Like many shows whose 2020 seasons were cut short by COVID-19, HBO Max’s Doom Patrol did the best it could. Shut down before it could film most of the season finale, the planned penultimate episode of the DC Comics adaptation was instead reworked into a fairly effective cliffhanger. It might not have been the most satisfying ending (and a disastrous one if the series hadn’t been granted a renewal), but it was sufficiently exciting and didn’t feel like a failure of execution. The same couldn’t be said for the season as a whole, which sacrificed a lot of the madcap fun of its inaugural outing for one that foregrounded hand-wringing and dour pathos, now without an attendant counterbalance of fun. (“Whingeing” would be the British term, to quote Timothy Dalton’s Dr. Niles Caulder.) So the question for the series upon renewal was whether or not it could again find the black humor, serialized wackiness, and surprising heart that drove the early installments to such heights. Happily, the first half of season three answers that question—as Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robotman, would say—with a resounding, “Fuck yeah!”
After a premiere episode that quickly wraps up the lingering storylines of season two (and falls victim to the same too-somber, woe-is-us tone that hampered it), the show reasserts the best version of itself: a series about a bunch of fucked-up weirdos that don’t let their inner turmoil and pain keep them from throwing caution to the wind and saying yes to just about every ludicrous predicament that comes their way. Last year’s focus on Niles’ young daughter Dorothy is resolved, thankfully; and while a few of the early episodes feint at yet again separating our team for large passages of time—part of the problem of the previous year—these turn out to be red herrings. For at least the first half of season three, all our messed-up wannabe heroes are back together at the mansion: the aforementioned Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), Rita Farr/Elasti-Girl (April Bowlby), Larry Trainor/Negative Man (Matt Bomer), and Vic Stone/Cyborg (Joivan Wade). One big, not-so-happy family.
While many of last year’s issues have been put to bed, they’re quickly replaced by all-new problems for each member of the group. Two of these issues are health-related: Cliff has patched things up with his own daughter Clara (and is happily playing Grandpa to his new granddaughter), only to develop worrying symptoms of Parkinson’s—a strange predicament for a very human brain stuck in a very metal body. And Larry believes he’s made peace with his Negative Spirit, only for the incorporeal being to suddenly abandon him, leaving Larry powerless (and potentially worse, given the Spirit’s impact on his overall well-being). Both of these arcs are handled with a better and lighter touch than nearly any of the crises the characters went through last year, with Cliff in particular being rescued from the “I hate everything and I’m going to shout it to the heavens” mindset that made him grow so tiresome.
The others also have drama, but of the more existential variety. Guerrero once again earns her MVP status as Jane, who has reclaimed her post as the dominant persona and is working overtime to help the original identity, Kay, regain her mental health, yet maintains an uneasy relationship with the other 63 personalities. All of her scenes maintain a crackling energy, aided by the character finally getting opportunities to be in a good mood. Rita also improves this year, with the character still mired in uncertainty over her purpose in life, but with Bowlby shaking off the sadness that was seemingly endemic to her, and making Rita fun again, if no more confident in her abilities. (There’s a delightfully gross scene where Rita, having collapsed into a rubbery puddle, gets some relief by Jane and Vic blowing alcohol into her with straws.) Poor Joivan Wade once more gets saddled with the weakest material, with Vic mired in angst about his criminal ex Roni (Karen Obilom), and the same endless fight with his father. The two reconcile only to immediately fracture again in the same, increasingly uninteresting way.
The series’ knack for maintaining stand-alone adventures while still driving forward the larger, season-long arcs remains one of its best qualities, and without spoiling any of the gonzo twists in these episodic plots, the titles (“Vacay Patrol,” “Dead Patrol,” “Undead Patrol”) offer joyfully on-the-nose clues about the general thrust of each story. And with no one stuck endlessly brooding à la season two, they all react with the foul-mouthed bemusement that made the show so entertaining in the first place. Each new journey is a chance for another fusion of over-the-top spectacle and lacerating humor, liberally dosed with humanism. Nothing yet matches the Norman Lear-meets-John-Waters excellence of season one’s “Danny Patrol” or “Jane Patrol,” but it’s finally coming close again. And the show’s remembered that fun comes first: This might be best demonstrated when the team flees a villain, only for the antagonist to rear back, open their mouth, and unleash a torrent of horrific green goo all over them. There’s a pause as they wait for the liquid to do its worst, then Rita happily cries out, “It’s just vomit!” Everyone cheers.
There’s a new overarching mystery to be solved, in the form of a time-traveling amnesiac (Doctor Who’s Michelle Gomez, so good in last year’s The Flight Attendant) who shows up at the mansion demanding answers from Niles Caulder, yet has vanishingly few clues as to why her arrival may herald another world-ending threat. But there’s no rush for answers; as usual, the pleasure is in the journey, riddled with detours, side exits, and loopy intermissions that prove as much fun as any destination. Doom Patrol has learned the lesson that pathos not need require a morose tone. The show is at its finest when these flawed and funny people are allowed to be uproarious even when they’re in pain. As Jane says when Vic exhorts them all to be serious, strait-laced heroes concerned only with doing what’s right: “Give it a rest, dude—that’s just not who we are.”