Netflix’s recent release The Umbrella Academy (based on the Dark Horse comics of the same name) begins on a day in 1989 when 43 women around the world spontaneously give birth despite not being pregnant at the start of the day. Eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves adopts seven of these children whom he raises as his own. Six of them were born with superpowers, and are subsequently molded into a crime-fighting team dubbed “The Umbrella Academy.”
Doubtlessly, an entire series could be dedicated to this premise alone, but this show picks up in present day when the now-estranged siblings are reunited due to the death of their father. After Hargreeves’ funeral, one of the siblings, Number Five, returns from the future with the information that the world ends in eight days.
Revealing any more information would undoubtedly tread into spoiler territory, so with the intention of leaving this review relatively spoiler-free, I’ll leave my description of the premise at that.
As you may have noticed already, The Umbrella Academy has an absurd premise, which I believe to be one of the strengths of the show. It’s unabashedly wacky, featuring superpowers, time-travel, ghosts, artificial intelligence, a talking chimpanzee, and an impending apocalypse. The shameless devotion to it’s sci-fi/fantasy elements is what initially drew me to The Umbrella Academy, but what captivated me was the character-driven drama central to the story. On it’s surface, The Umbrella Academy is bizarre, outlandish, and very “comic-booky”, but the series is rooted in an emotionally-compelling narrative.
The visual elements of the series are executed tremendously. The cinematography is first-rate for an episodic series, the production design is proficient, and the visual effects are stupendous. In particular, the motion-capture CGI used for Pogo, the intelligent chimpanzee, is executed incredibly for being done on a Netflix series budget.
The acting, in my opinion, ranges from magnificent to adequate. Obvious standouts Robert Sheehan and Aidan Gallagher are phenomenal as Klaus and Number Five respectively. They each unreservedly embody their characters, and Sheehan particularly displays an incredibly vast emotional range in his performance. Emmy Raver-Lampman as Allison, however, is merely satisfactory. She’s not a bad actress, but personally, I don’t think she sells the dramatic scenes and emotional punches as well as her co-stars do. The rest of the actors, while not as captivating as Sheehan and Gallagher, are still top-notch.
What truly defines The Umbrella Academy is the writing. At it’s core, the series is a family drama. Its characters aren’t unblemished role-models. They are flawed, emotionally-stunted adults, having been raised by an abusively distant father. The series strikingly explores the Academy’s childhood, and powerfully evokes empathy for the struggles of its leads. Vanya Hargreeves (Ellen Page) in particular is masterfully written. As the seventh of the seven, she is absent of superpowers, and the series perfectly displays not only what it was like for her to grow up as the ordinary among the extraordinary, but also the additional abuse she suffered at the hands of Hargreeves, abuse that eventually contributes to the climax of the series.
Every one of the seven, in addition to a few secondary characters, feels incredibly fleshed-out. They aren’t one-dimensional plot-devices; they feel like real people with flaws, desires, goals, and rounded personalities, and they are thoroughly developed over the course of the series. Certain characters have revelations and experiences that leave them radically different people in the tenth episode than they are in the first.
Another aspect of the writing beautifully executed was the plot. Having not read any of Gerard Way’s original comics, I didn’t know what to expect story-wise from this show, but I’m usually pretty good at deciphering where a series is headed. There was one major twist that I foresaw a few episodes before it was revealed, but aside from that, I had no idea what to expect from the next episode. The unpredictability of the series was just another element that kept me on my toes and maintained my intrigue for the full duration of the show.
The only deficiency in the writing was, at times, the dialogue. It’s usually pretty good, but there are a few scenes scattered throughout the series where the dialogue can be rather cringe-inducing. Luckily, there aren’t many of these scenes, and they avoid depressing the series as a whole.
Despite it’s weaknesses, The Umbrella Academy is a superb series with a boldly bizarre premise, a fantastic production design, outstanding acting, and solid writing that brilliantly unfolds episode-to-episode.