Binge or Purge?: The Umbrella Academy.
Netflix’s misfit super hero team is stylish but lacking in substance, relying on riddle boxes to overcome poor characterization.
I really wanted to like The Umbrella Academy. Jeremy Slater’s adaptation of Dark Horse Comic’s misanthropic super hero team had everything going for it. Its premise is a darkly comedic and subversive take on the over-saturated super-team genre. It is packed with talent like Ellen Page, Mary J. Blige, and Tom Hopper. Its visuals are polished and layered with a delightfully absurdist mash of “golden era” Americana. The production values are high, and the show sports a knack for matching the antics on screen with the perfect soundtrack. For all of that, I found The Umbrella Academy to be lacking an emotional core that could keep me pressing play.
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
Sir Reginald Hargreeves, genius inventor and industrialist, adopts seven children with super powers. He plans on turning them into a team of crime fighters, and to this end he subjects them to a grueling and emotionally punishing upbringing.
Decades later, after family dysfunction has shattered the group, they are called back to the Umbrella Academy: Hargreeves has died mysteriously. Despite their mutual distrust and conflicted feelings for their “father”, they reunite to investigate. Complicating their task is the return of Number 5, a sibling who disappeared in a time travel accident. He carries a terrible secret: a catastrophe is coming in eight days, and it will destroy the Umbrella Academy.
Episode 1: We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals.
A mysterious event causes 43 women across the world to become pregnant and deliver on the same day. Eccentric industrialist Reginald Hargreeves selects seven of these gifted children for a special program: The Umbrella Academy.
After fighting crime as children, the seven fracture after the death of one of their siblings and the disappearance of Number 5. Decades later, they reluctantly return home to pay their final respects to Hargreeves, who has died under suspicious circumstances. The old animosities and dislike of their father threaten to make this reunion short lived, until Number 5, the missing brother, returns in a thunderous storm. He is reluctant to divulge his story, but we learn that he’s been trapped in the future for 40 years, living in a wasteland caused by a catastrophe that will strike The Umbrella Academy in eight days.
The Umbrella Academy makes a splash in its first episode. The characters, as both children and adults, are diverse and fascinating in their powers and personalities. The world they live in is a weird pastiche of Watchmen-esque Americana, with their sprawling mansion sandwiched between a repair shop and a laundromat, and the most popular restaurant being a 50’s style doughnut shop. The cast is interesting, but their characters are just ciphers at this point. What really grabs you is the gorgeous visual flair of the piece and the on-point music.
The episode ends with each character in a separate room of the mansion after a squabble (which is shown in cut-away like Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic). Their putative leader, Luther (Tom Hopper) plays a record of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and we watch as each sibling slowly starts to dance by themselves. It’s a perfect moment that carries a ton of character after we see these people struggle under the weight of their daunting upbringing.
Episode 2: Run Boy Run.
We see the events that threw Number 5 (Aidan Gallagher) into the future, where he was forced to live a desperate life. He tells his story to Vanya (Ellen Page) the only sibling without super powers. When she doubts him, he goes in search of clues, having salvaged a glass eye from the ruins of the future Academy which may belong to the perpetrator. Hot on his trail are two other time traveling bounty hunters (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton) who are looking for the future version of Number 5.
The second episode further deepens the feeling that this world is full of mystery. It also begins to deepen the feeling that the mystery is a veneer, meant to keep us from wondering why everything is so shallow. The animosities of the family are starting to become grating, and the one-note portrayals of the siblings are troublesome. There’s more great musical choices and nice set pieces, but the underlying story is starting to feel kitschy. Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton have some good moments, but they feel like they are being written as discount characters from a Tarantino flick.
Episode 3: Extra Ordinary.
We follow Vanya as she attempts to salvage her relationship with her siblings, and her life in general. After having written a tell-all book about the Academy, she is a pariah. Having grown up as the only non-super sibling, she is plagued with an inferiority complex. She begins to come out of her shell when she meets a potential boyfriend, but is interrupted by her sister, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman). The group is supposed to meet at the mansion to discuss a new development in the investigation of their father’s death. This is broken up when the two time travelers attack the mansion, wounding several of the siblings and nearly killing Vanya.
Watching this episode was a chore. The characters are still one-note, and now they’re becoming actively repellent. The director is consistently getting the worst performances from his cast: Ellen Page mopes around like a kicked-dog, Tom Hopper is a boy scout, Aidan Gallagher is a superior little shit. They also are being written poorly as thin trauma survivor stereotypes. Despite an engaging action sequence (with the obligatory great song) the story has become painful to sit through.
Binge or Purge?
I want to keep watching The Umbrella Academy, but I’m realizing that this is because of the show’s psychological manipulation. Jeremy Slater has littered the story with mysteries, but I despair of ever getting satisfying answers. In order to keep the kettle boiling, his characters have to constantly self-sabotage. They refuse to share notes, are painfully incurious about important clues, yet go gallivanting off on wild goose chases at the drop of a hat. Sir Reginald clearly didn’t raise master detectives. At this point it seems he raised a group of self-absorbed, petulant jerks.
The few answers we have gotten have been unsatisfying, and I feel like I can see the end-game of this series coming from a mile away. At this point, my only real motivation to keep watching is to see if I’ve guessed correctly, or if Slater is going to use a massive ass-pull at the end to subvert expectations. Either it will wind up being exactly what’s been telegraphed or will be an elaborate head fake. Either way, that’s not great television.