It doesn't need to be said again, but let's say it anyway: We are obsessed with superheroes. Over the last decade, masked men and women have leaped off the pages of comic books to find massive success on the big and small screens. Superhero culture has gotten so large, in fact, that there's room for a whole host of variants within the genre: do-gooders like the heroes of Supergirl and The Flash, who try to balance saving the world and having a normal life; tortured souls like Arrow's leading archer, who's sacrificed so much trying to save his city; and mind-bending mutants like the ones in Legion, who put a trippy new spin on a familiar franchise.
But even a subversive show like Legion has nothing on DC Universe's Doom Patrol.
It starts with something small, simple: No one wears a cape on Doom Patrol (Edna Mode would be so proud). But the disruption runs deeper as we get into the central superheroes' powers. Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) has 64 different personalities, each of them with a unique force that ranges from thought manipulation to teleportation. Rita Farr (April Bowlby), aka Elasti-Girl, is a former Hollywood actress who turns into a giant sludge monster whenever she gets emotionally overwhelmed. Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer and Harry Zuk), is a pilot who crashed into a mysterious space force that caused a rebellious, electric being to live inside him. Robot Man, voiced by Brendan Fraser and physically portrayed by Riley Shanahan, is a philandering former race car driver whose brain ends up in a robot body after a devastating accident. Then there's Cyborg (Joivan Wade), a Justice League holdover who is trying to prevent his robot half from taking over his human side.
But as cool as the powers are, the greatest thing about the series is that the superhero elements are secondary to what actually makes Doom Patrol so interesting: the characters. While Robot Man was a crappy husband in his former life as Cliff Steele, his desire to take care of the family he developed with the Doom Patrol is the glue that holds the show together. Fraser is only able to act with his voice, with Shanahan expertly moving Robot Man's body on screen, but the former Mummy actor makes you feel every wave of grief and anger with a touching sincerity.
The same can be said for Bomer and Zuk, who similarly team up to portray Negative Man (Bomer playing Larry in flashbacks and in his present-day burnt body, with Zuk as the completely bandaged version of him, still voiced by Bomer). However, it's Bomer who truly shines in the glimpses into Larry's past and fantasy sequences, where he relives his most painful moments as a closeted gay man in the armed forces. Bomer is best known for playing the debonaire, clean-cut type, but as he peels back layers of Larry throughout the first season, his heartbreaking performance showcases a new aspect of the actor's range.
When it comes to tragic backstories, you also can't discount Cyborg, who could have easily been sidelined as the boring moral compass of the group. However, Wade is able to turn what could be an "Overcompensating Jock Constantly Yearning for Dad's Approval" archetype into something truly special. And a twist in Cyborg's storyline in the first season proves that the writers of Doom Patrol aren't afraid to go to dark places and examine what happens when dysfunctional heroes reach their rock bottom.
Bowlby also gets to put her own unique twist on the superhero storyline through Rita. On the surface, Elasti-Girl is a glamorous actress unable to deal with powers that turn her into a globby monster. But as the first season progresses, you learn that her powers are actually a manifestation of her self-image, and they emerge only when she's unable to maintain her perfect veneer. At her core, Elasti-Girl is a shining example of how self-love is a lot more difficult than just embracing yoga and face masks, and Bowlby impressively navigates that tricky terrain without ever being heavy-handed or venturing into saccharine territory.
Perhaps the greatest gift of Doom Patrol, however, is that it's become a star vehicle for Diane Guerrero, who after years of being underrated support on Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin finally takes center stage. She plays 64 different versions of Jane, a wayward young woman with a dissociative personality disorder. Each version of Jane comes with their own point of view, voice, and super power. Guerrero is tasked with switching between these personalities often at the drop of a hat, sometimes moving between as many as six different ones in the course of a single scene. It's a stunning performance that should be at the center of Emmy conversations, but has been largely ignored.
Many have dismissed Doom Patrol because it's yet another superhero show on yet another streaming platform, but that's a mistake. These aren't heroes trying to have a better work-life balance or bad guys fighting badder guys. They are broken people trying the best they can to do good in order to create meaning in their lives. Many of us can relate to that, even if we're afraid to admit it. Every aspect of Doom Patrol, even the ongoing fight with supervillain Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), places priority on the emotional impact these events have on the characters, and thus the series rewards the audience with a deeper and more meaningful viewing experience. None of us has had our head severed from our body and then shoved onto a robot form, but we all know what it means to lose something important and cope with the yearning of wanting it back. While Doom Patrol is undoubtedly one of the weirder superhero tales on TV, it's also the one that provides the best allegory for the human experience.
The good news is that starting in 2020, Doom Patrol will be even easier to access, with Season 1 heading to HBO Max and an already-announced Season 2 that will stream on both DC Universe and HBO Max. That means you have no more excuses for missing this gem of a show.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)