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Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is stylish fun, but too precious with its mysteries

Sam Barsanti Feb 02, 2019. 22 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

A few decades ago, for no discernible reason, a bunch of women all over the world suddenly gave birth despite not being pregnant. Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), the world’s richest and most adventurous man, adopts as many of these children as he can and raises them to be a superhero team, because all of them (or at least most of them) have superpowers. Now the kids are all grown up, Hargreeves is dead, and everybody is all sorts of fucked up by the ridiculous circumstances of their upbringing. That’s the hook at the center of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy—an adaptation of the Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá comic book of the same name—and it is a very good hook. The cleverest part of it, though, is that this isn’t really a Watchmen-style deconstruction of the superhero genre; it’s about a weird family that has drifted apart for various reasons and must now come back together, baggage and all, in order to save the world one more time.

The problem is that the show itself doesn’t seem to understand its greatest strengths. The production design, for one thing, is incredible. The Umbrella Academy has the playful kitschiness of Wes Anderson and the overt absurdity of Tim Burton, without giving in to the worst impulses of either. The performances are also all largely good, with the actors leaning into the heightened nature of a comic book story in a way that makes it all feel more legitimate than some of the pre-MCU adaptations that seemed ashamed to be based on comics. Unfortunately, the writers tends to hide this good stuff behind mysteries they’re in no hurry to solve and secrets they would rather obfuscate than explore. It’s one of those shows where the characters are at their best when they’re all together, bickering and bantering, but the plot keeps them separated just for the sake of dragging out the big reveals.

This is especially clear in the way the members of the Hargreeves family are introduced. The kids of the eponymous Umbrella Academy weren’t given names by their adoptive father—instead he numbered them in order of their importance to his crime-fighting team—but they’ve since given themselves names in order to diminish his oppressive influence on their lives. Let’s break it down:

  1. Number One is now Luther (Tom Hopper), a man with super-strength and a mysteriously huge body—though the explanation for why he’s so weird about only keeping his head exposed will be easy to guess for anyone who has read the comic.
  2. Number Two is Diego (David Castañeda), a masked vigilante who can do some supernatural knife tricks and weirdly seems the most well-adjusted.
  3. Number Three is Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), a famous celebrity who can control people but mysteriously refuses to use her power or talk about her own estranged daughter.
  4. Number Four is Klaus (Robert Sheehan), a drug addict who can communicate with the dead but, again, mysteriously struggles to do so these days.
  5. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) is a teleporter who mysteriously disappeared as a kid.
  6. Number Six mysteriously died at some point.
  7. Number Seven is Vanya (Ellen Page), a violin enthusiast who is definitely, totally, completely normal… to a mysterious degree.

You may notice a common thread here, which is that nearly all of them have some mysterious secret that needs to be unpacked as slowly and painfully as possible. That’s not even counting the fact that there are mysterious circumstances surrounding Reginald Hargreeves’ death or that Five returns early on with a mysterious mission—quickly revealed to be that he’s been stuck in the future since he disappeared and now has about eight days to prevent the apocalypse (and also he was in the future for decades but is back in his teenage body). Naturally, he has no idea what causes the apocalypse, and there’s a pair of mysterious agents on his tail who also seem to be from another time. It’s mysteries upon mysteries upon mysteries, and at a certain point it all just starts to get in the way of the characters and their disparate attempts to cope with their father’s death.

The most frustrating part of this is that the show is still very watchable. There are a number of big reveals that explain how certain things happened or what certain characters have been up to that are legitimately thrilling, and every episode features at least one wacky musical cue (usually an action sequence set to a classic pop song) that starts off fun, then quickly transitions into trying too hard, and then circles back around to being fun again. No amount of dance sequences or musical montages can fix it when the entire plot hits a wall, though, like one especially irritating episode that ends with a character going back in time and undoing literally everything that happened—which was mostly character development or marginal plot advances that had no reason to be undone. At its worst, The Umbrella Academy comes dangerously close to being a waste of time, and it’s amazing how long the show can stretch the eight days that come between the first episode and Number Five’s apocalypse.

It’s not that the writing is awful; it just veers a little too wildly between being needlessly vague and frustratingly ham-fisted. How many times in the history of media have we seen the “I didn’t think you’d come”/“I didn’t either” or “What’s the name of the woman you’re dating?”/“His name is so-and-so” exchanges? Overall, the cast is able to do a lot of good work with the iffy dialogue and plotting, and not just the core Hargreeves family, but also supporting players like Cameron Britton’s and Mary J. Blige’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, the agents looking for Five. The two of them mostly play off of each other, expressing their frustrations with the annoying bureaucracy of the organization they work for (which is a weirdly big plot point) and casually acknowledging how much more fun they’d have assassinating people if it wasn’t their job. They’re a fun pair, even if their interactions with the Hargreeves family are limited and when they do show up it’s mostly just to disrupt forward momentum on the central apocalypse mystery—as it is literally their job.

The Hargreeves family, though, is where the show shines its brightest. It would’ve been easy for The Umbrella Academy to focus on Page’s Vanya, who would be a good audience surrogate since she has to navigate her siblings’ big personalities as a normal person, or it could’ve centered on Hopper’s Luther, who has a very good square-jawed superhero charisma and is typically the most concerned with moving things along. Instead, the primary character is really Number Five, and Gallagher plays the old-man-in-a-teenage-body concept brilliantly. In a given moment, he’s both quietly happy to be reunited with his family after being stuck in the future for so long and completely devoid of any patience he may have once had for their bullshit. He knows he has to save the world, and he doesn’t have time for anything else—it’s just a shame that it takes him so long to realize he needs to get his family together and solve the problem with their help.

The Umbrella Academy remains an extremely entertaining show that looks great and features interesting characters that are worth getting to know better, but the series is more concerned with dragging out even the simplest backstories and narrative twists as long as possible. The show adapts more than just the first story arc of Way and Bá’s comic, so it’s not lacking plot, but in the end it’s just far too anxious about doling out answers to focus on the elements that could’ve made it great.

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