Backdoor pilots are typically a solitary episode in an existing series, serving as a proof of concept for another show not yet in development. It’s especially disruptive when the episode in question is less as a quirky break from the original show, and more like a shameless promotion. Superhero TV shows are infamous for pulling off this stunt – Titans being no exception, doing exactly this in its fourth episode, “Doom Patrol”. Luckily, DC Universe’s Doom Patrol series, spawned from that episode, proves to be more than just a weird gimmick – this dark horse series is a balanced mix of action and comedy, but doesn’t ignore the intrinsic empathy a series needs to be emotionally resonant, something lost in so many superhero stories and spin off series.
The Marvel Netflix series proved that superheroes can be realistic. Titans proved that they can be violent. Doom Patrol proved they can be weird.
Titans takes itself very seriously, focusing on the crippling trauma that being young superhero has on one’s life. Though it was good overall its grittiness sometimes came off as teenage angst fan fiction. Doom Patrol defies that in all its odd glory. Unlike Titans, it’s less about being a superhero, and more about facing the insecurities lying within. The whole cast can be sideshows in a travelling circus, but ironically this is what makes them even more human. If Titans is the John Bender of the Breakfast Club, then Doom Patrol is Allison Reynolds. It’s a sad sweet tale where hope is only millimeters out of reach.
Doom Patrol opens up with a voice-over from Mr. Nobody played by Alan Tudyk. He is Doom Patrol’s fourth-wall breaking reality-warping villain, a psychotic being with the ability to mess with people’s deepest fears. On occasion, when he feels like hamming it up, he acts as the show’s narrator. I’ll let him explain the show’s basic premise;
“And there they go, our four lovable losers banding together to become the superhero fighting force no one saw coming except everyone.”
The initial four members of Doom Patrol are Robotman, Negative Man, Crazy Jane, and Elasti-woman. They were content in their isolated life under the supervision of Niles Caulder, until Mr. Nobody kidnaps him. A little after Niles goes missing, Cyborg joins the team to help them look for him. This pilot episode is simply spectacular as it breaks a lot of the rules first episodes should avoid. It includes a narrator, flashbacks, a high-concept premise, and ends all of this with a world-breaking donkey fart. But, it works perfectly for this universe. The following episode continues to display this ridiculousness when Mr. Nobody mocks the viewers who kept on watching after that conclusion.
“[I’m speaking to] Grant Morrison fans, Reddit trolls with DC subscriptions, and the three new fans who stuck around after the donkey fart.”
The goes deeper than meta-humor, and the show runners know their audience. Doom Patrol embraces the bizarre, and as the series progresses, the weirdness factor doesn’t slow down. Episodes continue to promote out-of-the box thinking, and brings the best of the Silver Age and Grant Morrsion creations to life.
When they’re not arguing about personal space, they eventually be superheroes. Though they can still fight, at best the problem doesn’t go away, and at worst, they cause more collateral damage. Instead of encouraging one another, they shout obscenities, only to respond with “I don’t see you doing better”. They begrudgingly go along with whatever half-concocted plan one of them comes up with, because they don’t have any better ideas. Yet, these family theatrics don’t seem out of place. Doom Patrol’s source of their powers has left them emotionally damaged and that prevents them from socializing with the outside world. Doom Patrol shows what happens when uncooperative people with severe anxiety issues are faced with eldritch dangers, and losing hope. All they need to do is to have a little more trust in themselves and one another to find that happiness.
As Doom Patrol reaches the end of its first season, the viewers realize that Mr. Nobody isn’t their biggest obstacle. On the contrary, the protagonists biggest threat are their own insecurities. Robotman is trying to make up for his terrible past by forcing his new roommates to be a family, when they just want to be left alone. He tries to make Crazy Jane a surrogate daughter, but she’s not having any of his self-righteous guilt. Mr. Negative is an ace fighter pilot housing an energy being within him, and when it leaves his body he’s simply an empty shell. This duality becomes prevalent when it’s revealed that he was in a homosexual relationship in the 1960s, a time when homosexuality was not as accepted as it is today. He’s a charming, and smart but all he sees are his bandages, and that thing inside him. They can easily save the world, they just need to see themselves less as broken freaks, and more as happy people in the making.
Mr. Nobody didn’t need to poke and prod at them to drive them mad, all he needed to do is take away the one person in their lives that holds them together, and that’s Niles. Without him, they don’t know how to let go of their demons that are festering within them. Holding this anger makes them lash out or retreat within themselves. When people are overwhelmed, or their world is changed in the slightest, fear can take over, and some people can manage it, others can’t. The only one who seems to have their head on straight is Cyborg, but he’s far too young and brash to be a proper leader, and he needs to work extra hard to have Doom Patrol take him seriously. These are all very human behaviors, and Doom Patrol is always letting the viewers know how close they are to that one moment of hope.
Doom Patrol represent our weirdos. They speak to our insecurities, and these themes begin to shine the deeper the series goes.
The amount of weirdness may alienate some audiences, but it’s combined with a level of empathy that’s not offered in most shows of this ilk. After a fight scene between the indestructible Robotman and a flock of lederhosen wearing proto-Nazis, he gives an entirely human response when he sees the bloody carnage he caused. He was always arrogant and a show-off, but never resorted to such butchery in his life; and as such, could only respond with a whimper and a shell-shocked “Oh god, what did I do?”
Doom Patrol isn’t just a series of fart jokes, prophesying cockroaches, and quirky magicians. While it is proud to broadcast and embrace the weirdness with open arms and other odd appendages, it also has its darker moments, delving into identity crises, torture, and abuse. It doesn’t shy away from those themes, and nor should it. The show is not attempting to be simply morbidly quirky; there are enough of those shows out there. Doom Patrol is a series of hope spots; moments where the characters are slivers away from being the person they want to be (perhaps best seen in episode 8, “Danny Patrol”). It puts the focus on accepting ones identity and that they do have a place in the world, all they need to do is accept that they matter. Doom Patrol truly speaks to people like us.