conyers GA to be specific, they’re filming down the interstate from my house) and involving some supporting players who to call seasoned actors would be generous. Throughout the episode I got flashbacks to that second season of The Walking Dead where the cast was basically confined to a house for the better part of a year. It’s possible the creative minds pulling all of this together will find a way to keep my interest humming, but for a show very interested in breaking the fourth wall, their biggest trouble might be the upper ceiling of their pocketbook. Doom Patrol should be the kind of show where literally anything can happen, and if I can see the strings being pulled, my excitement draws up just a bit with it.
But that’s for future speculation. Doom Patrol gets off to a more exciting start than Titans, and I’m curious where it goes next. I just warn viewers expecting Flex Mentallo they might want to hold off on those wishes for next season.
Also, there is a gassy donkey that farts out messages. So that’s something!
Doom Patrol will debut on DC Universe on February 15th.