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October 26, 2020

Netflix’s new super-series Umbrella Academy may be its best yet

By COLE DOUGLASS | February 28, 2019

Gage Skidmore/ CC by-sa 2.0 Ellen Page stars as Vanya in Netflix’s newest superhero-action series Umbrella Academy.

Netflix is no stranger to the gritty superhero genre. If you’ve seen Jessica Jones or Daredevil (both of which were recently cancelled), then you know that the streaming service knows how to create compelling drama out of the spandex and superpowers that define the heroes of Marvel and DC. The first season of Umbrella Academy, which was released on Feb. 15, is Netflix’s best outing in the genre to date. It perfectly balances the aesthetic of a superhero genre with the story of a family trying to overcome abuse and neglect, and the combination is definitely worth a watch.

Umbrella Academy is the story of the six(ish) Hargreeves siblings, each of whom was born with a fantastic ability and quickly adopted by an eccentric billionaire, who is intent on forming a team of heroes to protect the world from evil. 

However, by the time they reach adulthood, the siblings are wracked by the emotional trauma that they suffered at the hands of their father and are barely capable of speaking with one another, let alone preventing the end of the world. When the death of their father forces the siblings to reunite, they discover that the apocalypse is only a few short days away, and they must confront their past and work together if they want to save the world.

If the summary sounds a little complicated, that’s because the show is very complicated. In addition to the Hargreeves siblings, the show also features a solid cast of side characters (such as a pair of time-travelling assassins and a kindly woman who works at a donut shop), and they all have their own intertwining narratives. 

Each of the season’s 10 episodes is packed to the brim with action and exposition, and it can definitely be a little difficult to keep track of what each character knows and how they feel about the other characters. The fact that at least three characters are capable of travelling through time only adds to this confusion.

That being said, the show’s narrative is incredibly compelling once you manage to pin everything down. The siblings’ attempts to prevent the end of the world are hilarious and action-packed, and watching the narrative twist around itself eventually becomes part of the show’s appeal; it always keeps you guessing the next twist, but yet it also somehow always manages to surpass your wildest expectations. 

However, while the actual narrative might be campy and over-the-top, the emotional stakes are incredibly realistic and will likely be familiar to almost all viewers. It is easy to trace each of the siblings’ behavior to the abuse that they experienced as children, which makes their attempts to grow past their self-destructive tendencies all the more engrossing.

Having said that, the show definitely has some issues with pacing, especially toward the end of the season. In the final few episodes, a lot of events feel like fillers, even if they end up being pretty enjoyable set pieces overall. 

The season finale is also a bit of a letdown. There is a lot of narrative momentum going into the final episode, but the situation is resolved too quickly for any real emotional payoff to occur. 

It left me wanting more episodes, but that desire was mainly because I couldn’t believe they had actually ended the season as they did. That being said, Umbrella Academy’s plot is generally excellent, and the issues of the show’s second half did not affect my overall enjoyment too terribly. 

The strong narrative is bolstered even further by the incredible performances of the cast, which are uniformly great across the board. Aidan Gallagher is excellent as Number Five, the time-travelling member of the Hargreeves family who accidentally traps himself in his 13-year-old body. Despite his young age, Gallagher excels in the role and has some of the most hilarious and jaw-dropping violent moments of the season. 

Robert Sheehan steals almost every scene as Klaus Hargreeves, the self-interested and eccentric sibling who uses drugs to suppress his ability to speak with the dead.

My personal favorites, however, were Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige as Hazel and Cha-Cha, respectively, the aforementioned time-travelling assassins sent to kill Number Five. They perfectly balanced the funny and mundane aspects of the duo while also serving as a menacing threat that hung over the Hargreeves for most of the season. The two also have amazing chemistry, and the characters’ developments were definitely highlights of the show.

Last, but certainly not least, Umbrella Academy is an absolutely gorgeous show. The show has an interesting retrofuturistic aesthetic (one character is an incredibly humanoid robot, yet cell phones don’t appear to exist) that blends throughout the scenes and definitely marks the show as unique. 

Meanwhile, the fight choreography is amazing to watch, especially in scenes where the characters use their otherworldly abilities on their enemies. Watching the camera jump wildly around the room as a character leaps in and out of existence or tracking a knife that curves impossibly around a room is always incredible, and it helps make the abilities feel even more overpowered than they already are.

In the end, Umbrella Academy is a show that you should definitely watch. It pairs beautiful visuals with a really engaging story about trying to grow past the pains of childhood and saving the world from complete destruction. Though the subject matter may have been done by other shows in one way or another, Umbrella Academy takes the material to new heights, and I cannot wait for the second season.

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