I don’t talk about seasons of television very often when reviewing things. More self-contained projects like movies tend to be easier to watch and digest, in my experience.
But it has been a while since I’ve seen a binge-watchable show that hit me quite as hard as The Umbrella Academy.
So much so that I forewent writing anything last night to finishing the series. Then felt enough of a high that I went out of my way to Tweet Netflix directly after midnight:
Still haven’t gotten a reply, but hopeful nonetheless.
I can’t promise this will be an entirely spoiler-free review. I won’t give away grandiose plot details, but character arcs or smaller cliffhangers from individual episodes might slip through. I don’t have a lot of experience writing about binge-worthy television yet, so not sure if that’s standard procedure.
If you just want the brief review I gave to my old advisor Mitch Ziegler today after judging a write-off competition: Go watch the show.
It’s a quirky, interesting take on the superhero genre from Dark Horse Comics, which has a style more reminiscent of The Addams Family than Iron Man.
I was clambering for more as soon as it ended, which is about as big a compliment to the ten-episode Netflix original I can offer.
More spoiler-y, deeper thoughts ahead.
When you succeed in making Ellen Page the relatively “normal” girl in your ensemble, you know you’ve succeeded in creating a fascinatingly strange world.
The show (and comic, though there are some plot differences) creates a world where 43 children were miraculously conceived and birthed one day in 1989. Seven of whom were adopted by a man who combines superhero family patriarch of Professor Xavier from the X-Men and strange eccentricities of Count Olaf from the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.
It’s never really elaborated on whether the other 36 children have superpowers, but they really don’t matter.
The Umbrella Academy quickly veers away from the cliché serialized superhero gathering the premise almost preassumes to focus on those seven children once they’ve grown up. All in some way broken by their odd abilities and idiosyncrasies wrought by a calloused, distant father.
Every character becomes a great case study on their own, while also bouncing off one another well.
Except perhaps for Ben (Justin Min), who died prior to the series and comes into play as a foil for Klaus (Robert Sheehan), whose powers allow him to see and speak to the dead.
Klaus’ character is actually a fantastic generalization for the series.
During the first episode, I found him repugnant. To stave off the screams of the dead he’s haunted by, Klaus has become a near-useless junkie. Most of that episode features him bumming around the Academy half-naked, stealing their now-deceased father’s antiques to sell for drugs.
It’s an archetype which is played up to the point of nausea. A lot of the first episode is somewhat nauseating, with seven stereotypically quirky characters (the shamed Hollywood actress, the stoic leader, the hardened Nightwing-esque vigilante, etc.) being introduced alongside a whole host of plot points.
But as the show gets past that first bout of exposition, all the characters warm up.
Klaus, for instance, has a phenomenal scene with his brother Five (just “Number Five.” I promise it isn’t that weird) trying to get information out of a prosthetics lab. It plays the extreme bluntness of someone numb to the world in a very funny way.
Then Klaus goes through a harrowing experience which leads to him sobering up, and in the process he became my favorite character.
Or he would have, if Aidan Gallagher didn’t absolutely blow everyone else out of the water as Number Five.
Five can teleport to different points in space, and eventually learns how to teleport through time as well. In the process, he gets himself stuck in a desolate future.
When he returns to the past, the time travel reverts him back into a 13-year-old boy, just with all the experiences of a near 60-year-old man.
Gallagher brings a fantastic dry wit to the character, and his 50+ years of combat experience combined with teleportation makes every action scene with Five a visual marvel.
For someone who has only had roles on Nickelodeon sitcoms before, I was shocked by how hard he hit the ground running. Even while talking to a mannequin.
All of that said and I still haven’t touched on four of the siblings — one of which is portrayed by Ellen Page, who deservedly gets the lead credit as a straight man character who glues her wacky family together and has one of the better overall arcs.
Then there are the villains, Hazel and Cha-Cha (Cameron Britton and Mary Blige), who are at once intimidating antagonists and compelling, sympathetic characters.
While I adored The Umbrella Academy‘s characters, the show had a lot more to offer.
It’s an incredibly dark, surreal take on a superhero story. Think of the semi-dysfunctional but ultimately loving family dynamic of The Incredibles set in a My Chemical Romance music video — a sensible comparison.
The killer soundtrack is well-utilized, with songs ranging from Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” to They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul,” alongside The Sex Pistols, Radiohead and more. Plus some solid standalone tracks.
A lot of the visual effects also stand up quite well in a world glut with high-budget superhero stories. Most everything in the set design feels practical, and the display of powers — teleportation, conjuring ghosts, etc. — occurs infrequently enough to feel rich and well-produced.
Only in the last episode is there a traditionally high-octane effects show that is over-the-top, but fittingly so with how much it was built up.
Honestly, I’m not sure what else I could say about this show without my little review devolving into relentless gushing. If I had one substantial complaint, I would have liked to see more of the children flashback scenes. The older character studies are great, but a series featuring the cocky kids stopping crimes would be really fun.
Despite that, The Umbrella Academy is a very solidly acted, well-produced series with enough of a dark, cynical sensability to keep even the most exhausted of superhero media fans engaged.
I’ll just be here waiting for season 2 to come out. If you’ve heeded my advice, hopefully you’ll be right there too.