Shaun Munro reviews the second season of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy…
There’s no sophomore slump for The Umbrella Academy, which returns to screens with a vibrant second season that’s at least as smart, thrilling, funny, and heartfelt as what came before – if not a touch more so.
If the basic narrative through-line once again sees the unconventional superhero family teaming up to stop an apocalyptic threat, this second volume benefits massively from a nutso timey-wimey twist.
The first season concluded with Five (Aidan Gallagher) using his powers to transport the family away from Vanya’s (Ellen Page) apocalyptic rage-out. This has resulted in the heroes not only being sent back in time to 1960s Dallas, Texas, but also scattered over a three-year period between 1960 and 1963.
Five quickly comes to learn that their time-hopping has only caused another doomsday threat, with a nuclear apocalypse now set to kick off in just ten days. Somehow it all relates to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, forcing Five to seek out his siblings along the timeline while also steering clear of a trio of Swedish assassins keen to keep things in “order.”
Time travel is admittedly often a gimmicky crutch used when an IP has run out of good ideas, but it can also be ripe for creative storytelling in the right hands. The latter certainly applies here, with a heady, playfully over-the-top season that’s so, so much more than a mere proud homage to existing time travel media (though there are certainly nods to classic entries such as The Terminator).
Though season two is focused firmly around JFK’s assassination, a decent chunk of it is relatively episodic in nature as the family finds themselves thrown headlong into their own disparate dramas throughout Texas – a move which may admittedly disappoint some at first.
It takes a while for the family to reunite, yes, though most of these mini-arcs are at least genuinely intriguing – especially Klaus (Robert Sheehan) setting up shop as a Jesus-like cult leader – and it’s typically not long before each hero starts stumbling across another sibling or two, resulting in some fun pairings-off.
Let’s get the primary negative out of the way early; the clear low-light is unquestionably Vanya’s storyline, which without spoiling anything plumbs the depths of period soap opera fare in ways both cliched and frustratingly distended. Page is thankfully as terrific as ever and certainly makes the material work enough, but her arc too often feels like low-tier off-cuts in a story which otherwise sustains itself incredibly well across 10 episodes.
Thankfully the general focus is on crafting a clever, twisty subversion of typical time travel stories. One of the most ingenious ideas is the notion of “paradox psychosis,” that if a character ends up encountering another version of themselves, they run the risk of being driven to homicidal rage (among, er, more disgusting things).
And while it’s fair to say that keeping track of every last shred of the season’s internal logic is a pretty thankless task, viewers are clearly encouraged to simply go along for the ride and accept the storytelling fineries as the fun that they are.
But perhaps season two’s single most laudable and interesting aspect is how effectively it captures the tenor of the time period. Of all the family members’ arcs, none proves more poignant than that of Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman).
Struggling to adjust to a time period in which whites-only diners exist and bigots are so loud and proud, it’s a time capsule which is sure to leave audiences thinking on the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and also lamenting how much progress still needs to be made.
A general deepening of the mythos should further keep fans happy; the characters’ lives and origins are stretched wide open, yet never in a way that feels like an exhausting excess of information. Despite the clear potential for sloppiness, the scripts consistently foreground human moments. The prevailing sweetness of the first season, despite its gnarliness, is evident once again in spades, without ever laying on the family-is-everything truisms too thickly.
And yes, it’s also hilarious. The first season’s notable absurdism is cranked up a few extra stops here, resulting in some massive chuckles from unexpected places – perhaps best of all the aforementioned Swedish assassin trio.
The cast crushes it across the board, with Aidan Gallagher once again knocking it out of the park as the man out of time known as Five, though the show is frequently stolen by the brilliant Robert Sheehan, who brings both the hardest laughs and some of the most unexpectedly touching drama, the latter as he delves deep into his own fraught past.
In terms of new faces, Ritu Arya is a welcome addition as Diego’s (David Castañeda) quirky new pal Lila, Marin Ireland tries her damnedest to bring gravitas to Vanya’s arc as her troubled friend Sissy, and Ken Hall – who also provided the mo-cap for hyper-smart chimp Pogo in season one – is hilarious in a smaller role as Herb, a bumbling member of the Commission.
It’s practically a given these days that a Netflix Original’s production values are at least slick if not entirely astonishing, and despite some occasionally chintzy visual effects, that’s again the case here. The beat-to-beat cinematography is especially gorgeous, ensuring that all of the marquee fight scenes are beautifully, artfully framed, no matter how brutal they get. Generally speaking, the action feels punchier – not to mention more plentiful – this time around.
The music slaps, too. Though nothing gets close to topping last season’s iconic “I Think We’re Alone Now” dance-off, there are some killer needle-drops, memorably invoking the likes of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home),” Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown,” Public Image Ltd’s “The Order Of Death,” and some so deliciously unexpected that spoiling them would be a pure crime. Whoever the music supervisor is, they absolutely deserve a raise.
The Umbrella Academy’s second volume is basically the same but different; a slight variation on your favourite flavour of ice cream, if you will. Almost all the constituent elements you want to see here are back, but it also does enough to stand on its own and not feel like a rehash of the previous Earth-saving plot. And yes, there’s a killer hook for the next chapter of the story, which after this cracker of a season it’s tough not to be giddy about.
Retaining all the charm of its predecessor, The Umbrella Academy’s energetic, creative second season extends the mythology in ambitious and unexpected new ways. It’s not perfect – the aforementioned Vanya arc is a bit of a damp squib and there is some excessively convenient storytelling – but I can’t think of another TV season released this year which has brought me this much consistent joy.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter.