What Kind of Show is The Umbrella Academy Trying to Be?

Spoilers for Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy

Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is a hot mess.

I mean that in every sense. It looks downright gorgeous: its color palette saturates the screen and drips onto your floor, a strong aesthetic vision (what else would you expect from he who become the savior of the broken, the beaten, and the damned), and there’s a Serkis-esque chimp character — a tremendous budget flex for a character who might be in 5% of the show’s scenes.

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But the storytelling on display is a little all over the place. (Now feels like a good time to mention that I have not read the graphic novel that the show is adapted from and am speaking purely from what I witnessed on screen.)

Part of this is due to the sheer volume of thematic material that the show tries to cover in its first ten episodes. There’s the impending apocalypse, time travel, family and childhood trauma as well as the classics of the superhero genre like responsibility, standing out vs. fitting in, and the weight of fame.

The result is that The Umbrella Academy brings to mind a number of other pieces of media that deal with the same subject material, sometimes with alarming similarities.

There’s Misfits, the E4 series that follows a group of British teens who gain superpowers that they didn’t ask for while on probation. It casts Robert Sheehan (Klaus) as depraved fuck-up Nathan, as part of an ensemble that includes a Game of Thrones actor (Luther is also played by Game of Thrones alum Tom Hopper). Both Misfits and The Umbrella Academy belong to the niche genre of science-fiction comedy-drama and use a large dose of comedy to cut the tension of real life-or-death stakes.

There’s The Royal Tenenbaums, the Wes Anderson classic about a family brought together by their emotionally distant patriarch, who uses bad health as a stunt to bring them together. The main antagonist is a character fueled by desire to join the main family of the story but never being able to. And if you ship Luther and Allison, you’ll love Richie and Margot.

There’s The Haunting of Hill House, another Netflix show about a deeply dysfunctional family haunting by the trauma of their youth with flashbacks telling sections of that trauma from each perspective.

There’s Watchmen, which deals with a post-superhero world and The Incredibles which does the same but features a main character with a ridiculously large upper body.

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And there’s X-Men, duh.

These similarities are deep-seeded. They aren’t passing references (like when Klaus Fight Clubs himself), and because each of these other bits of media have wildly different tones, The Umbrella Academy ends up getting pulled in a multitude of directions. One minute the show is focused on the childhood trauma of being locked solitary confinement, and the next it’s at a rave losing its virginity as the apocalypse looms. Without these connections The Umbrella Academy would be more focused.

It also probably wouldn’t be as interesting.

Now’s where I make a second confession. I gave up on this show after the third episode. The dialogue was sometimes painful and I started to get worried that my ocular muscles might spasm and eject my eyeballs. But then I remembered that most shows are clunky in the beginning. You have to let a show find itself before you judge it, so I went back for more, and really enjoyed the back nine.

As The Umbrella Academy spends more time with itself, it begins to separate itself and by the end of episode 8 “I Heard A Rumor,” it no longer feels like channel surfing between the shows and movies I mentioned earlier and starts to feel like its own thing.

Its characters begin to take on lives of their own. Klaus stops being Nathan and takes on a life of his own, someone trying to look back on his scars and figure out what they mean instead of just covering them up. Diego stops being a wannabe Rorschach/Batman and learns what it means to truly love someone other than himself. Allison loses her voice and finally has to start listening instead of talking. Luther stops trying to lead a team and starts trying to lead a family.

That’s not to say that the show sticks the landing completely. The family never learns to actually accept Vanya into their midst, opting to attack her instead of listen to her performance. Five, while a really fun character, never grows up. He starts the season time-traveling to stop the apocalypse and save his family and ends the season the same way, albeit not completely on his own.

But there’s a lot to like about The Umbrella Academy and reason to be optimistic about its future. Hijacking other shows and movies was a great way to test drive a wide variety of ways to talk about different themes, but hopefully it’s actually found a voice that works for it now and we can go forward with something new. Plus, we got that great dance scene.

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