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Doom Patrol painted the picture of home isolation a year before coronavirus
Here’s the scene: A group of four individuals, each stranger, more ornery, and more violently antisocial than the last, have taken refuge in a secluded house away from any major town or community. The four are, in their own ways, terrified of what’s going on in the outside world. They suddenly found their worlds upended by extraordinary events, adjusting to a new reality that is at best unpleasant, and at worst resembles a nightmare with no end in sight.
This probably describes many families in the country that are coping with the coronavirus pandemic and the new lockdown rules that have shut down normal day-to-day activity. But more than a year before the pandemic, this was the setting for Doom Patrol, one of DC Universe’s marquee live-action dramas. When it premiered on Feb. 15, 2019, Doom Patrol was a critical hit, and evidently popular enough with audiences that HBO decided to add the upcoming second season, which premieres on June 25, to its HBO Max streaming service (launching on May 27). Boasting an ensemble cast with genre veterans like Timothy Dalton and Brendan Fraser, and emerging genre talent like Diane Guerrero and Matt Bomer, the show struck a remarkable balance between prestige-caliber storytelling and the kind of irreverence and absurdity you could only find in a show about misfit superheroes.
The first season deserves your attention now more than ever. It’s not simply a show worth binging during quarantine, it’s also something of a lodestar for life under quarantine. The show unwittingly resonates more strongly than ever, precisely because it’s a show about how to deal with — and eventually overcome — isolation and its deleterious effects on our own psyche.
The titular Doom Patrol of the TV show (although they never actually adopt this name, nor do most of them even adopt their respective superhero aliases from the comics) is a motley crew of five individuals, and each of these characters tells us something different about what it means to live in isolation, disconnected from society (physically or otherwise). Nearly all of them are paralyzed by different fears and anxieties that keep them from leaving the house.
We’re first introduced to Cliff Steele (Fraser), a former NASCAR driver who loses his wife, daughter, and physical body in a horrific car accident, and must experience life as a brain residing in a robotic body of metal and bolts. He spends his days wallowing in the guilt of being a failed dad to his daughter.
Next, we meet Rita Farr (April Bowlby) a former Hollywood actress who’s extremely far removed from the fame and material delights she once knew. Exposure to an exotic gas changed Rita’s cellular structure, and now she struggles to maintain a solid human form and keep from breaking down into a gelatinous blob. Rita’s greatest fear is that others will see her at her ugliest and most misshapen and judge her as a freak.
Then we’re introduced to Larry Trainor (Bomer), a former U.S. Air Force pilot whose life was derailed by a horrible plane crash, resulting in burns all over his body — and some weird negative energy being now living inside him and occasionally doing, well, cool superpower things. But it's Trainor’s inability to come to grips with his homosexuality that is a source of constant turmoil and self-loathing.
And then we get to Jane (Guerrero), a young woman with 64 distinct personalities developed from childhood trauma, each of which has their own special powers. Her struggle to keep her small town of personalities in check makes it difficult to forge relationships and connect with people, though Jane would probably argue there’s little the company of others could do for her anyway.
The first episode does a near-perfect job in showing that in all the time the characters have shut themselves out from the outside world, they have not been able to grow into their new lives. On an unsanctioned trip into town, they go their separate ways the moment the opportunity to chase the past presents itself.
Larry goes to an all-American bar, looking to feel a little of that military-man pioneer spirit he once felt as a star Air Force pilot, though the atmosphere is plainly at odds with his sexuality and who he really is. Rita goes to a retro diner to relive the era that knew her as a household name, but it backfires badly as the others in the diner talk gossip about rumors and hearsay surrounding Farr, and she has a literal meltdown. Cliff, striving to be the good dad he seldom was, buys a stuffed animal for his deceased daughter on her birthday but his old demons weigh him down. Instead of celebrating his daughter’s life, he suffocates in his own depression. Jane just wants to take a simple stroll down Main Street like a normal person, but her contempt for the townspeople lets her darker personalities surface, and her day is derailed. Years of self-isolation blunts each one’s ability to connect with others and live happily in the present moment.
The show stresses these problems to an extreme by throwing some absolutely batsh** elements into the characters’ ways. Doom Patrol’s embrace of irreverence and absurdity is a new level for the superhero genre. The first episode caps off with a donkey that farts messages and is, itself, a gateway to another dimension. The main villain, Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), is the show’s omnipresent narrator who has no respect for the fourth wall. There are walking killer butt monsters; an Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man (a dinosaur-human-celery chimera); a talking cockroach with a god complex; a personality of Jane’s called Karen who is the archetypal white girl with a wedding Pinterest page come to life; an amazing scene where everyone uncontrollably orgasms at the same time (with Cliff hilariously faking it so he doesn’t feel left out).
I could go on and on. All of this chaos feeds into something weirder and weirder—not unlike the trajectory of 2020. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Even now in the real world, we’ve been spending such a long time indoors and going stir-crazy that our sporadic forays into the outside world feel strange and bizarre. Nothing appears as it should. For Cliff, Rita, Larry, and Jane, after decades of self-imposed isolation, it’s no wonder the outside world is like an alien planet.
The member of the team who cuts against this grain is Vic Stone, aka Cyborg (Jovian Wade), who isn’t introduced until the second episode, leaving the others to flounder in their self-imposed isolation until he shows up. Vic doesn’t live in Doom Manor with the rest of the team. He’s a bona fide superhero from Detroit, armed with cybernetic enhancements after an explosive accident killed his mother and nearly killed him. Vic has all the reasons to feel depressed and isolated and unwilling to ever show his face to the world — even now he is still struggling with the guilt of his mother’s death, and a degree of disconnect from normal society given his conspicuous robotic parts. Yet Vic roams free, choosing to dedicate his life to helping others, insofar as joining the others in their quest to find the Chief.
Ultimately, Vic is who we want the other characters to eventually be: secure with themselves, unafraid to show the world who they are, willing to take risks. Instead of perpetually pining for their past lives before their accidents and traumas and keeping themselves locked up indoors, we hope that Cliff, Rita, Larry, and Jane can find some peace and embrace the world outside.
Our own current quarantine is not self-imposed. But we’re still experiencing something similar to our metahuman friends on screen. The effects of isolation are a positive feedback loop, making many of us feel paralyzed and powerless under our own depression and anxiety. The prolonged social distance reinforces and bolsters those emotions to make us feel even more paralyzed.
But as Doom Patrol’s characters progress, they begin to come to terms with their lives — they adapt, as we all have and continue to. Like Vic, they start to discover it’s okay to let the past be the past, and instead forge a new future that’s desirable. If we’re to believe like many experts are saying that life after the pandemic won’t be the same, then perhaps it might be worth taking a lesson from Doom Patrol to forget the past, muster up some confidence, and look forward to what’s to come. Like the team in the show, our own isolation won’t last forever. Building a new normal so we can go outside again will mean trusting that we support each other, even under the strangest of circumstances.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.