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In Doom Patrol, you can save the world no matter how broken you are

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The HBO Max/DC Universe series takes one of the most bizarre comics ever made and turns it into excellent, empathetic TV

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Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Most TV shows aren’t weird enough. Weird things happen on them — everyone’s seen Twin Peaks and loves an homage — but truly weird TV shows are rare. Rarer still are shows like Doom Patrol, a series that is genuinely strange and unexpected at every turn, but also just as deeply interested in empathy as it is grossing you out or making you laugh. Calling it a “superhero show” feels like a disservice; it’s more like therapy that happens to feature superheroes as well as talking cockroaches and paintings that eat people.

Doom Patrol is back this week for a second season after hopping over to HBO Max from its previous home on the DC Universe app (where it can still be streamed), and it boasts one of the most unusual casts of protagonists you’ll see in any show, let alone a comic book one.

In the eponymous Doom Patrol, there’s Cliff Steele, a former racer with his brain now in a robot body (the racer is played by Brendan Fraser, the robot body by Riley Shanahan); Jane, a system of 64 distinct personalities, each with their own superpower (most are played by Diane Guerrero); Rita Farr, a golden age actress whose body can turn to goop (played by April Bowlby); Larry Trainor, a horribly scarred pilot who shares his body with a “negative energy spirit” (played by Matt Bomer in voice and in flashbacks, and Matthew Zuk in his fully bandaged costume); and Vic “Cyborg” Stone, an aspiring superhero who became part machine following an accident (played by Joivan Wade).

This gang of misfits has been gathered by Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), who is immediately abducted by the mysterious, seemingly all-powerful Mr. Nobody. Despite their clear lack of chemistry and very few noble intentions, the ad-hoc team goes on a mission to find the man who brought them together, encountering all manner of bizarre threats along the way.

The elevator pitch for the Doom Patrol comic book is that they are the “world’s strangest superheroes,” and as created by Bob Haney, Arnold Drake, and Bruno Premiani in the 1960s, that mostly meant a team of outcasts the outside world regarded as “freaks” taking on the oddest villains its creators could dream up, like the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, a dude who was part plant, part rock, and part dinosaur. The Doom Patrol TV show has a lot of those classic comics in its DNA, but it takes its biggest cues from the comic’s late-’80s reinvention by writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case, an acclaimed stretch of stories that took the team in a surreal direction, with Dadaist villains who wanted to plunge the world into absurdity and characters like Danny The Street, a sentient non-binary city block that travels from town to town.

The result is a show that’s maybe the most beautiful mess on television. Broken people who barely understand themselves confront incomprehensibly strange threats. They then must overcome these threats by understanding themselves and each other better, even if they don’t necessarily get along, or if the boundaries of good taste are left far behind them. (Averting one particular apocalypse involves getting eaten by a giant talking roach, and convincing it that it is really horny for a similarly giant rat. Another involves a pocket dimension in a donkey’s ass.)

A lot of Doom Patrol, especially in the first couple of episodes, is deceptive in how it indulges in Deadpool-style self-aware antics. Its primary antagonist, Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), is an obnoxious being who exists beyond time and space and is aware he is on a streaming TV show, and will not hesitate to tell you when he sees a trope being deployed or avoided. But like most of its characters, who are abrasive and annoying in order to avoid having to be vulnerable, the show eventually opens up to reveal heartbreak and pain and show what it’s like to do the difficult work of moving past it.

It’s a story about misfits that is actually interested in what causes people to be marginalized, not merely as an excuse for abrasive characters and sharp banter. Every character on the show is on the outskirts of society and couldn’t be accepted if they wanted to, not with the world as it is right now. They’re not optimists — a better world likely isn’t coming — but they can do their part to keep this one from getting worse, and look out for others like them who society has deemed too broken to be worth it.

Sure, there are fights in Doom Patrol — big, ridiculous fights, with assassins made from the letters people never send, or walking butts filled with teeth, or weird cultists from a snowglobe world — but fighting is never the answer. Talking is. Loving yourself is. Acceptance is the line every member of Doom Patrol tries to clear, but can never quite reach. That’s okay though. Each time, they get a little closer.

Another, simpler reason to enjoy Doom Patrol is that it fully throws itself into the absurdity unique to comics at their best. Comics make up the fabric of the show — characters travel to a pocket dimension hidden in the white space between the panels in a comic book, another character walks straight out of one, and past, present, and future all exist right alongside one another.

Season 1 overcame a middling premiere to become a show where anything can happen, slowly building the team up before pulling the rug out from under them in a finale that drove a wedge between the crew. The second season keeps it coming with a premiere that picks up immediately after that, featuring the team in a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style adventure, trying to help a girl whose imaginary friends can come to frightening life.

Superhero fiction is obsessed with the idea of “saving the world,” with said saving usually boiling down to punching the right people. Doom Patrol believes it’s harder than that. Someone is always hurt, always overlooked, always missing the support they need. The people who help the broken are broken too. These are heroes who don’t know what a better world looks like, they’re not sure what a better version of themselves look like. But they do know what an honest one is. That’s something they can work towards. That’s how they can help everyone.