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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

TV Review: The Umbrella Academy

Irreverent to a fault, The Umbrella Academy is a hit Netflix series chock-full of fantastic iconography, with some wonderful moments, scene-stealing performances, and – at times – some decent writing.

At the same time however, the show is awash with tropes it does not know what to do with, and for all its flashy, zippy brilliance it is also often woefully slow, horribly uneven, and a bit too stupid.

I was tempted to watch the show when I saw a promotional trailer for the second series, during which I spotted a man behind a desk who had a goldfish bowl for a head.

Evidently the goldfish was some sort of genius, and he was controlling a robot body of some kind.

This made me laugh, and was enough to convince me to spend 20 hours watching both the first season and its follow-up, which was released last week.

I embarked on this binge a little reluctantly because, of course, comic book series are hardly a new thing for Netflix. I watched their Marvel adaptations of Daredevil (decent), Jessica Jones (decent), The Punisher (rather good), Iron Fist (woeful) and Luke Cage (not entirely horrid), but was so disappointed in their miniseries about The Defenders that I swore off comic book TV shows completely.

Turns out that all it took to pull me back in was a man with a goldfish bowl for a head.

Who knew.

Anyhow, after watching the pilot episode, I Googled about and learned that the series is an adaptation of the Dark Horse comic of the same name, written by My Chemical Romance front-man Gerard Way.

This worried me a bit as, although I have nothing in particular against My Chemical Romance – they are a fine enough emo-pop band – I don’t necessarily consider Way’s musical output to be loaded with intelligence, wit, or profundity.

My fears were absolutely justified, in that The Umbrella Academy thrives on all the same things that make comic books – and their TV and film adaptations – sublimely brilliant and fundamentally awful.

Possibly tipping the balance against The Umbrella Academy is the barefacedness with which it flaunts its influences. Obviously The X-Men are the foundation stone, but it also borrows heavily from the tangle of time-travel antics that made (and unraveled) NBC’s Heroes, and then the final major influence is Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Without getting too far into the weeds here, I mention the above because comics underwent a fundamental change following the ascent of writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison. This group of nerds took an industry that was on its knees and revitalised it, changing the fortunes of Marvel and DC through refreshing a number of their core characters while also launching new, edgy original series that commented on and experimented with comics as a narrative form.

Works like The Watchmen, Sandman, Sin City, Kick Ass, and Animal Man all thrive on post-modernity. They were, and are, aware of what has been, and take threads of the canonical to sew new patchworks, commenting on the past and present as they go.

In the case of The Umbrella Academy, the series has no such agenda but is nonetheless about a group of adults who were once a team of super-powered children, raised and trained by an eccentric billionaire, looked after by a super-intelligent chimpanzee butler, and cared for by a robot mother; the group fell apart when the children grew up, and the series follows the story of the team being reunited by the death of their patriarch while simultaneously tasked with saving the world from an impending apocalypse.

Promising? Perhaps – if you like this sort of thing. But if you are expecting anything more than exactly what the show sounds like then you, like the characters, are in for a hiding for nothing.

As mentioned already, the setup is unashamedly a take on The X-Men, with the patriarch in this show, Sir Reginald Hargreaves (a.k.a. The Monocle) taking the place of Professor Charles Xavier. A slight twist is that Hargreaves presents as a Victorian gent, with the steam-punk aesthetic of his mansion and gadgets being very much pulled from the pages of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, in which literary characters like Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo and The Invisible Man form a superhero team to battle Professor Moriarty and the like.

The team in The Umbrella Academy likewise fit into comic book archetypes. Luther is a heavy (see The Hulk, The Thing, Hellboy, Beast, Swamp Thing,). Diego is an athletic type who throws projectiles (see Batman, Hawkeye, Green Arrow, Gambit), Allison is a mind-controller (see Jean-Grey, Scarlet Witch, Constantine, Loki), Five is a teleporting time-manipulator (see Nightcrawler, Hiro Nakamura, Quicksilver, The Flash).

On and on it goes – to the point where one character, Vanya, has ‘no powers’ we are told.

Cue an eye-roll, and long, long wait.

Anyhow, by being so generic the series is able to pilfer action beats and ideas from 40 years of superhero films and TV shows, and some of this is quite exciting. The apocalyptic battle that takes place midway through the first episode of series two is excellent – likewise the flashback to a defusal of a bank robbery in series one. And we see things like the Kennedy Assassination, the killing of Archduke Ferdinand, and the explosion of the Hindenburg balloon all played with for dramatic effect - albeit a little half-heartedly.

Indeed, far too many of these sequences lack any sense of dramatic tension, with dangling story threads requiring that neither the goodies or baddies really lose, or that anything particularly substantive happens as a consequence of the various scraps.

