Now streaming–Find some good, some bad in Netflix series The Umbrella Academy

Review by C.J. Bunce

Not all TV shows are made for binge watching.  Case in point:  The Umbrella Academy, now streaming on Netflix.  The TV series is based on a six-issue comic book series created and written by Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá.  Most comic adaptations for the screen have more content to pull from, but there are exceptions, like Cowboys & Aliens, From Hell, A History of Violence, iZombie, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Men in Black, Oblivion, Polar, Road to Perdition, Sin City, 300, Timecop, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and Wynonna Earp.  Just as most of these were able to hold up something substantial to the audience, some comics, like Cowboys & Aliens, Polar, Sin City, and 300, either didn’t have enough content, were insubstantial, or are simply too difficult to translate.  The Umbrella Academy falls somewhere in this last group.  The story is entirely derivative with nothing new to be found here, which doesn’t need to be a bad thing.  Slow moving, painfully so at times, pretentious in one story thread and over-dramatic soap opera in the other, at ten episodes this might be the most difficult series produced by Netflix to trudge through so far.  But some key elements are so well done it may be worth a try if you’re patient and have the extra time on your hands.  But don’t be afraid to have the remote control handy for fast forwarding.

Unlike timeless characters and worlds from DC Comics and Marvel Comics, which have some benefit in not needing to be completely explained in each adaptation, The Umbrella Academy offers only a brief glimpse at its origin story, leaving many questions unanswered.  In October 1989, 43 women on Earth give birth unexpectedly.  Don’t expect to learn why.  It is never revealed.  Seven of these babies are purchased by a strange, wealthy, apparently Dr. Moreau type, played by an unrecognizable Colm Feore (Thor, Anon, Paycheck).  Do all 43 have superpowers?  It doesn’t seem so and we don’t learn why.  But these seven, or at least six of seven, do.  The wealthy man takes on the role of father in name only, turning them into the Jackson Five of superheroes, and the kids are provided a mother who is actually a life-like robot (Jordan Claire Robbins), and a sort of butler who is a talking ape (Lodge 49’s Adam Godley).  Why?  The story never tells us.  These are but a few of the frustrating parts.

The good–maybe even great–parts are found in four of the seven superpowered siblings.  Number Five is a boy who stepped out of time, deemed lost to the others, and lives into the distant future only to find a way back to his siblings looking like the very boy who left years ago.  Young Nickelodeon actor Aidan Gallagher steps into this role perfectly, playing a kid with life experiences of a 58-year-old with the authority and bravado of George Clooney.  Irish actor Robert Sheehan (Bad Samaritan) plays Klaus, one of the singularly unique characters of comicdom:  He is a mess, an addict, with no drive or direction, and he can see dead people, and maybe much more if he can only stay sober.  He is also the only one who can see the only brother who has been killed in action, off camera, years before, and with no explanation how or why for the viewer.  That’s Number Six/Ben, played by Justin H. Min.  Ben tries to guide Klaus onto the right path from the other side.  And then there is Number Two/Diego, played by David Castañeda (Sicario: Day of the Soldado).  Diego has a history of being nervous about his powers, and he’s the only one who seems to want to save the world with his powers–the classic superhero character of the group that you’ll cheer for.  The special effects are a high point–as when Number Five, Klaus, and Diego get to use their powers.  Of all the characters in the series, only Klaus and Ben get a clear, satisfying character arc, but if you only watch The Umbrella Academy to catch these four characters and fast forward through the rest, you’ll witness some solid superhero performances and story elements.

What’s left is weak writing via vacuous main characters and a thin, clichéd apocalypse plot.  Top billing goes to Ellen Page, an Academy Award-nominated actor who should be out making Oscar-winning films instead of playing another superhero that is only a fraction of her Kitty Pryde character from the X-Men franchise.  Her character is Number Seven/Vanya, a violinist who is shunned for having no powers and writing a tell-all book, and she is the backbone of the story, yet nothing much happens for her until the last episode.  Most of the series feels like it is given to a strange romance between siblings Number One/Luther (Tom Hopper, Black Sails, Game of Thrones, Merlin, Doctor Who), whose only power seems to be that he’s big and strong, and Number Three/Allison (stage actor Emmy Raver-Lampman) who is a classic “pusher” that can make others do as she tells them.  She abused her powers causing her to lose custody of her kid.  Luther and Allison form an overdramatic soap opera of complaining and inaction.  Nearly as uninteresting are a pair of cops that have no chemistry, no witty banter, and nothing cool to offer.  Played by Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton, their characters don’t like their jobs or each other, and the actors in turn seem like they don’t want to be there either.  And oddly enough their scenes are all upstaged by Number Five and his… unusual… girlfriend.  Again, the writing–the dialogue and situations–seem to be to blame here, as if the writers never saw any of the hundreds of cop team-up series out there to pull ideas from.

The production value for the series is a bit thin, with most of the set pieces mediocre compared to the dozens of other series available in the superhero genre.  Many pop songs are interspersed into the story to drive tension, but most are inexplicably placed and clash with the scenes they are used in, seeming forced.  Unfortunately The Umbrella Academy will be unlikely to prompt anyone to search out the source material.  A series about angsty, whiny, wealthy superheroes seems too out of touch.  Too much filler, not enough backstory, and a dark story that leaves no room for any “fun” for the viewer, the series becomes too close to short-lived superhero shows like Inhumans, Krypton, and Iron Fist, instead of the many finer series adapted from Marvel and DC Comics.

Some minor characters provide some hope along the way: Ashley Madekwe (Revenge) as Diego’s partner, and Kate Walsh (Fargo, The Drew Carey Show, Law & Order) as a mysterious time master, and John Magaro as Vanya’s boyfriend play some promising parts here that unfortunately get too little development and too little screen time.

Why did these kids appear with powers?  Why didn’t they encounter other persons outside the seven with powers?  Why the ape butler?  Why a robotic mom?  Why didn’t the writers room think the audience wouldn’t need to have answers to these questions?

For those who are very patient and interested in taking the time to separate the wheat from the chaff, all ten episodes of The Umbrella Academy are now streaming on Netflix.




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