I haven’t written anything lately. Partly that’s pandemic scatteredness and partly because while the country is possibly on the verge of changing in a historic way, it doesn’t feel great to be the guy shouting “But for real, have you been watching What We Do in the Shadows?” And there’s another thing, and I promise this will eventually be about TV, I’m realizing that I’m depressed.
I think I maybe have been for a long time but I fight it off by caring way too much about dumb stuff. If I focus on loving Batman and Nora Durst and BoJack Horseman and Ruth Wilder, I don’t have to look inside that deep dark truthful mirror. But now it’s feeling impossible to care about dumb stuff and so it’s inescapable. And that’s making it very hard to keep putting on foot in front of the other. Right before the lockdown started, I had one of the best days of my life and it felt like maybe things were going to be OK and now I don’t know anything anymore.
Lockdown was bad enough before I moved on to watching people I sort of know get shot with rubber bullets on live TV because standing and holding one’s hands up in supplication is somehow threatening to men with guns. And I realize that as a mediocre straight white male, I’m in the most privileged possible position, but I’m also capable of caring about people who aren’t me and I know things are worse for just about everybody else. Now we’re just opening up again because we’re bored and not because there’s been any progress. Last week somebody yelled at me and pulled my mask off which is bad enough but it’s also a big flashback to being a bullied kid and it feels like nothing I’ve done has ever mattered. Even sitting here writing about pop culture stuff seems useless at best, offensively tin-eared at worse. And I’m also thinking a lot about how there are people who will die because they go to see Tenet on opening night and everything I can do feels dumb.
And that’s why I want to talk about Doom Patrol.
The Doom Patrol have always been some of the weirdest heroes in the DC Universe. I like to describe them as the other superhero team of outcasts with a wheelchair-bound leader that debuted in Summer of 1963. The X-Men eventually went on to become a massive franchise while the Doom Patrol died to save seventeen people in the last issue of their book. The editor and artist appeared on the last page to explain that your letters could save the Doom Patrol and apparently those letters didn’t come in because they stayed dead for years.
I love the Doom Patrol. There were a couple of stray, coverless issues of their original series in the stash of comics at my grandparents’ house and they seemed like these weird artifacts. I didn’t have any context for them as a kid and they were genuinely offputting. We always hear about how the X-Men are feared and hated by society but they have cool powers and they all look like supermodels. The Patrol had a janky robot with a human brain, a guy covered in bandages to contain the radioactive entity that shared his body, and a beautiful actress who couldn’t control her skin. I mean, probably most of us can’t control our skin, but it also doesn’t go anywhere.
I rediscovered the Doom Patrol when I was in college with Grant Morrison’s seminal run on the rebooted team and I’ve followed them ever since. I’ve read almost every Doom Patrol comic since 1963, with the exception of John Byrne’s relaunch because it was very bad. I love those weirdos.
They made their TV debut (other than an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold where they die at the end) on an episode of the pretty dire Titans. And I was psyched about what we got there even though they threw all of it out when they got their own series. And that was for the best because in retrospect, that Titans bit was not good. But I was seeing the Doom Patrol in live action and overlooking a lot of the half-cooked bits.
The first season aired on the largely disappointing DC Universe streaming service, though it was good enough to get some attention and Season Two will also air on HBO Max starting Thursday. The show focuses mostly on the original lineup – Cliff Steele (the robot), Larry Trainor (the bandaged guy), and Rita Farr (the woman with the skin), along with leader Niles “Chief” Caulder and Morrison creation Crazy Jane (64 personalities and each one has a super power) and Teen Titans member Cyborg. (You saw him in Justice League. Or more likely, you didn’t.) And the series came right out of the gate making its stamp on the characters – Cliff’s backstory got more tragic and Larry was reconceived as a closeted gay man who got his powers back in the Fifties. That was so effective that it’s weird to read comics where Larry isn’t gay – it just makes so much sense.
