There’s an odd air about mainstream nerd culture these days. With Fox’s X-Men franchise seemingly fated to rot on the vine, there’s a mad dash to create the next great property centered around a team of superpowered misfits keeping residency in a stuffy old-money mansion that serves as both dormitory and training ground for heroes that just don’t fit in. Friday February 15, oddly enough, saw the debut of two separate, yet congruent takes on this concept – and while you can read all about the originators of the formula in our Doom Patrol review, we’re here to talk about the inevitable evolution of the aesthetic in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.
Based on the series from former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, The Umbrella Academy follows the unusual and quirky Hargreeves family – a mixed household headed by an eccentric billionaire raising super-powered children who were all born under a fairly unique circumstance. You see, on a random day in October 1989, 43 women across the globe suddenly became pregnant and delivered children to term within a matter of minutes. Sir Reginald Hargreeve, the aforementioned eccentric billionaire, reached out to every woman affected by this inexplicable occurrence and attempted adopt as many of these immaculately conceived children as he could. He got 7 of them. Fast forward 30 years and the old man’s death reunites his estranged “progeny” to set our story in motion. Of the five who show, we see that their lives have taken dramatic turns away from one another and their familial bond is ‘splintered’ to put it kindly. Naturally a mystery unfolds amid all the drama and our story gets its sci-fi action slant when another of these wayward children finds their way back into the fold during the second act. So far, so standard comic book fair.
Right off the bat, it has to be said, this story and its accompanying aesthetic will at times feel borrowed from the works of Wes Anderson. Sort of like a darker version of Patrick (H) Willems’ brilliant Uncanny X-Men short (or a less goth/more emo version of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), there is little getting around the feeling that you’re watching a super-powered version of the Royal Tenenbaums. Oh sure, series lead Steve Blackman (no not THAT Steve Blackman) eschewed the more vibrant pastel color scheme in favor of a muted series of blues and grays, but it’s not hard to see the visual and thematic similarities. It’s all here: the distant and overbearing patriarch who’s single-mindedness and self absorption pushed his loved ones away, the diligent and rigid alpha son, the aggressive and abrasive loner son, the calmer sister with a tattered family life of her own, the fuckup son, the loyal family friend who loves the father figure despite being treated as a servant, etc. By the time you get to the (admittedly excellent) dollhouse view of the family simultaneously dancing on their own throughout the house midway through the episode, you’re likely checking for cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s name in the credits.
Fortunately, most of these similarities are fairly superficial, and don’t detract from a narrative that really picks up steam about 40 minutes in, when the aforementioned mysterious visitor sets what will likely be the series’ defining conflict into motion. The biggest takeaway from this premier outing is the fairly strong direction from Peter Hoar (who also helms the season’s 10th and final episode). Though this chapter is largely spent setting the ground for a fairly dense world, most every shot feels purposeful and appropriate. The action sequences, in particular, are rather well choreographed and rarely outstay their welcome – and the music selection for the first episode is pretty fantastic (I never knew I wanted a bloody battle set to a They Might Be Giants song, and yet…). Furthermore, it has to be noted that the CG work is exceptional for a production of this magnitude. Most of our protagonists’ powers aren’t flashy enough to warrant much in the way of effects (with one notable exception, of course), but the real star is Pogo, an entirely CG character who remains possibly the most emotive and endearing character in the show. It’s funny, then, that Luthor, a character heavily reliant on makeup and other practical effects, ends up looking so fake in comparison.
The other downside of Pogo’s distinction as the most sympathetic character, however, is that it does cast a bit of a shadow on the actual human cast. Many of our protagonists sort of struggle out of the gate to make the right kind of impression. The two biggest hurdles belong to David Castaneda’s Diego and Robert Sheehan’s Klaus, who are burdened with big personalities that neither really nails. In Diego, we are meant to see some pathos behind the bravado, but Castaneda’s performance sort of loses itself in some fairly cliche’ tough guy machismo in this first episode. With Klaus, on the other hand, his eccentricities and bohemian nature are meant to single him out as an aimless wild child who revels in his destructive life choices, but Sheehan attacks each scene like he was told to be the loudest one in the room even when he’s not speaking. Again, this is the very first episode of the series, and I could totally see myself growing to appreciate these characters as time rolls on, but for a first impression they both feel a bit like stock characters. Two others (Tom Hopper’s Luthor and Aidan Gallagher’s Number 5) skirt that line, admittedly, but do present a bit of nuance that makes then more interesting with their limited screen time. The women in the family do fair better, with Emmy Raver-Lapman’s Allison showing the most promise as a character, and Ellen page turning in a strong, if reserved turn as the seemingly un-powered Vanya.
Overall, this is a well-paced and interesting premier for a show that may rely just a bit too heavily on the familiarity of its setting at the onset. It’s the kind of intro that may have proven vexing in a weekly format, but is not entirely unwelcome in the age of bingeable series. The aesthetic, music and action sequences should be enough to win over new fans upon first viewing, but a little more story development may have made for a more impactful beginning. The best introductions tend to be great self-contained stories that set the stakes for the rest of the show, and while “We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals” certainly hits the latter, it will leave viewers hanging in a not-entirely successful manner. If it weren’t the introductory chapter, it feels a bit like an episode that would sort of fade into the background of many viewers’ memories. Still, it’s at least as watchable as Deadly Class.