Sunday, June 9, 2019

TV Watch: Doom Patrol - Season 1

I really didn't know what to expect when DC announced their second show in their DC Universe app exclusive line-up would be Doom Patrol From the pictures shared, the comics would be roughly based on the late 1980's/ early-90's-era Grant Morrison-penned (with art by Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, Scott Hanna, John Nyberg, Carlos Garzon) comics.  But with a slightly different line-up, what with Rita Farr there front and center.

My initial exposure to Doom Patrol as a team was via issue #1 of this series - Morrison had come on in the mid-30's - written by Paul Kupperberg.  Frankly, I'd been completely enamored with the first couple of issues (long since disappeared from my collection, even before The Purge).  It was so weird and dark and uncomfortable - starting at a point where people were assembling, talking about a team that had preceded them had died.  Badly.   Somehow it felt more adult and frank than the way X-Men never seemed to quite exit high school.

I'm going to go back and start getting the very nice collections DC is putting out of the various eras of Doom Patrol - it's never been a popular title and gets canceled on the regular, coming back and coming back like the Doom Patrol itself, which seems to get blown up along with Cliff Steele seeming to get disassembled and re-assembled.

I read some of Morrison's Doom Patrol as single issues, but the same thing that plagued me when trying to read Kupperberg's run got me here - I didn't used to understand or know anything about comics distribution.  No one ever told 10 year old - 19 year old me "new comics show up each Wednesday"*.  As happened with literally most series I read back then - I just missed a bunch of issues and subsequently lost interest.  Kids, we didn't have trades, and that was not helpful to keeping up when you never knew what would be on the spinner-rack at Piggly Wiggly.

In the mid-2000's, DC looked at the sales of Invisibles and other Morrison trades and finally put the Doom Patrol comics into trades, and I bought them all and read them all, and... honestly... finishing a Doom Patrol trade is a bit like waking from a dream that doesn't make a ton of sense, and it had a hard time sticking in my mind beyond large concepts and specifics of character. 

So, I hadn't spent much time thinking about those comics since.. 2007?  I had a lot of affection for the series, and continue to think Morrison's Cliff Steele take was fantastic.  But, you know, I've read, like, a thousand comics since then. We all move on.

When they initially announced Doom Patrol as a series for the DC Universe web service, I think my reaction was basically "what the @#$%...?  Really?"

I mean, DC can't make a good Superman movie...  and the initial reaction to the Titans series was largely a well-deserved raised eyebrow (I made it maybe 4 episodes before throwing in the towel, myself.*).  And who knew anything about the DC Universe gizmo at the point of announcement, anyway?

The line-up pulls from a few eras of DC's Doom Patrol and changes the characters, anyway (except Cliff, who - portrayed in part by Brendan Fraser - is exactly Cliff).  Rita Farr (Elastigirl in the comics) doesn't grow to titanic sizes a la Ant-Man of the Avengers - she turns into a sort of human sludge when she loses emotional control.  And she's not a sunny Donna Reed-type, maybe more a B-list Bette Davis with Gene Tierney's physical presence.  Negative Man/ Larry Trainor gets a hefty character upgrade with the casting of Matthew Bomer and a fully fleshed out back story.  Crazy Jane is pulled from the Morrison run, with some fortunate casting in Diane Guerrero, who is able to well play the varying personalities dwelling within the character.

Oddly, at first, the show includes Cyborg - who has never appeared in Doom Patrol comics as a member of Doom Patrol (or in general).  But...  The Doom Patrol was always the parallel project to Marvel's X-Men, and, honestly, logically the one that made more sense.  X-Men were super-beings who didn't choose their powers holed up in a fancy mansion with a guy in a wheelchair, as were The Doom Patrol.  But...  The X-Men were just, as Lady Gaga would say, Born That Way.  The Doom Patrol were, by and large, dealing with trauma, victims of misfortune, but misfortune that led them into extraordinary abilities.  And, you know, Cyborg absolutely fits that bill.

And, of course, The Chief, Niles Caulder, played here by Timothy Dalton, never shared enough info, always seemed to have an ulterior agenda, and was never the daddy-figure to The Doom Patrol in quite the way Charles Xavier at least wanted to be to his X-Men.

DC created their adults-only imprint, Vertigo, to handle the sorts of comics editor Karen Berger wanted to bring to the page, and those of us kicking around comics shops circa 1993 certainly appreciated the go at comics that didn't necessarily rely on the "edgy" takes in CCA-approved comics and the stories that could be told where characters did actually swear, sweated, the power of sex wasn't dressed up in bizarre coding and teenage fumbling and whatever Chris Claremont managed to squeeze into X-Men comics.  And, so, yeah, the TV show reflects that era of comics from profanity to acknowledgement of real adult relations.

