‘Doom Patrol’ Does What ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Doesn’t
I have beef with The Umbrella Academy.
The Netflix series, based on the comic from Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, has a crucial flaw: it’s too normal. It flirts with the weird, wild nature of the original comic—which is bugfuck crazy—but it restrains itself. It doesn’t commit to its own premise.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Umbrella Academy. A lot, even! The soundtrack is killer (pop tunes over violence is one of my favorite bits), and the casting is great (Number Five easily steals the show. Sorry, Klaus). However, it holds itself back instead of fully embracing the bizarre, as well as taking itself seriously when everything about it is patently absurd.
Which brings me to the other streaming series about a team of dysfunctional superheroes, DC Universe’s Doom Patrol (which I know you’re not watching). The shows are similar in premise, but couldn’t be more different. Doom Patrol leans into its own strangeness. It knows what it is, and isn’t afraid of it. It’s here and it wants to play.
“Boo-hoo, your nerd show isn’t nerd enough.” Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to sound like an old man shaking his fist at a cloud (seen here) because they changed things from my precious comic books. That’s what adaptations are supposed to do, but they’re also supposed to keep the spirit of the original. So why does The Umbrella Academy bench the comic’s idiosyncrasies in favor of Netflix Original™ standard procedure?
Well, certainly they want you to binge-watch more than anything. The Umbrella Academy is at its best when the whole family comes together, but the story keeps them at arm’s length from each other to weave lengthy, circuitous mysteries. Each character has a dirty secret that needs unraveling, and the show takes its sweet time getting there; the ten-episode run feels too thin and overstuffed at the same time. Stretching even the simplest out as far as possible, the writers are more concerned with their myriad plots than what made the comic so fresh and appealing in the first place: dynamic, whimsical, high-concept ideas.
Doom Patrol, though, has fewer restrictions. DC Universe has only one other original, Titans and there’s more on the way (including a Swamp Thing horror series from director James Wan). Though Doom Patrol is connected to the more conventional Titans (the team actually appears in the fourth episode), it doesn’t play by the same rules. It doesn’t have to, nor does it apparently want to. It’s an experiment and it knows it. The fourth wall-breaking villain Mister Nobody (played with manic glee by master character actor Alan Tudyk), thinks he knows who’s watching: “Grant Morrison fans, Reddit trolls with DC subscriptions, and the three new fans who stuck around after the donkey fart.”
Yes, the pilot closes on a farting donkey. I never said it was sophisticated. I said it was weird.
Doom Patrol can be crass, loud, and even a bit self-conscious. (“More TV superheroes. Just what the world needs. Have you hung yourself yet?”) It’s a willingness to have fun, however, that makes it a breath of fresh air in a sea of self-serious superhero series (say that ten times fast). The very concept of the modern superhero is, let’s face it, silly. Not many shows or movies take advantage of that. Hell, most try to avoid it. Doom Patrol is downright gleeful in its subversions of the genre (Brendan Fraser’s Cliff Steele/Robotman taunts Jovian Wade’s Vic Stone/Cyborg for his heroic aspirations: “Justice League! 2020!”), diving head first into its wild world, but maintaining its emotional heart.
For Doom Patrol, the plot—the hunt for team leader Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) and his captor Mister Nobody—is the frame, but the ensemble is the canvas. The series is only a few episodes into its debut, but it’s hit the ground running. It bounces between ridiculous and sober regularly, yet it does so without the emotional whiplash you might expect. In the third episode, Larry Trainor (played in costume by Matthew Zuk and in flashback/voiceover by Matt Bomer) wrestles not just with his powers (or, rather, the “Negative Spirit” that turned him immortal and radioactive), but his troubled relationship with his homosexuality. The commitment to that character is a huge point in its favor, and it makes the series distinct in a sea of superheroes—The Umbrella Academy included.