Eammon Jacobs reviews season one of The Umbrella Academy…
The Umbrella Academy comics were born from the minds of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, putting a bizarre spin on the superhero genre. Now that the series has been made into a Netflix Original show, we get to see the absurdities in their full violent glory. The series starts in 1989 when 43 women around the world gave birth to 43 children all at the same time, except these mothers weren’t pregnant. A billionaire inventor (and Olympic Gold medalist), Sir Reginald Hargreeves, adopts seven of these children and fosters their extraordinary abilities as a superhero team; The Umbrella Academy. After years of brutal training and life-threatening missions, the ‘family’ has splintered, only to regroup following their adopted father’s death. There’s also the threat of the apocalypse thrown in for good measure.
Well, it’s a riotous adventure. Although at times it is incredibly bleak as the show dives into the emotional trauma that these children have had to endure at the hands of Sir Reginald. He’s an incredibly stoic character, and doesn’t have a genuine connection with anyone aside from his assistant; a super-intelligent Chimp called Doctor Pogo. Because of their tough upbringing, they’ve all got their issues to deal with – some more spoilery than others. But by and large all the main character arcs are served quite well, although some of the supporting cast do seem to be less memorable… Aside from Mary J. Blige’s time-travelling assassin Cha-Cha, of course.
While the action sequences manage to find new and inventive ways of captivating an audience, they’re not the best parts of the series. The writing here is the real driving force of the narrative (as it should be), and it’s fascinating to see these characters create their own problems through their own arrogance or ignorance. And although it isn’t a panel for panel adaptation of the comics, fans will be able to see the story beats that have been lifted from Gerard Way’s first story arc. Viewers familiar with the other stories in the series (Dallas + Hotel Oblivion) will notice references to things that happen in the future/past for the team, so it’ll be interesting to see if it receives renewal.
The dialogue can feel a little absent and blunt at times, as if it’s just there to fill the space – rather than having anything meaningful to add to the scene. And it has to be said that some of the sub-plots do seem to trail off and dwindle before coming together at the finale. Like other Netflix shows, it definitely struggles midway through to carry on the insanity, it could easily have been condensed to 8 episodes rather than 10. Luckily the comedy littered throughout each episode definitely sticks the landing. It would be hard not to make this comedic, after all they’re such an eclectic group of ‘heroes’ that there is something innately funny about their circumstances at times. It doesn’t spoon feed the audience everything there is to know about the team within the first episode either, which was refreshing compared to other comic book properties adapting an origin story. It allows the mysteries to unfold as their character development continues.
The performances are all fairly impressive, but the stand-out stars here are undoubtedly Ellen Page as Vanya/Number 7 and Robert Sheehan as Klaus/Number 4. While Vanya remains firmly in the background for the first portion of the ten episode series, it becomes increasingly obvious that there is more to her than the writers are letting on. Seeing her progression from a quiet member of the dysfunctional family in the background before she discovers a purpose does offer some interesting character dynamics with the rest of her siblings. There are several moments in the last three episodes where Page gives it everything she’s got, and it works a treat. Robert Sheehan’s Klaus is a charismatically self-destructive force of nature. Thanks to his power to commune with the dead, he likes to live on the wilder side of life to literally drown out his demons. But there is an incredibly tender side to Klaus that makes itself known once he has his own mind-bending journey.
The Umbrella Academy comics have such a unique vision on the page, it’s brilliant to see that the series strives to create its own look onscreen. Whether it’s a claustrophobic moon base, an intricately designed CGI character or scenes frozen in time, it looks fantastic. And while it was originally meant to receive a cinematic adaptation, it works a lot better on the small screen.
If you’re searching for a wild new series that can be unpredictably fun, while also boasting a genuine story of a broken family with superpowers thrown in to the mix, The Umbrella Academy might just be your new favourite binge.