In terms of television series, Doom Patrol is pretty out there. Based on a DC Comics property (specifically, the late-1980s iteration written by Grant Morrison), the show revolves around outcasts and weirdos of the superhero universe, people who see themselves not as superior beings, but unlucky souls cursed with powers that bring them hardship and sadness.
There’s Larry “Negative Man” Trainor (Matt Bomer), a former test pilot stuck with a being of pure energy in his body, one he can’t communicate with and that renders him helpless when it emerges. Cliff “Robotman” Steele (Brendan Fraser) is the brain of an auto racer welded into an outdated metal body following the accident that killed his wife and daughter. Rita “Elasti-Girl” Farr (April Bowlby) was a film star, forced into hiding after developing an uncontrollable power that turns her body into a sagging, gooey mass of flesh. Rounding out the main quartet is Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder who has 64 different personas, each with their own unique superpower. With aid from Cyborg (yes, the character from Justice League, here re-envisioned as a young man terrified of being taken over by his cybernetic parts), these broken and bruised individuals exist outside the comic book norm.
The show’s recently concluded first season (now streaming on DC Universe) was a postmodern mashup that never found a plotline or character too gonzo to employ, no emotion so sincere it can’t be mined for scatological comedy, no image too goofy to become integral to the plot. Whether it’s a farting donkey that hides a dimension inside itself or a cockroach with Curtis Armstrong’s voice who pops up periodically to rant about the end of days, the series prides itself on an unabashed embrace of its over-the-top source material. It all raises the obvious question: “How do you make that a coherent TV show?” Imagine my surprise when the series accomplished this tall order by following one of the sturdiest blueprints in TV history: the humanistic, progressive work of Norman Lear.
It’s an odd comparison, I’ll grant. Lear is a true icon of the medium, a pioneering and revolutionizing force whose résumé teems with some of the most admired and influential sitcoms ever made: All In The Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day At A Time, Sanford & Son. Doom Patrol is a superhero show with a recurring character who tracks people by eating bits of their hair. American television has absorbed the DNA of Lear’s output so deeply that his latter-day influence is difficult to quantify. It’s rare to find scripted comedies that aren’t indebted to him, even when it’s not explicit. But what makes Doom Patrol’s Lear parallels interesting is all the ways the show seems to rebut his shows’ structures and aesthetic while subtly embracing their spirit. So let’s look at what these canonical shows have in common with an obscure bunch of DC also-rans swearing up a storm on a niche streaming service.
My colleague Noel Murray has compared Lear’s work to the social realist theater of the early 20th century, and it’s not hard to see why. Shows like The Jeffersons and Maude are small-scale stories of working people dealing with culture clash, class consciousness, and changing social norms and mores that render life both more difficult and more bearable, depending on the day. It’s intimate, and sometimes harsh. It’s tempered by the “comedy” part of these situation comedies, but there’s challenging stuff at the heart of Lear’s endeavors, an effort to confront America with the uglier sides of itself.
For all the seeming pyrotechnics and CGI-aided chaos, Doom Patrol remains an uncomfortably close and personal affair. Its narrative resides as much in the flashbacks and memories of its traumatized protagonists as in their present. Any one installment is likely to devote attention to a painful encounter from the past, such as Larry’s heartbreaking lie of a marriage, a desperate attempt to keep his homosexuality secret amid the hypocritical optimism of the “Greatest Generation.” Here, there are striking parallels to the Lear oeuvre: The episode “Therapy Patrol,” in which the characters reflect on their interpersonal relationships and whether or not they should move forward together or apart, would make an excellent double bill with Maude’s first-season episode “Flashback,” in which Maude and husband Walter reminisce about their earlier years, and confront the decision about whether to get married, cohabitate, or just split up. Both showcase the messy relationship struggles that define our closest connections, and forego the normal theatrics of their respective genres for close-knit stories that defy easy classification.
Both confront hot-button social issues while avoiding soapbox moralizing or “very special episode” treacle
Lear’s shows never felt like homework, but it’s not because there weren’t profoundly serious issues being dealt with most of the time. Grappling with thorny questions of racism, classism, oppression, and generational culture-clash were par for the course on his sitcoms. From instances like The Jeffersons’ exploration of guns in America in season eight’s “A Case Of Self-Defense,” to All In The Family’s near-weekly calling out of mainstream racism, the social concerns of the time were always front and center in these programs. In a close look at the Sanford And Son episode “The Piano Movers,” we see the messages weren’t openly stated as “what have we learned?”-style lectures, but baked into the plotting and performances. Lamont Sanford repeatedly gets caught by a white employer finding him at rest during expected periods of work, while his father, Fred, the actual would-be slacker, is seen as being exploited by his lazy son. The reasons for the uncomfortableness of the predicament—racial, class-based, and generational—become fodder for humor and character beats, not PSAs. Similarly, season one’s “The Suitcase Case” finds the pair forced into (eventually) doing the right thing when they find a briefcase filled with stolen cash, the slow acceptance of the ethical decision mined for comedic pathos, given their financial straits.
