When one of the characters on HBO Max’s Doom Patrol mentions that it’s the year 2021, it feels wrong, given how unstuck in time the characters have always been. Mastermind Niles Caulder plucked each member of the misfit superhero team from somewhere in the 20th century — a race-car driver presumed dead, an Air Force pilot possessed by a mysterious energy being, a 1950s actress exposed to a powerful gas — and protected/sequestered them in his mansion, where they remained in stasis until the action started, when the series launched on DC Universe in 2019. By the third season, now exclusively on HBO Max, the contrast between the characters’ origins and their halting attempts to rejoin the world has become a potent engine for both experimentation and distraction.
In the span of the new season’s first three episodes, Doom Patrol includes a 2001-style space enlightenment trip, a dilapidated East Coast resort, and a romp through the afterlife that wouldn’t be out of place on Supernatural, an earlier home for Doom Patrol showrunner Jeremy Carver. And as with Supernatural, Carver’s Doom Patrol has created an environment that can easily accommodate new, goofy characters who can flit in and out of the action and still feel at home on the show, whether it’s alien conqueror Garguax, or Sandman’s Dead Boy Detective Agency.
The biggest addition to the cast is a literal stand-in for this approach to storytelling. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Michelle Gomez enters the series as Madame Rouge, a time traveler who has forgotten who she is and what she’s supposed to be doing. She could be anyone, and go anywhere — the same way Doom Patrol can be anything and everything from episode to episode.
Madame Rouge, Garguax, the Dead Boy Detectives, and the Brotherhood of Dada join characters like Flex Mentallo as toys pulled from the deep DC backstory box, ready for whatever game the writers and producers want to play. This endless experimental quality, the feeling that Carver and his team are looking for shiny different things to try, makes Doom Patrol occasionally hit-or-miss. Even the best additions to the show (especially Garguax) barely get a chance to establish themselves. Still, the show’s constant mutations and dedication to novelty are always a draw.
Doom Patrol has a lot of competition in the field of “weird superhero shows.” Staying on top of every superhero TV show is a part-time job at this point, but the fact that we’re in an ecosystem that can support Legends of Tomorrow, WandaVision, The Boys, and Titans, not to mention animated options like Teen Titans GO!, proves the medium has reached a certain degree of maturity. Now that there’s an established pattern of success, there’s far more room to experiment with different tones, niches, and subgenres — and for audiences to expect lots of different things from superhero TV.
One thing they rightly know not to expect at this point, though: Superhero 101. Doom Patrol almost completely ignores any of the obvious “Wait, what?”-level questions anyone might have about the insane stuff happening. And the characters are as blasé about the strangeness of an offbeat superhero world as the characters are. In one subplot of this season, Cliff Steele, aka Robotman, tries to make amends with his daughter, Clara, and be present in the life of her baby son. Cliff’s daughter-in-law Melissa is concerned, not because her wife’s father is a gigantic metal man, but because he’s simply too desperate to hang around and help out.
And when the gang runs into Garguax, an intergalactic conqueror living in a resort that’s set spiritually (though not literally) in the Catskills, everyone except Cyborg — a weak spot in this season precisely because he feels like he belongs more in the self-consciously “gritty,” serious Titans — just sort of shrugs their shoulders and deals with what’s in front of them, instead of questioning it.
There are perhaps five minutes of real “action” in a given episode of Doom Patrol. Most of the time, the outlandish supernatural moments — the “super” parts of the superhero show — are totally unrelated to any bigger mission or plot. Jane uses her super-strength to punch Cliff out of a neurologically induced paralysis, or Rita literally melts down in response to pressure. In the vast spans between bursts of heroics, the characters are bickering, doing comedy bits, tinkering with steampunk machinery, or turning into zombies. You know, having fun.
That gives Doom Patrol the space to throw a boatload of spaghetti at the wall — and while some of its ideas don’t stick, the ones that do are great. Garguax is far and away the best part of the season thus far. His makeup, mannerisms, and really his whole deal are straight out of a 1990s genre show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the way the show commits to not explaining why he’s at the resort is fantastic. (Really, Garguax feels like a throwback to Lorne from Angel in the best way.) Better still, his assistant Samuelson, played by Billy Boyd (Pippin from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies), starts out as a non-presence and slowly becomes a major force, simmering in the background until he’s ready to boil over with rage. If there’s an issue with Doom Patrol’s hunger for experimentation, it’s that these frequently delightful characters jump in and out of the show.
Thankfully, several of the main cast members are successful, relatively stable experiments — in particular, Robotman, who has truly come alive as a collaboration between Brendan Fraser (who voices the character and plays him in flashbacks), Riley Shanahan (his onscreen body, in his cyborg iteration), and the rest of the costuming, production, and post-production staff who create him. Fraser’s vocal performance subtly shifts the emphasis of Robotman’s enthusiasm from childlike to Boomer grandpa, and gives the show an emotional center through sheer force of will, even when Cliff is high out of his mind, or inexplicably speaking Japanese.
At a certain point, Carver and the rest of the writers and producers on Doom Patrol will have to decide which, if any, of the new characters will stick around, and which will vanish into the background. Thus far, the most consistent addition to Doom Patrol is Michelle Gomez’s Madame Rouge, playing in the same theatrical, vaguely menacing register she’s recently honed on Sabrina and Doctor Who. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) But there are plenty of new players, like Garguax, the Dead Boy Detective Agency, and a reinterpretation of Brotherhood of Dada member The Fog. Any of them might make consistent additions to the series, but given Doom Patrol’s constantly shifting nature, they all might disappear at any moment, as well.
At least the relationships between the main characters — especially between neurotic team members Rita and Larry, and between disgruntled team members Cliff and Jane — have become solid enough to support Doom Patrol’s day-to-day action whenever the restless reinvention gets too hectic. If that base remains stable enough, and the occasional (or not-so-occasional) addition of weird new spices to the blend remains exciting, Doom Patrol can keep rainy-day daydreaming as long as it likes.
The first three episodes of Doom Patrol season 3 are now on HBO Max, with new episodes arriving on Thursdays.