Equally silly and ambitious, the original The Umbrella Academy comics are a strange mix of family dynamics, time-traveling assassins, and super-powered beings with some of the goofiest powers imaginable (i.e.; talking to the dead, spreading rumors, being able to throw knives really good). The quirkiness of its alternate-reality world and the strong, established relationships between characters are easily its most appealing traits; without that, the increasingly ludicrous, grandiose story arcs of the series would swallow its mishmash collection of damaged souls whole. Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, which dropped its ten-episode first season last month, is a great example of how delicate this balance is, floundering around for the majority of its running time, so enamored with its “grounded” (aka mostly sanitized) version of its story, that it only remembers how fun its source material is in bits and spurts, leading to one of the most distonal entries in Netflix’s catalog.
The first six episodes in particular, are an absolute chore, coating its entire universe in a foggy shroud of mystery, then spending an interminable amount of time slowly revealing to the audience who everyone is and what they’re about. This involves all the tropes you might expect: numerous conversations between characters existing explicitly to fill in back story, overtly dropped “hints” that there is more than meets the eye with some people, and an overwhelming sense of narrative inertia that sets in after the big reveal at the end of the premiere, and lasts until the show’s seventh episode “The Day That Was”.
[The Umbrella Academy] only remembers how fun its source material is in bits and spurts, leading to one of the most distonal entries in Netflix’s catalog.
This is to be expected; after all, what Netflix series doesn’t suffer from having way too much screen time to fill? With the shortest offering clocking in at 45 minutes, The Umbrella Academy has a lot of time to fill in those early episodes, and doesn’t find a lot of compelling ways to do so. What it leads to is some of the most disjointed storytelling imaginable: scenes of putrid, trite dialogue interspersed with nonsensical, flashy musical interludes (if you can consider slow-mo shots from off-kilter angles “flashy” in 2019) which leads to some truly awful character building.
With all the time in the world on their hands, The Umbrella Academy makes the startling choice to simplify each character and their powers, sanitizing a weird, silly group of characters into one-dimension plot devices. The Rumor is a mother with regrets, Diego is basically a more effective Wild Dog from Arrow, and Vanya is made the most boring, utterly lifeless character imaginable – outside of Klaus and Number Five, there isn’t a lot for viewers to dig their teeth into with these characters early on. Even the weirder bits – the robot maid they all call Mom, the talking monkey butler – are held at arms length, never digging into what makes either of these characters are beyond their perfunctory roles in Reggie Hargreeves’ plan to save the world (which… is not really explained all that well in the show’s few moments exploring the man behind the academy).
The most frustrating elements are when the show really begins to dig into its story, which has a strange misogynistic bent at its core. There’s cogent metaphor to find behind Hargreeves’ attempts to convince Vanya she isn’t special, but literally every single momentous moment of the series comes at the expense of a woman: the women whose babies were sold into Hargreeves’ servitude, his specific use of Allison to fuck with Vanya’s mind, Diego motivated by the fridging of his ex-girlfriend… in every nook and cranny of The Umbrella Academy, women be crazy (at one point, an unnamed woman fucks Spaceboy because… she’s a crazy furry, y’all!) – and (spoilers) are literally responsible for the end of the world as we know it.
While it seems like a small complaint, the pervasiveness of pitting women against women – or just putting the ultimate weight of responsibility on the women of the show – is an utter disappointment, given how much potential there was to build out characters like Allison (who gets a lot of screen time for such a one-note character) and The Handler, with all the time that’s allotted. Instead, we get episodes full of Spaceboy’s selfish sad sack routine (by the way, the bodysuit Tom Hopper wears is so fake-looking, it’s laughable), Diego’s dumb vendettas, and a lot of deliberate choices to “ground” the storytelling, which is mostly code language for “make it longer and dumber”. Never is Vanya offered an opportunity to have a personality beyond meek and jaded, never do we even see Allison struggle to juggle her roles of mother, superhero, and movie star (just hints that she fails at all three) – even smaller characters like Hazel’s donut shop girlfriend are there as conduits for the male characters of the plot, which is as revealing as it disappointing. (Did I mention Hargreeves’ motivations are revealed to be centered around a vague tease… of his dying wife?)
The Umbrella Academy isn’t a total wash: when it finally lights a fire under itself and gets to the fucking point in episode six “The Day That Wasn’t”, there’s a lot of potential revealed for what The Umbrella Academy could be, if it was willing to be a bit bolder and embraced its weirdness. I mean, how hard is it to make a show with time-traveling assassins, a man who can see the dead, and a half-man half-gorilla entertaining? Given how effortless episodes six through nine feel (save for that awful, awful Luther/Allison subplot), it’s not as hard as The Umbrella Academy wants to make it – and when the show finally relaxes into its central narrative, it shows.
The momentum of this show picks up quickly, to the point of virtual whiplash: there’s so much unpacked in episodes six through eight, after nothing happens in the first five hours, it is hard to keep track of all the pieces moving around the board – especially when new, major characters are still being introduced early in the show’s third act. And oddly enough, the final two episodes of the season are the shortest, a strange creative decision that forces the show to condense its narrative, just as it is finally letting the wild, rambunctious central story off the leash. To say this season feels disjointed is an understatement: it’s some of the worst pacing I’ve seen on a series since those middle seasons of Game of Thrones, a textbook example of a show where literally nothing is happening until everything is happening, all at the same time.
There are a number of individually enjoyable elements to The Umbrella Academy: in fact, the arcs of Klaus (who can see the dead) and Hazel (the assassin tired of his corporatized lifestyle) are, without a doubt, the most successful, moving arcs of the season. Problem is, they shouldn’t be: Vanya’s journey of self-discovery should really have led the way here, which would’ve given life to the other members of the academy, finding their true identities among the lies, half-truths, and stupid philosophies imposed on them by their father (who again, is not given his due as the fucking monster he really is – what a fucking asshole, amirite?). But in bungling the mystery around Vanya, the ability to fuse all these disparate stories and characters together is lost; which means the only real joy in the series is seeing where it eventually goes, a climax that is probably not worth the wait of slogging through the many unentertaining hours it takes to get there.
Lacking in creativity and visual panache, The Umbrella Academy tries to rest its laurels on its soundtrack and cast of quirky characters – unfortunately, those suffer from the same lack of ingenuity and energy through most of the show’s nearly 10-hour running time. There are hints in the third act of a bigger, more ambitious series, but those moments are spread far apart, wading in a sea of middling dramatic construction, disappointing character development, and a nagging undercurrent of misogyny that suffocates the show’s more exciting, entertaining sequences. The few isolated arcs of The Umbrella Academy offer a window of promise into what this show could be in its second season – it’s just too bad this show doesn’t employ the tools to make that potential permeate through the entirety of these first ten episodes.