But, to put the show in lay terms - it's really @#$%ing weird.  To describe it is pointless and still spoilery.  Sometimes the show is self-conscious in its oddness as they clearly take a page from all the folks who ever pushed out an issue of Doom Patrol and just go for it, trying not to leave anything on the table.  Other times the show just works organically, fluidly, the off-beat nature just clicking along and making more sense than it should (a certain cult reappearing to dance it out comes to mind).  Fortunately, the staff on the show has plenty to choose from, and awkwardness is okay.  Mr. Nobody is a hell of an arch for the first season (played with terrific and exact energy by Alan Tudyk, who is not just aware of his presence as narrator on a TV show, but of his exact format and the comic book origins of the show.  The group is never called The Doom Patrol, they never use codenames, and they don't go into dangerous situations like a well-armed team of born battlers.  The short-bus they take to get around and face down threats like a bunch of wards of a hospital seems far more apt.

The show knows exactly what it is doing.

And, it's doing it on a budget.  In a world where we can get a $400 million Avengers movie made (because it's about to make $3 billion), a budget-conscious show needs to try harder.  There are still amazing FX, good-enough make-up and costumes, but our Cyborg is a practical effect, not a CGI wonder - which fits well with a Robotman who looks big and clunky and awkward (voiced by Fraser but acted by a second person).  And it works.  It shouldn't, and maybe not for everybody, but he looks like something that might work, not like the video-game designed disproportionate thing that will look dated in two years from Justice League.

The show isn't about superheroes, exactly.  It's about the characters working through who they were before what they are now and having to solve some problems along the way.  It makes fun of its own group-therapy bent, never forces the characters into a family unit, exactly, and you totally get why these people are selfish, combative and resistant to solving their issues via punching inter-dimensional doom-gods.

It's also a show that's not afraid to bring in the pure joy of a character like Flex Mentallo or pull in some deep cut DC stuff and not bat an eye - keeping Flex mostly Flex and never apologizing or explaining.  Or, even more so, Danny the Street.  Hell, it's a show that brought in Ed f'ing Asner for a walk on part.

It's a thrill to see Fraser on the screen and be reminded of how good he actually is, that there was a reason this 6'4" handsome dude was actually a really good choice for a "everyman" actor with surprising range.  Matthew Bomer looks every bit the part of Superman in his Larry Trainor flashbacks (he was up for the role.  Twice.), and while Negative Man is a hell of a consolation prize - he gets to tell a story that a mainstream superhero movie might tell in the next five years, but I'll be real surprised.  And it's solid character work.

I could go on and on about April Bowlby (who apparently used to play "the hot girlfriend" on Two and a Half Men, which I've never actually seen).  Playing an actress who last worked circa mid-50's she has down the "Mid-Atlantic accent" you know well from mid-century American movies, and her aesthetic seems spot on, but that's window dressing. She also presents a character made all the more watchable with a take on the diva movie star versus the America's sweetheart model we'd known as Rita in the comics all this time (and it never *quite* made sense why she fled the camera, when this show makes it all very clear).  She's got a lot to answer for for past actions, but 60+ years on she's finally making steps forward, and, like the comics, its Rita's can-do pluck that elevates the team, and her path to finding that spirit is nowhere near as flashy as Crazy Jane's fascinating journey(s), but it is a great arc nonetheless.  Not every character needs to gnash teeth and shout and scream and pound the walls to go through something, and Bowlby manages to pull off some deft stuff in a show with a *lot* of distractions.  I have no idea what other work Bowlby did that cued the casting director to Bowlby's capabilities, but hats off.

In theory, there should be a second season of Doom Patrol.

I'm holding on hoping that whatever changes are afoot at DC Entertainment will let this corner of the DCU continue on, making more of some of my favorite TV of the year.

*Look.  I get wanting to do an "edgy" series about superheroes who say things like "@#$% Batman!"  But maybe not the same team that is, in cartoons, reaching out to very young children, deals in adult themes with adolescent characters in the comics and then whatever this series is...  which...  isn't good enough at what it's doing to do what it's trying to do.


Simon MacDonald said...

I watched the whole series, it's very unexplainable but I love it. It's amazing what they did with the budget. Hiring two "big name" actors in Brendan Fraser and Matthew Bomer but not needing them to be on set everyday was genius. I have to assume they got paid less to do the voice over work. This left more money for the CGI.

April Bowlby was amazing as Rita Farr. She really nailed that mid-atlantic accent. I have face blindness so I had no idea she as the same actress that was in How I Met Your Mother and Drop Dead Diva. Don't judge me on the second one, my kid watched some episodes on Netflix.

I'm probably most impressed with the writing in the show. Fantastic job of character development in season one and I don't know how they made all the craziness make sense but they did.

The League said...

you'll note from time to time that I mention I appreciate when an actress is "striking". That's because, man, I have terrible face blindness for young women in movies. Whole generations have now passed by that I couldn't tell you which actor was who.

And, yeah, streamlining Morrison's "I'm on my third handful of mushrooms today" style of writing into something palatable and useful for TV is no mean feat. I think he actually does excellent character work, but it's sort of a B-process to his A-process of Big Ideas, and this inverted that formula.