Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
The Umbrella Academy
Episode One: We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals – ****
Part One: Eccentric Billionaire Buys Some Magic Babies, Ruins Them
No preface necessary for this one! Quick story, though. So I’m partial to television series but I have the awful habit of consuming good ones like potato chips and then hitting a brick wall with a series or a season or an episode that just doesn’t sit well with me for whatever reason, so I’m often stuck in this perpetual cycle of searching for new shows. Recently, I’ve stumbled upon a possible solution.
It’s very scientific; I look through the first season for the episode with the worst title, then skip through that episode watching scenes for a few seconds at a time, looking for characters that pique my interest. Usually it’s someone with a vibrant personality that comes across immediately in the way they dress, speak, or gesture. Often they’re gay. I don’t know what to tell you, that’s just how it works.
Anyway, for this series, the episode was “Changes.” What a silly title. “Changes.” But it got me the best results since testing out my new television series-finding technique: Teleporting Margarita Boi. Obviously once you see a four-second scene with Teleporting Margarita Boi, you must watch the show. Them’s the rules.
As it turns out, Teleporting Margarita Boi is a bit of a Mary Sue and not nearly as interesting as his brief Margarita-wielding stint implies (though we will get to that in due time, I assure you). However, the rest of the show more than makes up for the minor disappointment.
The plot has some immediately intriguing points. It has tones of Watchmen, being about a dysfunctional team of former superheroes and their day-to-day struggles, but it takes on a lighter, more familial affect, and herein lies the selling point. The show opens with several dozen spontaneous births and an eccentric billionaire who manages to buy seven of the babies, which he then raises as superheroes. Already we’re off to a flying start, but the actual narrative concerns the group (called the Umbrella Academy, if that wasn’t already clear) several years after their rise to fame as childhood superheroes. They all have powers, save one, but their upbringing has seriously messed with their heads and their powers haven’t seemed to help much. Most of them have given up on being heroes, and the two who haven’t do so out of an unhealthy obsession. One of them s struggling to keep custody of her daughter, one of them is constantly in and out of rehab, one of them has gone missing, and one of them has even died. The most well-adjusted is the non-powered one, but she still faces constant feelings of inadequacy and relates poorly to the rest of her family. The thing that brings them all together is their father’s sudden and mysterious death, which most of them have mixed feelings about.
The introduction is one of the stronger points in the series, but while I might normally use that as a passive-aggressive jibe at how quickly the series goes downhill, here it’s a sincere compliment. The style and delivery is charming and does enough to introduce the characters while not giving too much of them away. It holds up better for subsequent viewings because after you get to know these characters, the more mundane or seemingly clumsy moments speak to their deeper flaws and personality traits. The aesthetic style of the show gives some of the characters a sort of artificiality, but that’s very much intentional. It’s most noticeable with Diego and Klaus, both of whom are overt caricatures, but even within the first episode, we see that their external personae are hiding deeper issues — issues we soon find all of the main characters share.
Speaking of Klaus and amazing introductions… well, we’ll get there.
Part Two: The Moppets
This is a series heavily based in character, as you may have guessed from the premise. All of the characters have arcs over the course of the first season and setups for longer arcs should the series continue (which it definitely will). There are six protagonists (sort of seven, but that one’s dead), organized by number.
Number One, or Luther as the series conveniently informs us, is a clunky beast of a man who despite his immense size and strength (which I assume is his power — the series never makes it especially clear) still takes the time to water his moon plant. Luther is soft-spoken and the only optimist in the group. He’s haggard from his life upholding his eccentric father’s values, but unlike the others, he still respects and looks up to his father. When they were children, he was the leader of the group and therefore retains the traditional oldest sibling role, though all of the others have long since stopped following his orders. I like Luther. He’s relatable. And nice to plants.
The same can’t be said for Number Two, Diego, at least not at this juncture. Like Luther, Diego holds on to his superhero glory days, albeit in a less orthodox manner; he runs around dressed like the Green Arrow, punching bad guys and throwing knives at them. Diego is exactly the sort of character you would imagine — hot-headed, sexy, snarky, an egomaniac who can’t stand anyone to get the better of him. His ability is… throwing knives? Okay. What a fun superpower. Diego is easily the worst of the bunch, but the series does some fun things with that. It works about half of the time. The most convincing parts of his arc come in the middle of this episode and then later in the season. The gist of it is that Diego is insecure; while he treats himself very seriously, the other characters don’t. The girls mock his outfit choice, demonstrating that he never really grew out of the obsession with costumes and the spotlight that their father imprinted onto them and that the rest of the characters have all abandoned. Diego seems to have little identity of his own, and you get the sense that none of the other family members especially likes him, except for perhaps Klaus, who uses him as a taxi service. Diego gets a few quiet moments to work through his feelings, like when we learn he stole and then threw away his father’s monocle, or when he shuts the main hall door so he can privately dance to Luther’s music.
