Warning: There are a few spoilers for Netflix's The Umbrella Academy in this article
Every family has dysfunction. From uncle Arnold’s thirty year feud with cousin Joe over who got the best parking spot at a party in 1989 to grandpa Tom’s slightly-racist-tinged comments during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, everyone in every family has their quirks.
But the Hargreeves are here to put our family dysfunction to shame!
Netflix’s new show, The Umbrella Academy (based on, but not strictly adhering to, the comic book series), is the reason the word bingeing is used regarding tv. This show hits the mark on everything from character development to story and pacing, to soundtrack, to cinematography, set design, and style.
The show starts in 1989, when 50 children were born on the same day to women who weren’t even pregnant when the day began. Eccentric and emotionally rigid and distant Sir Reginald Hargreeves manages to
adopt buy seven of the babies, and raise them while developing their own super powers and molding them into a fierce fighting force that will someday (fail to?) save the world.
Rather than give them proper names, they all have numbers, 1-7. Most of them eventually get regular names, but when and why they are chosen hasn’t been explained. And it doesn’t matter to dear old Dad, he always called them by their number anyway.
With all these characters, plus a talking chimp and a cyborg mom (who is the most Stepford-iest of Stepford wives), there’s a lot to accomplish in early episodes from the perspectives of story and character development.
But the show does it seamlessly, with witty exposition and some flashbacks (that continue through the season) we learn just enough about our seven heroes to feel empathy, but there’s enough unexplained that we’re hanging on every scene, hoping another morsel will be dropped.
The End Is Near
After dealing with the father’s BS through adolescence, most of the sibs have gone their own way, one to fight street crime, one to be an A-List actress, one to the moon. They’re all brought back together when Number Five returns. His talent is to jump through space and time, and he disappeared as at age 13 when he time traveled into a post-apocalyptic era and couldn’t get back.
He spent several decades roaming through the rubble, and returns as a 58-year-old man in a 13 year old’s body wearing school short pants. Aiden Gallagher plays Five and I’m ready to declare him as the young breakout star of the year. Heretofore a Nickelodeon star, he plays the role of a crotchety, seasoned adult despite being only 14 when this was shot. His looks, his wit, his delivery are all spot on, without ever seeming arrogantly precocious.
So the main plot is supposed to be Five’s return to warn his super sibs about their impending doom, and work to stop it. But the real story of The Umbrella Academy is the family drama. Rifts in time aren’t nearly as intriguing as rifts in the family. Old grudges, lost opportunities, past (and present) betrayals all shape these tragically lovable characters.
I mean, their childhoods were hell. One was locked in a mausoleum, one dies, one gets lost in time, one becomes an abuser of varietal substances. One is consigned to a sound proof vault with pointy knives sticking out from all angles of the wall and ceiling. All while a seemingly uncaring dad uses them as pawns in his own plans.
These are the characters and stories I care about. The end of the world is merely a catalyst to bring them back together.
Oh More Drama
Five is on the run from a couple of career hitmen who keep people from messing with the natural timeline. This presents a fun, bordering on self-indulgent side story. One of the killers is Miss Mary J. Blige. She is, as in everything she does, AMAZING!
She’s Cha-Cha, partnered with Hazel (Cameron Britton), are shooting up and torturing everyone and everything to track down Five and keep time marching on towards the Apocalypse.
They’re drawn as average, blue-collar workers, whose work is killing people throughout time. They complain about docked pay and their hotel accommodations. Problems that will likely ring true for anyone who’s ever been on a business trip. This humanizes the and gives way to with and levity.
But Hazel’s flirtation with the donut lady and Cha-Cha’s moral oscillating aren’t well-developed and, honestly, seem more of a distraction. The characters are necessary, but there’s too much of them.
Style For Days
There are plenty of fight scenes, a few musical numbers, and lots of flashbacks and what-could-have-been scenes. And the lighting, coloring, shooting of all this gives The Umbrella Academy a unique feel, while giving a few homages to past productions.
When Klaus (Number Four) is in heaven, everything but his clothes are in black and white, reminiscent of Angels In America (HBO) had Pryor Walter in heaven looking for more life. The dance scene between Luther and Allison reminded me of a sequence that could have been straight out of La La Land.
The soundtrack is wide and varies over time, which seems appropriate. From They Might Be Giants to Tiffany to covers of other popular songs, music adds a certain urgency to the show, but not being so omnipresent to serve as a plot element.
Also, despite being sent in present day 2019, there is no technology. The characters have landlines, no one has a cellphone. They look up people by going to a library and scrolling through microfiche. It is clearly a conscious choice by the writers, but we have no idea why. It does help keep characters isolated and unable to warn each other of impending dangers. But it still feels weird.
Less Isn’t More.. MORE Is More
Overall this is ten hours well spent. It will leave you wanting more. And there is so much more to explore. I’m not even talking about resolving the cliffhanger at the end of episode ten.
There are still many backstories of the kids to be filled in. How did Ben die? What’s up with Pogo? And Hargreeves’ extra-terrestrial origins and his fascination with umbrellas.
Why was Luther really sent to the moon. Given how the apocalypse is brought about, I believe there is more than what the old man is telling us from his afterlife.
Plus, if we’re going to care about Cha-Cha and Hazel, let’s give them their own ten episode spinoff.
There is so much I want to learn about these people, and Netflix can’t drop the next ten episodes soon enough.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Wine. When Luther wakes up from his first drunk and first sexual encounter, we see several empty wine bottles littering his bedroom floor. Wine hangovers are tough. We’re here in solidarity with you, our favorite giant.