‘Umbrella Academy’ is a superhero show for people who don’t like superhero shows
We definitely need more superhero movies and TV shows — 100 years from now when I’m dead and insentient. Latex or no latex, flawed or fashionable, superheroes fighting to save the world from apocalyptic disaster and warped evil-doers — again — have a special place on my Not To Do List.
So I went into Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” warily, hoping for a show that was fresher than all those comic book adaptations on the CW and the other Netflix superhero series such as “Daredevil,” “Iron Fist,” and “Luke Cage,” all of which have been canceled. And thrillingly, I mostly got what I wanted: an imaginatively filmed show that follows no formula as it takes on a messed-up family and the roots of trauma. It has flaws and excesses, but the series, whose first season is available on Friday, nonetheless lands in the sweet spot between comedy and drama, and between a plot-and-action-driven narrative and character exploration.
Based on the comic series created by Gerard Way (of the band My Chemical Romance) and artist Gabriel Ba, “The Umbrella Academy” had me excitedly comparing it to wildly various TV series — the perverse family theatrics of “Succession,” the wry criminal intrigues of “Fargo,” the beast-as-metaphor premise of “True Blood,” and the tragic AI robotry of “Westworld.” The novelty of all this together lured me in, as show creator Steve Blackman wisely unfolds the strange world of “The Umbrella Academy” gradually, letting us savor each new reveal. By the time Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton (he was serial killer Edmund Kemper on “Mindhunter”) show up as time-traveling assassins named Cha-Cha and Hazel, respectively, I was fully onboard, at least for this one season.
Here’s the basic set-up. On the same day in 1989, 43 women suddenly gave birth without having been pregnant. The super wealthy — and super coldly inhumane — Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Fiore) managed to acquire seven of them, whom he names Numbers One through Seven. He brings them to his massive, art-filled home and trains them rigorously to become a crime-fighting team called the Umbrella Academy, with his Stepford wife (Jordan Claire Robbins) and his chimpanzee butler Pogo (Adam Godley) helping out.
Number One, who goes by Luther (Tom Hopper, looking like Grant Show), has super strength and a powerful connection to his father; Number Two, Diego (David Castaneda), is a knife-thrower extraordinaire; Number Three, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), is a People magazine celebrity who can make rumors come true; Number Four, Klaus (Robert Sheehan), is haunted by dead people unless he drowns out their voices with booze and drugs, which he does often; and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who has no other name, so they simply call him Five, is a time traveler. He has been missing for years, and when he returns, setting one of the major plots of the show in action, he is a 58-year-old in a 13-year-old’s body.
Number Six is dead — although Klaus remains in close touch with him, when he’s not in a wasted haze. And Number Seven is Vanya (Ellen Page), a violinist who appears to have no special powers. Sir Reginald treated Vanya particularly poorly, since she was of no use to him, and she wrote a memoir about being the odd child out in the Hargreeves family. Her siblings weren’t pleased about the book, to say the least.
The story begins with Sir Reginald’s death. The kids all gather at the house, after not seeing one another for years, and they are clearly ridden with sibling rivalries and torn loyalties. Did someone kill their father? What is Five riled up about? Is Mom behaving strangely? As these mysteries unfold, keeping the brood in the same orbit, Blackman plants wonderful scenes all over the place — scenes that didn’t need to be as spectacular as they are.
In the premiere, for instance, we see five of the Hargreeves children in separate rooms of their childhood home, as the sound of “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany creeps through the halls. Each of them dances on his or her own — a stress dance, a dance for the past, a dance of relief and grief at their father’s death, and it’s capped with the camera pulling back from the house to give us a group view. Another memorably giddy music-based scene is in episode three, as Blige and Britton carry on some intense machine-gunning and flailing in the Hargreeves home while Klaus, his headphones blasting Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” enjoys a relaxing bath, wandering around in his towel, clueless. As Klaus, Sheehan goes a bit too far over the top as an addict in both ecstasy and agony.
Lingering throughout it all, in a bit of meta-story, is the hubris and grandiosity of Sir Reginald, who tried to create his own band of superheroes. He made a mess of their childhood, and now they are left to clean it up, a job for which, alas, their superpowers are useless.
THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY
Starring: Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, David Castaneda, Aidan Gallagher, Robert Sheehan, Mary J. Blige, Cameron Britton, Colm Fiore
On: Netflix, season one available Friday