The Umbrella Academy Review: Dysfunction Reigns

There are many answers to the question: What do you get when a group of misfit superheroes bands together to save the world? You could answer The Avengers,Doom Patrol, Suicide Squad, Justice League, Teen Titans and more. But when that band is comprised of estranged siblings dealing with the emotional scars of having been raised in the same dysfunctional family, you get The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s new, original superhero series.

Developed by writer Steven Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) and based on the Dark Horse Comics series written by Gerard Way, former frontman for My Chemical Romance, Season 1 of the The Umbrella Academy is a fascinating study in wounded, flawed characters and their coping strategies, who also just happen to have special abilities and are tasked with saving the world from the coming Apocalypse. What makes this highly-stylized series stand out from others in the genre are the strength of its characters, the stellar performances of its actors, and a killer musical score. There are surprises at just about every turn, and I was hooked from the first episode.

The family had mysterious beginnings; each child was born on the same day to mothers who had not been pregnant until they went in labor. These miraculous births attracted the attention of eccentric billionaire Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Fiore) who decides to raise as many of them he could obtain. He manages to adopt (as in buy) seven out of 43, but not to nurture them as a family; he coldly trains them to become heroes according to the special abilities they exhibit. They are given numbers instead of names, he pays little to no attention to any of them outside of their training, and cruelly manipulates each in order for them to develop and hone their skills, predicting that they will become the saviors of the world. Reginald forms them into a crime fighting team while they are still children and they become famous.

Umbrella Academy

We eventually learn that Reginald is in actuality an alien, but that is only touched upon in a flashback, with little explanation. We do know that when he came to Earth, he bought an umbrella company which was the basis of his wealth. Reginald does have some help raising the kids. He has a talking chimpanzee, Pogo (Adam Godly), who oversees the household as if he were Batman’s Alfred from Planet of the Apes. The children also have a robot caregiver named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) who seems to be modeled after Donna Reed and who the children call Mother. It is Grace, not Reginald, who eventually gives the children their names.

But it’s the children and their interwoven, maladjusted relationships as adults, who drew me into the story. They had all gone their separate ways but come back to the Academy after Reginald’s death despite their estranged relationship with him. Number One, Luther (Tom Hopper), is the repressed one. He is an astronaut with super strength and had been working hauling rocks on the moon at Reginald’s bidding. He suspects foul play in Reginald’s death, because his father was missing his monocle. Number Two, Diego (David Casteñeda), has a violent, distrustful nature. He continued the family tradition by becoming a knife wielding vigilante. Number Three, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), is the girl looking for approval. She became an actress and a mother, who loses custody by using her skill of manipulating behavior and changing reality by saying, “I heard a rumor…” on her daughter. Allison also had, or almost had, a thing with Luther – the attraction still lingers.

Number Four, Klaus (Robert Sheehan), is my favorite of the siblings. He has the ability to commune with the dead, and as such, leads a tortured existence. He has become a drug addict to drown out the voices and is dealing with the memory of his father locking him in a mausoleum so that he would learn not to fear the dead and come into his full potential. He is the family scapegoat and black sheep; and he never fails to disappoint. We first meet him coming out of rehab, only to purchase more drugs. He is gay, goes to his father’s funeral wearing his sister’s skirt, spills the ashes, and steals family possessions to get more drugs. Throughout the season’s episodes, he is the character with the most growth; he is at times funny, outrageous, and tragic. He eventually finds and loses love in an unexpected time travel incident, and Robert Sheehan gives a moving and realistic performance despite the superhero/fantasy aspect of his character.

Klaus

Klaus is the only one who can see, hear, and talk to Number Six 6, Ben (Justin H. Min), the sibling who died. Ben’s power was that his body housed monsters who he used in his crime fighting days. They don’t explain how Ben died but he comes back to talk to Klaus, often helping him deal with his addictions, and sometimes chiding Klaus for throwing his life away – a life lesson based on the regrets of the dead.

Number 5 (Aidan Gallagher) has no name. He is called The Boy, or simply Five, and is the catalyst for the entire problem the family faces after Reginald’s funeral. Five’s power is time travel and had gone missing years before. He comes back from the future, but is still in the body of his teenage self, despite having been gone for 38 years of his own lifetime. He has an agenda and a mysterious past, confiding to his sister Vanya, Number 7 (Ellen Page), that the Apocalypse is imminent, and he came back to find a way to stop it.  She doesn’t believe him, thinking that time travel has addled his brain.

Vanya is the only sibling seemingly without powers. She is depressed and quiet because she was the one who was left out of the family. Reginald didn’t pay attention to her because she didn’t have powers, the other children did not play with or include her in their lives because she was not one of them; she led a lonely and solitary existence.

The storyline for the season has to do with the coming destruction of the world that Five is trying to prevent, but is sometimes overshadowed by the family dynamics of the siblings and their personal problems. The angry discord adds to the lack of attachment to each other, the distrust, and miscommunication to the point that viewers will wonder if they will ever get their act together to save the world.

Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton

On top of the family problems there are other factors adding to their woes. Five is being pursued by two assassins: Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton). They are on orders from The Handler (Kate Walsh), who is charged with ensuring that what is meant to be, will be. The side story of the assassins and The Handler is doubly interesting. Given the focus on relationships, the partnership between Cha-Cha and Hazel is both funny and complicated, especially as Hazel grows weary of the bureaucratic agency they work for and has a growing need to settle down, and Cha-Cha seems to have nothing but their partnership to live for. The agency as a whole is also surprising in the fact that even though dealing with a story involving the Apocalypse, there is nothing biblical about it – they are simply a timeline protection agency working through assassins – think Time Lords or The Time Bureau, but with more blood.

The special effects throughout the season are amazing as are some of the film and editing techniques that give the series a unique look. Many of the costume choices have an old-school feel, especially in the shorts and blazer look for Five reminiscent of a posh English school boy and as mentioned, making Mother look like the perfect 50’s housewife. Many of the settings themselves are very distinct. We have Luther, on the moon, Five wandering around in a post-apocalyptic world with a mannequin for a companion, a retro-looking doughnut shop that plays prominently in the story, and even a rave in a nightclub complete with laser lights, projected colors and visual effects.

The use of music throughout the series is brilliant. Sometimes it is in direct contrast to the action taking place on the screen, and sometimes it fits perfectly. Imagine a novelty song like “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” being played during a bloody slaughter, or “Goody Two Shoes” playing during one of Klaus’s drug binges. Some of my favorite musical moments include all of the members of the Academy dancing on their own to “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Five fighting Hazel and Cha-Cha to the tune of “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and Allison and Luther sharing a stolen fantasy moment with “Dancing in the Moonlight” playing in the background. It’s a soundtrack that is new and fresh but also has an appeal for the over 30 crowd.

Some expected and some totally surprising characters come to a bloody end by Episode 10. Without giving it away, as the story progresses, it is easy to predict the source of the coming Apocalypse, but by then, I was so invested in the series and characters that I had to see it through to the end. Sure, they still have to work through their dysfunctions but there is hope. Happily, the final moments are open enough to leave room for the series to continue and I cannot wait for the next chapters in the Umbrella Academy’s saga. This could be one of Netflix’s biggest hits.

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