In the Doom Patrol episode “Danny Patrol,” the team splits up to deal with a pair of pressing issues. Cyborg and Larry head off on the latest step in their season-long quest to locate their mentor, Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), who’s been abducted by a villain called Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk). Stepping into what looks like a block-long, old-school, small-town main street, the two enter a cabaret theater, in which they learn the truth: The street itself is alive, a gender-queer being named Danny, who has used their powers of teleportation to stay one step ahead of the Bureau Of Normalcy, a government agency trying to hunt down and capture or destroy Danny. So far, so weird.
But Cyborg and Larry soon discover Danny is far more than just a sentient being. They’re also a safe haven for people who have never felt at home, who for whatever reason felt persecuted in the wider world, or were forced to repress their true nature until Danny offered them a place where it was okay to be themselves. At first, Cyborg and Larry have no interest in the plight of the others; they have their own problems. (“I’m trying to find my middle finger emoji,” Cyborg tells the drag performer who explains Danny’s nature to them.) But by eventually joining the Dannyzens to take a stand against the Bureau and fight back, Cyborg and Larry align themselves with marginalized people of all stripes.
This is the grudging embrace of “doing the right thing” that Lear’s characters were also often forced into, a narrative in which previously more isolated or prejudiced people learn a little something about accepting themselves and others. Every discussion of the people saved on Danny Street echoes with the personal experience of a lead character giving voice and drama to the social issues on display, a Lear hallmark, and arguably the most important one.
Lear mined fraught conversations of the day for pathos and pratfalls, often on spare stages representing his characters’ drab surroundings (give or take a deluxe apartment in the sky). But these slice-of-life tales were performed for studio audiences primed for the over-the-top, Shakespearean zing of his bold put-downs and acerbic one-liners.
The latter is an element which often gets overlooked in encomiums to Lear’s shows and his outsized influence. For all the hard-hitting topicality and real-world seriousness of his series, there was a loudness—and a very literal one. So much of his characters’ dialogue and wit was turned up to 11, a way to amplify the emotion and maintain a steady attention-getting atmosphere for discussions of touchy subjects. It’s not the aspect that scholars like to linger on, any more than they do the aforementioned Shakespeare’s dick jokes and cartoonish violence. But it’s a crucial ingredient in the mix.
Doom Patrol is loud as fuck. Truly: Cliff, a.k.a. Robotman, says “fuck” so often and with such gusto that he’d give Al Swearengen a run for his money. But that broad and larger-than-life tone actually feels borrowed from Lear—and at its best (which is surprisingly often), it contains the same combination of highly individual tragedy and perspective with the broad-based nature of the issues being addressed. The episode “Jane Patrol” highlights the traumatic jumble of identities vying for attention in Jane’s psyche. They’re each strikingly different—a nun with a chainsaw, a punk, a child afraid of her own shadow—and the resulting interactions are uproarious and bracing. But they do so in a manner that nonetheless conveys the underlying gravity of the situation, without mocking it or playing her illness for cheap laughs. The loudness is the conveyance by which to deliver the subtle character study.
At best, Lear’s sitcoms were a spoonful-of-sugar endeavor, ginning up its sociopolitical discussions with comedy and action to such a degree that no one ever felt lectured to or scolded. Doom Patrol has this in spades; it’s so daffy, and so concerned with delivering fleet, sharp entertainment, that the coyly humanist heart lingering beneath every exchange never gets too clear a spotlight. Such emphasizing of humor over hectoring is a Lear specialty: As he told The A.V. Club in 2005, “What we wanted to say came after, ‘How do we make them laugh?’”
This is evident in even his most hard-hitting stories. Maude’s famous two-part narrative in which the character decides to get an abortion would still be incredibly edgy today, a sad statement about how far society hasn’t come in the realm of women’s rights. But watching the episode, what often gets left out is just how funny it also is, a bold and sharp-tongued joke-delivery system that never forgets entertainment is job number one. When her friend Carol tells Maude she doesn’t have to have the baby, Maude retorts, “Oh? What’ll I do, trade it in for a volleyball on Let’s Make A Deal?”
Lacerating comedy like that is in Doom Patrol’s blood. It’s rarely far from calling out its own investment in drama—right before the first season’s penultimate episode, Mr. Nobody’s voice-over narration mocks the series’ rich investment in emotional development: “Finally, after 13 meandering episodes of character-driven schlock, we can finally get to the show that everyone wanted to see in the first place: A superhero show!”
Doom Patrol makes you laugh. But it also pulls your mind toward matters of consequence, and in a way that comes across as fresh and essential to the story. It helps a lot that the writing is strong, and the point of view deeply idiosyncratic in a nevertheless relatable way. But ultimately, Doom Patrol excels because of its blend of absurdist postmodern sensibilities and crazy scenarios with the firm, proven structure of a Norman Lear production. In other words, it carries on the noble tradition of Lear’s work; it says people are here to stay, they’re wildly different, and the best we can do comes from listening to each other—farting donkey or no.