The first season of Doom Patrol—one of the flagship series of the DC Universe streaming service—was an unexpected triumph, one of the best debuts of 2019. Expertly blending superhero action, crass gonzo humor, and pathos, the show broke down fourth walls and comic-book tropes with gleeful abandon, living up to the best of its source material while smartly integrating classical TV storytelling in the mold of Norman Lear. The upcoming launch of HBO Max is a golden opportunity for this savvy and soulful series to find a much bigger audience; too bad, then, that the second season gets mired in the downbeat aspects of the premise. For a show that always managed to stave off its more nihilistic elements with a healthy dose of self-aware humor, the beginning of this latest season descends into darkness as quickly as one of Crazy Jane’s 64 identities, without employing a sufficient counterbalance of fun.
There’s still a lot to like here, though curious new viewers should start with season one; there’s a lot of water under the narrative bridge, and Doom Patrol doesn’t hold the audience’s hand to walk them through it. The first episode picks up weeks after last season ended, with the team having been shrunk down to matchbook size, and camping out inside the model race-car track in the mansion of scientist Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) while he searches for a way to re-embiggen them with the help of the sole remaining normal-sized member of the team, Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), a.k.a. Negative Man. The situation allows for lots of sight-gag flourishes, from Larry patiently crafting tiny pancakes for breakfast to the painfully slow lift that carries them from the race-car set to the floor of the mansion.
Psychologically, the group’s in bad shape, largely due to the fallout from last year’s climactic revelation that Niles was the architect of everyone’s individual life tragedies which granted them their unwanted powers. Foul-mouthed Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robotman (Brendan Fraser), can’t process his anger and grief at Niles, instead spending his time luring rats from the walls with cheese just to rage-punch his emotions out. Jane (Diane Guerrero) is strung out, spending her days in a somnambulant fog, which allows her to numb her feelings but also keep all the rest of her 64 personalities submerged, a situation to which they increasingly protest. Larry is having flashbacks of the family life he left behind, confronting his failings as a husband and father. Vic Stone (Joivan Wade), a.k.a Cyborg, is similarly dealing with the mental trauma stemming from his past acts of violence, his former signature optimism drowned by his depression. Only Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a.k.a. Elasti-Girl, shows signs of hope, as the former big-screen star becomes determined to master her body-bending powers and use them for good.
The animating cause of season two’s overarching narrative is the arrival of Niles’ daughter, Dorothy (Abigail Shapiro), another character with a crushingly sad backstory. Niles has long kept her safely sealed away from the world at large, but with her return, the team finds itself begrudgingly working with the man who betrayed them, struggling to keep Dorothy safe by helping Niles continue to save her from her own unpredictable abilities. The situation adds to the season’s broad theme involving the responsibilities of parents to their children: Larry’s guilt over abandoning his sons, Cliff’s halting attempts to reconnect with his daughter, Vic’s continued efforts to grapple with what both he and his father have done to their family. Some of it is handled with skill and nuance, and some of it feels like the narrative equivalent of Cliff knocking one of his rats across the room. Cyborg leaves for an extended arc, and the team’s fractured relationships make each episode feel more disjointed and sprawling than before. The third episode, which sends each character off to endure some torture (the episode is literally called “Pain Patrol”), is especially downbeat, sapping the series of its blackly comic spirit. Without Alan Tudyk’s smirking voiceover, used to such great effect last season, some of this bleak material is just… bleak.
The episodes this season (at least these three provided for review) hew to more of a “crisis of the week” structure, and these stories bring some much-needed levity and oddball fun to the proceedings. Episode two’s mission to recover a time-altering substance enters a cheesy roller-skate disco, and there’s some impressive visual flair to a separate adventure with a monster who feeds off of pain. (The show still looks great, though it does appear as though there’s been a budget cut when it comes to the elaborate CGI that was so skillfully employed last year, not to mention a reduced nine-episode season.) And the technique of leaping around in time, visiting these self-described “weirdos” at key moments in their past, continues to enrich all the character study.
Still, while subjecting everyone onscreen to continued emotional pain and existential ennui may generate conflict, watching a bunch of sad sacks mope around isn’t tremendously enjoyable. Even Cliff’s usually reliable profanity-strewn hectoring gets overused, becoming enervating instead of exuberant. (Though his responding to Niles’ admonition that punching rats “won’t fill the hole inside” by killing a rat, wearing its fur as a coat, and spitting back, “Hole filled, asshole” is pretty great.) The season may be pushing its characters into the heart of darkness early on, the better to let them emerge phoenix-like on the other side. But hopefully it will happen soon—in its early going, Doom Patrol’s second season sacrifices too much joy on the altar of its heroes’ troubled psyches, without enough chances to savor their unusual charms—or marvel at the oddities continually swirling around them. For its first few episodes, DC’s strange and engaging drama feels more like Doom And Gloom Patrol.