The Umbrella Academy Has (Mostly Squandered) Potential

Chris Maher: A while ago I swore off writing negative articles about Netflix, and then immediately upon returning from our hiatus I watched Like Father and was forced to write another bad review. I posited in that review that Netflix made a lot of stuff that was at best “watchable” because their business model was different – that just need to make us keep subscribing, whereas other studios have to actually get us to the theater. I stick by that, in part. But while watching the thoroughly medium show The Umbrella Academy, and while discussing it with others, I came up with another theory: I watch a lot more Netflix than I watch any other studios’ output. Yes, Netflix has done a lot of forgettable, palatable things (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Little Evil, Ibiza) but they’ve also made some really awesome stuff (Russian Doll, BoJack Horseman, Roma, Buster Scruggs). I’m sure if I watched more 20th Century Fox movies, for example, they’d probably have a batting average of less than 50% as well. It makes sense for studios to make some mild crap and then occasionally swing for the fences, and for those swings to be a mix of flops and huge successes.

Now that my requisite “here’s how I feel about the Netflix experiment” spiel is out of the way, let’s talk The Umbrella Academy. The premise of the show: seven babies are born of immaculate conception, and eccentric billionaire Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts them all, forming the Umbrella Academy. The kids develop super powers. While the kids are young Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), a space/time traveler, disappears into the future. The others age and learn to hate Reginald, who is an emotionally abusive father, and all eventually leave and fall out of touch. On the day of Reginald’s funeral the Academy regroups and Number Five returns, warning them that the apocalypse is a week away, though he is unaware of the cause.

It’s complicated, and there’s a lot to say about it, but before I keep going I’m going to welcome my pal Frank Spiro, who also watched the show this week. Hey Frank!

Frank Spiro: Hey Chris, great to be here! This is very exciting for me, because this combines my favorite reading material ( with the movie reviewer I find myself agreeing with most (myself). I do have one correction about the prelude you gave up top– you wrote that 7 children were born of immaculate conception, when actually it was 43. Reginald Hargreeves was only able to adopt 7. What happened to the other 36? Who knows, let’s never talk about it again.

I think this might be the heart of my problem with The Umbrella Academy. Its eyes are a little bigger than its stomach. Something about the series feels like a first draft to me. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of an idea; the first thing you get excited about is the “what,” then on the second draft you get into the “why,” and then the third draft you have to get excited about the “how.” The “what” of The Umbrella Academy is so much more dazzling than the “why” and “how” of it. The broad strokes of this series are in all the right places, but the details leave a lot to be desired– and I think that starts with the characters and the way in which they make decisions.

CM: Absolutely agreed. So much of the “drama” of this show involves characters withholding information from each other, but it never explains why they’re keeping so many secrets. A handful of secrets make sense, but most of them (particularly a number of things Number 2 does) are lies for the sake of manufacturing plot. That noted as you said the broad strokes are generally right. I’ve talked about it before (twice) but Netflix’s flexible episode order and length, along with their full throttled embrace of serialized television, means we frequently get overcrowded plots populated by thin characters. If this show trimmed two or three episodes and gave us flashier broadstroke characters and asked us to fill in the rest it’d be better for it (I imagine this is the approach the comics took, knowing comics). Alternatively the show could have taken the characters more seriously and used it’s time to explore the nuance. The show has flashes of both: the final few episodes work well because things happen quickly and characters are established through big, decisive actions, while the few relationships given time to actually breath (Luther and Allison, Allison and Vanya especially) work well for the long run. But the show mainly splits the difference between the two approaches, hobbling both. It also makes the truly inexplicable choice of separating Vanya and Number Five from the rest of the cast for long stretches, building up relationships with characters who don’t matter when they could have been building up relationships with their family. Hell, Klaus’ MAJOR character development happens mostly offscreen. I equated watching this show to running on water – if I stopped to think I’d end up sinking, aka discovering how little fun I was having. The narrative sort of works this way too. It runs on water, but it does occasionally stop and it ends up breaking through the surface and revealing its lack of depth (a real mixed metaphor from me).

FS: If you stop to think about any aspect of the show for long enough, it begins to unravel in some major ways. Speaking of this series being too long, this show does something I’ve never seen a show do before. In the middle of the series, there is a full episode and a half where the main group of characters go through really meaningful, partially satisfying arcs, only to have them all be rewound and undone by time travel. We then proceed to watch the characters go through, more or less, the exact same arcs over the next 2 episodes. It reads like the writers room couldn’t choose which version was better, so they did them both. This kind of repetition happens a lot throughout the series; and not just in function, but in form as well. Every fight scene runs the same schtick of fast passed violence set to ironic folk radio music. Every single one. While the fight choreography changes, it’s hard to not feel like you’re watching the same scene, over and over again. Every episode ends with a montage of each of the characters brooding alone, set to angsty dark music. It feels like a soft reset every time the episode ends, the show runner whispering in our ear “okay, they’re here now, remember?”

It creates a really uncomfortable feeling as a viewer, where each part feels fine, but the sum of the parts is somehow lesser. It makes the show deeply predictable, which is not something I usually have a problem with, but really bothered me with The Umbrella Academy. You know the ending twist of the show 5 minutes into the second episode, not out of dramatic irony, but just because it’s easy to see the not-so-subtle clues. The idea that none of the characters could put the pieces together is deeply frustrating. It’s like if there was a scene 10 minutes into The Sixth Sense where Haley Joel Osment watched Bruce Willis pass through a wall, and then kept thinking he was alive.

CM: I’m glad you mentioned the music, because I know it’s something that bothered you and, you’re right, is a great example of things that would have worked well in moderation. The fights are actually pretty fun, taken one at a time. But you’re right in saying they’re a diminishing return, so much so that they retroactively make previous fights less fun. The same could be said of the visual style of the show. It’s weird, because the show is technically well shot. It’s got some flash, some colors, some good looking sets, and even a surprisingly passable CGI monkey, but it still never develops into anything that feels like a style. It feels most like Netflix threw a bunch of money at the show and someone got over-excited and created a bunch of cool shots and sets without thinking about the “why” of it. It reminds me most of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was a “quirky” story and used “quirky” cinematography, acting, and production design. It felt obligatory instead of inspired.

As always, I feel I’m being more negative than I actually felt about the show. Things are often more frustrating if they border on good than if they’re outright bad, and I think The Umbrella Academy falls into that category for me. It definitely made me want to read the comics, and a more focused Season Two would be something I’d watch (I’ll probably watch Season Two no matter what).

FS: Yeah, I too will watch Season Two, but I’ll watch anything. Maybe the reason I’ll watch Season Two is because it’s such a hard sell at the end of the first season. There is no resolution. Part of my begrudging acceptance to watch Season Two is out of the hours I have already sunk into Season One, with no pay off. Again, though, the broad strokes were good enough that I think future seasons of this show could be really good– they’ve set up a world and characters that have potential.

That’s my final word on this show. Potential. It’s why it was so frustrating to watch, and it’s why I’ll keep watching. And for those other 36 superheroes who somehow don’t factor into the apocalypse at all. Jesus Christ.


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