Holding the series up is Robert Sheehan, an actor most famous for playing a super-powered delinquent in Channel 4’s own ironic superhero series Misfits. In The Umbrella Academy Sheehan plays Klaus, who sees the dead and so has spent his life drinking and taking drugs to keep his literal ghosts at bay.

In the part, Sheehan channels Captain Jack Sparrow and Russell Brand, but shoots his role through with genuine pathos; a sequence where Klaus ends up warped back to the Vietnam War and is duly traumatised by the death of a comrade is genuinely affecting, and is one of The Umbrella Academy’s high points.

The other saving grace of the series is its production design, which is bright and beautiful and fun. It looks and feels a bit like FX’s much better series Legion a lot of the time, or Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 cinematic adaptation of Kick Ass, with some fantastic costumes, some crap costumes, some period costumes, and some fantastically crap period costumes.

On the whole, it does look great, although some lumpen direction and shocking editing do have a winnowing effect on its successfulness.

Elsewhere, one of the other major draws for me to watch the series was to see Ellen Page again, although she is not on her finest form here. She plays Vanya, the quote-unquote powerless member of the team who starts the series as a struggling violinist.

The role is ultimately a melodramatic one, about a young woman falling in love while feeling overshadowed, but it fails to be particularly interesting or give Page much room to act; instead, she mumbles woundedly, then later shouts a few times, and that’s about it.

One day, I hope she is once again in something truly great.

Thing is, The Umbrella Academy is ultimately an ensemble show, and much like Game of Thrones, or Heroes, or Stranger Things, there are A-plots, B-plots, C-plots, and more besides, and sadly, as is often the case, few of them are engaging. Indeed, in The Umbrella Academy, none of them are very good - something which is hampered by the fact that many of the key actors in the series are abjectly terrible.

For example, relative newcomer Emmy Raver-Lampman is dreadful as Allison, who is allegedly a Beyoncé-style celebrity when we meet her but who ends up becoming involved in the 1960s Civil Rights movement later in the show. She is not convincing in either of these capacities, both of which are trite and tone-deaf, or in any of her alleged relationships, romantic or otherwise.

A little like Elden Henson as Foggy in Netflix’s Daredevil, every time Allison pitched up in a scene I became more annoyed (indeed, during a moment where the character's throat was cut and she appeared dead I did a celebratory dance – only for her to be saved within minutes and back in full working order an episode later).

Sure, there are high points. Cameron Britton – who so notably embodied serial killer Ed Kemper in Mindhunter – plays a time-travelling assassin, and he’s quite fun. But Mary J. Blige as his partner is significantly less-good.

Less-good also are Tom Hopper (Merlin, Black Sails, Game of Thrones) as the beefcake Luther, with his vast latex muscle suit proving a terribly restricting distraction, and 16-year old Aidan Gallagher, who plays Five.

Indeed, Five is more or less the star of the show, and Gallagher is just too young and inexperienced an actor to play the part as-written; he gives it a lot of welly, and the show-runners keep feeding him fantastic dialogue, but for all the self-conscious cool the series tries to imbue him with Five is utterly unconvincing.

As is a central issue with the show: the characters rarely use their powers, and are evidently far too stupid to use them well. One presumes that budgetary restrictions determined the first of these issues, but the second comes down to a lack of imagination.

The net result makes watching the show a bit like watching Doctor Who. A lot of, "Just, why?" And, "Oh, clearly this was an episode where they were saving money. I expect the next one they'll splash the cash and make something go boom..."

While all of this might sound damning, really it is all fine. It's to be expected with this sort of show, and if I sound overly grumpy then it's just because I've seen a lot of this sort of thing. And after all, who really thought Hayden Panettiere gave a brilliant performance in Heroes? Or praised the action direction in Jessica Jones? Or lauded the writing in other sci-fi/fantasy successes like Game of Thrones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, or Gotham?

The truth is, none of this sort of TV is very good - and although The Umbrella Academy may not quite be a Saturday morning cartoon by virtue of the swearing, violence, or sexual themes, it does feature many of the same hallmarks.

Moreover, like a lot of these series, and the comic books from which they pilfer with gay abandon, The Umbrella Academy is most guilty of one cardinal sin: there is evidently no ending planned.

In lieu of a plot, the series relies on cliffhangers almost constantly, crowbarring a sense of urgency into episodes where nothing really happens, nothing really matters, and which aren’t about anything at all.

Sure, it's funny from time to time, and there are some eye-popping effects moments, but it's pretty half-baked on the whole.

That said, it does feature a man with a goldfish in a fishbowl for a head, and that's something not even the truly-excellent Legion has managed as yet...

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