TV Review: “The Umbrella Academy” — What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stranger
By Isaac Feldberg
What’s a band of re-orphaned misfits to do? Dance away the pain, obviously.
It won’t take long to determine whether you’re on board with The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s roguish, occasionally riotous new superhero series. But, surprisingly, the moment that this show’s eccentricities click into place like candy-colored Lego blocks has little to do with its most oddly shaped piece. (That’d be a chimpanzee butler, named Pogo and voiced as a grave Mr. Stevens type by British stage actor Adam Godley.)
Instead, the scene where Umbrella Academy first reveals its gift for giddily, exultantly weird ecstasy is a moment that emulates the outsider spirit of my favorite comic books. It does this so brilliantly it actually drew a gasp from this jaded, superhero-saturated TV viewer.
In brief, here’s the set-up: years after a traumatic upbringing, five siblings — stoic Luther (Tom Hopper), hot-headed Diego (David Castañeda), quietly haunted Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), gloomy Vanya (Ellen Page), and wildly strung-out Klaus (Robert Sheehan) — reunite in the shadowy expanses of their childhood home, ostensibly to mourn the passing of their authoritarian adoptive father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore).
I say ostensibly because Hargreeves — think Community’s Cornelius Hawthorne played yardstick-straight — was convinced the children could be molded into a crack team of superheroes if deprived of inessential distractions like, say, warmth and affection. (To be fair, they’d exhibited powerful abilities since being born suddenly on the same day to women who had not been pregnant. But, to be frank, doesn’t subjecting maybe-messiahs to child abuse sound more like a recipe for bitter bad guys than hopeful heroes?) Less dad than drill sergeant, Hargreeves makes Professor X look like Mr. Rogers, and his kids as such feel mightily conflicted about how, or whether, they should grieve him.
What’s a band of re-orphaned misfits to do? Dance away the pain, obviously.
As the five siblings brood from their old rooms, the needle drops on a vintage record player. Tiffany’s insidious earworm “I Think We’re Alone Now” begins to echo down the hallways until it’s serenading all of them at once. They move to the music like insects wriggling free from amber: jerky, uncertain, desperately seizing a chance to escape, even momentarily. Then the camera pulls back and we can see the mansion as a dollhouse; inside it, the gang’s (mostly) here, alone yet together. It’s an astoundingly entertaining scene, and a feat of mesmerizing foreshadowing for a series about loners on the cusp of either finding or failing the family that’s been in front of them all along.
Of course, there’s more to The Umbrella Academy than that — with time-travelling assassins, robots harboring dark secrets, and an apocalypse on the way, this series stays busy — but its goofily sincere heart is on its latex-lined sleeve when it pushes its dysfunctional clan front and center, then lets them get weird.
A rhythm develops over the course of its 10 episodes: a superlative musical cue, punctuated by wry dialogue, leads into a vividly stylized action sequence, which then pans back with a droll flourish.
That progression owes much to showrunner Steve Blackman, especially the scripting, which is is filled with mordant one-liners pitched somewhere between galaxy-brain super-saga Legion and chipper Minnesota noir Fargo (both series he’s worked on). But it feels equally like the work of original Umbrella Academy comic-book writer Gerard Way, better known as the creative nexus of My Chemical Romance. The band’s music was punk-rock with a cinematic tint, all confessional lyrics and emo bellicosity cranked fully up and out to fill football stadiums; their albums, culminating in 2010 end-of-days epic Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, never stopped scaling up. Along the way the group generated comparisons to Queen and Muse, two other groups that wielded their glam-rock theatricality like a baton in the hand of a band conductor gone berserk. My Chemical Romance was unapologetic about its morbid streak — lest we forget, The Black Parade turned a cancer patient’s deathbed musings into a mega-decibel rock opera. But this macabre this never superseded their power-pop tendencies. To paraphrase the Joker, another hammy outcast who fashioned wacky, self-described order from noisy chaos, Way seemed to believe that what didn’t kill the band simply made them… stranger.
That’s a good way to describe The Umbrella Academy’s perspective, too. This is a series concerned with trauma and articulates about the ways in which shadows can fall out of the past and spread across the present. Indeed, the only thing these siblings agree on is how much they hate their father; it readily becomes apparent that his influence lingers, gruesomely, over their adult lives.
But its treatment of these characters is never as crushingly serious as that assessment might suggest. There’s real joy in this show’s panels, that of discovery and revelation, of catharsis and growth, and the series lets those moments ring out so loudly that they almost always feel earnest, and earned. There’s a second brilliantly music-led scene later on, and it’s the best thing in the season, a swooning dance sequence in which two characters who’ve put up walls between each other since childhood finally get to express what they never could in words beneath showering gold lights. It’s magic.
And the performers are strongest across-the-board in how they balance out that equation of pathos and winking levity. Klaus, the most immediately pitiable of all the Umbrella kids, is played by Sheehan with a charming mischievous streak; he can barely control his ability to communicate with the dead, staying intoxicated in order to numb the effects of that unasked-for gift. Yet, despite this morose side, he doubles as a snark factory. When Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) — a long-lost sibling who’s traveled through time for decades and ended up back in the present, trapped in the body of a young boy — arrives to predicts the apocalypse, he conducts himself with a mixture of acerbic wit and shocking ultraviolence. He becomes part of a pantheon of pint-sized vigilantes, up there with Hit-Girl. If the show has a breakout fan favorite, it’s him.
The Umbrella Academy is filled with comic-book influences, Kick-Ass among them; there are even bigger callbacks to Watchmen and Doom Patrol (which, coincidentally, arrived with its own prestigious series adaptation over on DC Universe on Feb. 15). What makes the show look, sound, and feel different is in part a matter of pacing: it wisely slows down around midseason to develop an unexpectedly epic arc for Vanya as well as to cement the show’s whimsical aesthetic. The fanciful diversions of Wes Anderson are a surprisingly apt reference point. The Umbrella Academy doesn’t try to mirror the meticulousness of that director’s stagiest tableaus, but it proffers a similar current of melancholy coursing beneath its irreverence, a sense of meaning to match the mirth.
The series could easily continue, given how many Umbrella comics there are. This first season draws mostly from the first two six-issue collections, Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, and the finale does a fine job of table-setting. After keeping the siblings apart for much of the season — and sometimes repeating the same dramatic notes by gradually bringing them onto the same page — The Umbrella Academy goes out on a pretty massive upswing, the kind of end-of-binge gambit only streaming natives would dare attempt. It’s sure to divide some, especially those less taken in by the series’ tricky tonal balancing act. But this reviewer will never fault a series in a subgenre as warmed-over as the superhero caper for hitting moonshots. And if it misses, at least Way will make sure its landing, somewhere in the stars, comes with a stellar soundtrack.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.