DC Universe has something special on its hands with Doom Patrol, which launches with a pilot that is seditious, mirthful, and heartbreaking in equal measure.
*MILD SPOILERS BELOW*
After its first hour, the series feels more like Legion than Titans; it is a beautifully conceived, filmed, and told story that alternates its big action set pieces with quiet character moments and rumination on the meaning of life. It is that rare comic book show that has more tearjerker moments in the pilot than it does fight scenes -- but handles both successfully.
Fans have already been impressed by the designs on Doom Patrol's lead superheroes. Adding to that, the series has excellent overall set design, wardrobe, and cinematography. It stands up to the best episodes of Gotham as the best-looking DC show, but from a storytelling standpoint there is more -- and more compelling stuff -- going on in the Doom Patrol pilot than there was in the first season of Gotham, as that show struggled to find its feet. Perhaps that is where Doom Patrol benefits from having the proving ground of their appearance in Titans.
The episode, set mostly in 1995, so long before the team meets the Titans (or ignoring that backdoor pilot episode completely), brings Robotman into the house and sets up the twisted family dynamic that makes Doom Patrol work so well as a concept.
As with DC's Legends of Tomorrow, the team self-identifies as a gang of misfits and losers -- but unlike many of the Legends, the Doom Patrol are less lovable losers and more...losers.
While not all of the Doom Patrol were bad people before they joined The Chief at his remote mansion -- Crazy Jane is mentally ill, and Negative Man's big "flaw" was that he was a homosexual in the military at a time when he had to keep that secret -- none of them enters the series wanting to save the world or even do anything beyond living their typical lives, immediately setting them apart from basically every other superhero show on TV.
That is not to say the cast or characters are not likable to the audience. But in-universe, you can certainly understand why nobody would want to spend time with most of these people. Between the physical danger they put others in, the total lack of interpersonal skills, and the fact that half of them are physically strange to look at, The DC Universe's Doom Patrol is a group more easily spotted and excluded than the X-Men characters they have traditionally shared a lot of commonalities with.
Another thing that sets Doom Patrol apart? The narration. Yes, The CW series all have opening monologues that help set the tone of the piece, but here, the series is narrated by its villain. Mr. Nobody -- played by the always-excellent Alan Tudyk -- relates the story of the Doom Patrol while acknowledging not only that he is telling a story, but that it is yet another superhero TV show, suggesting that the whole endeavor is not particularly wanted or needed on TV. While it could be a throwaway thing, the idea that Mr. Nobody is aware that he is a fictional character on a TV show would fit right in tonally with the works of Grant Morrison, whose run on Doom Patrol serves as the inspiration for the series.
Morrison frequently breaks the fourth wall, the most notorious example being when Animal Man hunted down Morrison himself and made him undo plot developments during the final issues of Morrison's run on that comic.
There are so many other characters who have to be introduced (or reintroduced, since many of them appeared in Titans), whose motivations have to be sussed out, and whose backstories have to be at least touched upon that the pilot does not give much of a sense for who Mr. Nobody is, aside from being the self-declared bad guy of the series and a very brief glimpse at how he became the strange thing he is.
As with other cases of losers -- Legends of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy come to mind, in particular -- it falls back on humor quite a bit to break the tension. It is not as jokey as either of those properties, and not nearly as silly as the trailers released so far would have you believe...but what it does deliver is a balanced tone that manages its humor effectively without using it to completely undercut the drama.
Ultimately, Doom Patrol is to shows like Riverdale, Deadly Class, and Legion what Titans was to Arrow and Gotham: more money, more flexibility, and a higher-profile rollout as a crown jewel of DC's newly-launched streaming service than most shows get on traditional networks...but it revels in its artistrty and delivers complex, not-always-nice characters.9comments
By focusing on characters that can seem unlikable, though, the series manages to humanize "the other," something sorely needed in divisive times and achingly well-executed here. In that way, Robotman is the perfect point-of-view character; he and Rita were the most repugnant people before their accidents, but through the course of the pilot it is virtually impossible not to root for Cliff. Using his the POV character also puts a fine point on exactly how duplicitous and unreliable The Chief is as a mentor and a guide through the new world of these characters' powers.
Doom Patrol will launch new episodes on Fridays on the DC Universe app.