‘The Umbrella Academy’ shines when they’re together

It doesn’t do The Umbrella Academy any benefit that it premiered a mere four months after The Haunting of Hill House.

What does a haunted house horror-drama have to do with a quirky X-Men-esque superhero series, you may be asking. Well, aside from being Netflix originals, both share similar inciting incidents in which estranged siblings reunite after a death in the family, and, in the process, are forced to confront the decades-worth of issues between them.

But while Hill House manages to intertwine family trauma and genre flair seamlessly, The Umbrella Academy finds itself struggling to reconcile grounded drama and the over-the-top surreal elements —which when they lean into, they’re actually pretty good at.

Umbrella 101

Based on the Eisner award-winning comic book series written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, The Umbrella Academy revolves around the Hargreeves siblings. The seven adopted children of Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) were born of an inexplicable worldwide event back in 1989 in which 43 babies were birthed by random women who’d previously shown no signs of pregnancy.

Initially nameless and only given numbers by Sir Reginald based on their “usefulness,” The Umbrella Academy (as they were called) were trained from childhood to hone their superpowers in preparation of “saving the world.” But due to their traumatic upbringing and circumstances not immediately elaborated, during the team’s teenage years, their relationships soured, and they eventually disbanded.

 THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY REUNITED

Now, into their thirties, all are maladjusted and carry some form of baggage brought about the superheroics of their youth. The super-strong Luther/Number 1 (Tom Hopper) is detached and hopelessly devoted to their father. Diego/Number 2 (David Castañeda)—the Batman to Luther’s Superman—moonlights as a vigilante and is bitter as he is abrasive. Allison/Number 3 (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has crossed ethical boundaries with her power of manipulating reality through her words. Ghost-whisperer Klaus/Number 4 (Robert Sheehan) is a hedonist and a drug addict. Number 5 (Aidan Gallagher)—who didn’t stay long enough to get named—has been MIA for years. Ben/Number 6 is dead. And lastly, Vanya/Number 7 (Ellen Page), the only one born without abilities, is a self-loathing mess as she had been excluded from Umbrella Academy affairs all her life.

Now, they must get over their differences if they want to solve the mystery surrounding their father’s death. And have we mentioned? Their reunion just so happens to coincide with the apocalypse (which they don’t know who or what causes) coming in eight days.

So the drama

The Umbrella Academy has the trademarks of a Netflix original series. It’s ambitious, has a budget big enough for beautiful brag-worthy CGI, and, is also bit bloated—primarily because of the drama shoehorned into the story.

As is often seen when adapting for TV, showrunners tend to beef up the character drama for there to be enough material for the usual ten-hour show season. But as with adaptations of zanier comic books—like Preacher and Deadly Class—there is a particular challenge in making things more “relatable” while at the same time staying true to the off-kilter beats of the source material. For The Umbrella Academy, this difficulty is evident in its attempt to ground the 60’s-inspired psychedelia the characters and the premise is hinged on. (The family has a monkey butler, just saying.)

POGO

Now, fleshing out characters is no way a bad thing.

Going back to my example of The Haunting of Hill House, Hill House devoted the first half of its season on episodes focused on individual characters—highlighting their backgrounds, their motivation, their personalities, etc.—before bringing them together. And this approach worked in making the series compelling, giving it a certain depth.

You see the effort that The Umbrella Academy puts into emulating this kind of storytelling after an exemplary pilot which just throws everything in the pot and gives viewers a taste of all things to come. The problem is that in the succeeding episodes, the drama the shows tries to build ends up too heavy-handed, too uninteresting: there are police untrusting of the heroes, reunions between obvious former flames, and characters with mysterious pasts you see from a mile away.

There’s also the tendency to fall into surface-cool self-awareness. (One character goes to the extent of saying “everything about us is insane.” And it’s never a good sign when characters have to tell us how “insane” they are. Yawn.)

HAZEL AND CHA-CHA

Hanging these clichés to add unnecessary obfuscation to an already mounting complex central mystery, factor in the requisite "ironic" pop music-set sequence every episode, and the show’s first half can be an uneven patchwork stretched too thinly for any character or storyline to shine.

Come together

Good thing this slump doesn’t last long.

With most of the “side missions” out of the way, The Umbrella Academy starts pulling its threads together. By doing this, we are given enough room to see the interplay of character dynamics. This provides a much-needed boost to the humor, the action, and the show’s overall sense of adventure. (It even serves actually compelling character drama!)

Without spoiling anything, it’s a treat to see Diego trying to uphold his macho image during team-ups. An initially frustrating character like Klaus gains more nuance and delivers pretty poignant moments when interacting with his siblings. Aidan Gallagher’s Number 5 also serves us the sorely missed “child bad-ass” charm reminiscent of Chloe Moretz’ Hit-Girl.

It is Ellen Page’s Vanya who is a stand-out though, especially in the latter parts of the season as she injects the much-needed pathos to elevate the series.

Rule of thumb: when more and more of these characters are put in a room together, things get better, things get weirder.

Superhero landing

The Umbrella Academy sticks its landing by embracing its comic book roots.

There’s actually a lot to unpack in the background of this show. There are hints of an alternate history, subtle world-building to paint a parallel universe that may be considerably different than our own in more ways than we know it (has anyone noticed how there are no computers in this world?), and, best of all, time-traveling exploits that aren’t afraid to mess with the narrative.

I wish future seasons would have the guts to explore these facets (especially if they will be adapting more of "Volume 2: Dallas"). I fear that the show may have apprehensions with the extent of its “comic booky-ness.” For example, this season, some of the more far-out aspects are relegated to children’s stories and comic books within the show’s world. (But that is a discussion for another day.)

Ultimately, The Umbrella Academy isn’t quite the straight-A series many may be hoping for. It has potential and is highly watchable though. Because of the confusion on what it wants itself to be — grounded or high on its own supply — there is just an unevenness to the quality of its storytelling.

But if the last few episodes of this first season are any indication of the show’s full capabilities, then maybe I can give The Umbrella Academy the benefit of the doubt and believe that that it too can fix its future. – Rappler.com

Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.

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