And there’s a lot to talk about, but you can check out last season’s recaps or watch Season One on HBO Max or even watch the first three episodes free on YouTube. But the Doom Patrol became, totally by accident, the perfect superheroes for 2020. Sure, HBO’s Watchmen educated white people about the Tulsa massacre and presented a fantasy world where cops cared about white supremacists except for the ones who turned out to be white supremacists and really caught a cultural moment, but I think it’s the Doom Patrol who embody our weird times.
I remind you, they are not the X-Men. They aren’t sad because they were born with powers that make them a freak but also let them heal any wound or pull off amazing feats. Larry is only alive because he shares his body with an entity he doesn’t understand and if it leaves him for too long, he dies. Rita has to focus to keep her flesh in place – one distraction and she melts. These characters are broken toys and they know it. They don’t think of themselves as superheroes and they’ve never once called themselves the Doom Patrol. (On the show, that name applies to an earlier team that Caulder put together and then cast aside.) They desperately want to not be involved and only put themselves out when the Chief disappears because they don’t know how to lead their lives without the one guy who can go to the store or fix Cliff’s poorly assembled body.
That’s right, this is a superhero team that’s been sheltering in place. In the premiere, they leave the house for the first time in at least thirty years, likely longer. And when they do go into town, it’s weird and scary and they try to stay away from people as much as they can. Larry in his bandages draws the same stares that you might get wearing a mask in a red state. It’s a bigger and weirder version of the same anxiety that most of us felt going to the grocery store at any point in the last three months, but it’s really difficult to watch the pilot now and not see it as some kind of social distancing metaphor even though it came out in 2019 when the world was still bad but less fatally so.
To beat my own imagery into the ground, there are a couple of scenes in that pilot that were so resonant for me last year and even more so now. When Cliff learns to control his robot body, he practices on a set of metal stairs. And the poor bastard can’t lift his foot high enough for that first stair. He just keeps running his foot into it over and over with this clang that screams failure. Cliff literally can’t put one foot in front of the other. This scene breaks my heart and also confirmed that the creative team gets the Doom Patrol.
And then at the end of the episode, that same idea comes up again. The town that rejected and threatened them is under attack and these dopes, who at this point have not figured out a way to use any of their abilities in any kind of constructive way, And Cliff thinks maybe he can help fight a force he can’t even understand, and even as the rest of the team turns away, he just jeeps walking toward danger on his poorly-constructed legs. He was a selfish jerk when he had a body and he doesn’t have the first idea what he has to contribute to this crisis, but Cliff Steele, yes, just keeps putting one foot in front of the other. And then the rest of the team comes back, and they’re all walking toward danger, and it’s beautiful. Rita’s flesh pools in her legs and she stumbles, but they keep walking. They’re walking with the sense of purpose that suggests people who are good at their job. The narrator makes fun of them but they keep going forward because that’s what you do when things are bad and there’s maybe even the smallest bit of good you can do.
It’s one of the best scenes of last year and I think about it all the time. And yes, things go very badly for them. But it’s the first time this gang of shut-ins thought about anybody outside Doom Manor and it’s amazing. And as the season goes on, it stays bad. The one time they save the world they need their archenemy to manipulate the narrative to make a plan work. Mostly they embarrass themselves, learn things they don’t want to know, and survive mostly be inspiring other lost souls to reach beyond themselves. Near the end of the season, they have to rally to save Caulder from Mr. Nobody and Cliff’s inspiration speech begins with “Our win/loss record sucks. We’re not making the playoffs. Who gives a shit?” And they manage to have a small win, which includes Rita taking over the narration in the most badass thing I’ve seen in a long time, and all that does is result in a time loop where they become actual superheroes and die hundreds of times, over and over again.
I’m leaving out a lot of the more high concept stuff, but be assured that there’s a Beardhunter and a street preacher cockroach and Danny the Street (a sentient genderqueer teleporting city block powered by cabaret) and Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery. I teared up when I first saw Flex on TV, guys. I love that character so much and he’s too weird to have any kind of media presence except now he does. And the season ended with most of the team reduced to a tiny size. It’s so much fun but it also feels therapeutic just now. Season Two starts on Thursday and I know it’s not going to make me not depressed, but it’s also something for me to be genuinely excited about right now and there’s plenty of inspiration in these off-brand heroes who are just trying to get through the day.