Allison, Number Three, is the only one of the group with a family of her own. In some ways, this makes her the most domestic, and I do find it a little problematic that she’s one of only two girls in the family and also the only one who constantly dotes over her child. It’s not a bad trait for this particular character, it’s just a common trope. Regardless, Allison has a nice role as one of the more mature members of the group and the only one who seems to have willingly given up her powers. Her abilities involve mind control and manipulation; she can tell people to do something and they’ll do it. Over the years, however, this power has turned on her and made a mess of things, so she refrains from using it as much as possible. She’s a proper celebrity, nice dresses and red carpets and everything. But she’s not churlish or snooty, like one might expect of the family movie star; on the contrary, she’s friendly to Vanya when the other characters seem awkward around their powerless sibling, and she has a decent sense of humor. Allison is a bit passive, but it’s implied that she has a long history with at least Vanya and Luther. The latter relationship is… well let’s just say it, it’s really weird, considering the show makes it out to be a romantic subplot while still continuing to call these characters siblings. Like, okay, be incestuous then, ya weirdos. The show doesn’t go in an especially critical direction with this subplot, but it could in later seasons, and that prospect speaks to the damaging effects the children’s isolated upbringing has had on them. Allison’s childhood has certainly affected her ability to live outside of her immediate family, and I like how she tries not to think about it.
Okay, so I was happy about this point into watching the character introductions. Pleased, at least. And then we got to Number Four and I verbally said, “Oh no,” to myself. Number Four, or Klaus, is introduced feet-first wearing what appear to be thigh-length sneaker tights and an incredibly silly coat. He walks down a hallway in a dynamic long take (the best sort of long take), flirting with burly men on bunk beds, and picks up his sobriety chip as he checks out of rehab. I think it will come to no one’s surprise to learn that Klaus is the best damn character in this series, and exactly the sort of character I was looking for when I started this endeavor. Like, to an uncanny degree. And to think I was sold on Teleporting Margarita Boi. Klaus is worth two Teleporting Margarita Bois at least.
On a more serious note, the show seems to quite like Klaus as well, because while he’s clearly a side character compared to Vanya, and comic relief besides, the show spends a lot of time with him. Out of all of the characters, he’s the one who gets the most prominent arc, making him a close second to Vanya in terms of narrative significance. As comes with the archetype, Klaus also has a lot of juicy inner turmoil that makes the dramatic parts of his character highly compelling. The show runs on the idea that all of the protagonists have problems due to their upbringing, but these are most visible and complex in Klaus. His ability, delightfully, is speaking to the dead. You know, an ability that would come in handy if, for instance, your father died in mysterious circumstances and everyone had beef they wanted to lay on him. I love this for many reasons, not the least of which is that Klaus seems both bad at and highly reluctant to summon ghosts, his drug habits apparently interfering with his powers. Much of the first episode is spent with him trying (and failing) to get his father to appear, which is exactly as funny as it sounds. Giving an unreliable character potentially quite useful powers is a good way to establish immediate conflict that doesn’t feel contrived (unlike, for instance, forcing two character to get into fisticuffs over nothing). Klaus of course isn’t a perfect character — I mean, obviously he is, as all of my favorite characters are, but I need to at least feign impartiality. As is the style of the show, what subdued moments Klaus gets are sometimes taken a bit too far, and it really wants you to know that Klaus is the comic relief. These sorts of characters tend to work best when the audience is left wanting more of them, and I do think the series strikes a good balance of Klaus to not-Klaus content, but I won’t pretend that some of my gripes about Number Five can’t also apply to Klaus at times.
The final character introduced in the opening credits is Vanya, Number Seven, the only one of the main family who doesn’t have powers. She’s the proper main character for the series, the only well-adjusted one with, like, her own domicile. And… boy, the show really wants us to notice those pills she’s always taking. Mmm. I’m sure nothing will come of it. Anyway. She’s still part of the family but purposefully outcast by their father, forced to observe her siblings saving the day and getting matching friendship tattoos. Vanya is a second chair violinist for a substantial orchestra, and also the author of an autobiography the family resents. The show claims she had a close relationship to their disappeared brother, Number Five, and also implies that she and Allison were close. Diego picks a fight with her when she arrives at the house, not that it would be out of character for him to do that to literally anyone in the family, but Vanya takes it personally. Like Allison, she’s written to be more passive than some of the boys, but at least with her, it plays into her own insecurities. She was told she wasn’t special like the others, so has little confidence. By distancing herself from her family, she’s managed to avoid many of the more serious pitfalls they’ve stumbled into, but she’s left feeling perpetually isolated from them and the outside world as a result. She’s also played by Elliot Page, and Elliot Page makes everything better.
You’ll notice the skip from Four to Seven. This is how the characters are introduced in the series, and I actually kind of like it. The two family members skipped are casualties of their father’s poor decisions, one very literally. The show emphasizes the time passed between the more cheerful childhood escapades and the reality of what those adventures wrought by cutting Five and Six out. Introducing them later also emphasizes their importance within the story. Toward the end of this episode, an enormous portal forms in the courtyard, out of which pops Teleporting Margarita Boi. Teleporting Margarita Boi, or Five, since apparently no one actually bothered to name him, has been stuck in the future for several years. Decades, in fact; although he’s the only character still in the body of a child, he reveals that because of time-travel shenanigans, he’s actually about sixty. And here come the problems.
First, I want to say that the actor who plays him (who’s actually kind of an awesome human being if his biography’s anything to go on) is not a bad actor. The character is a teenager, which gives him a leg up on younger child actors in terms of inherent credibility and clout, and the actor’s quite good at capturing a particular affect in terms of Five’s expressions and mannerisms. He can teleport and uses his power more than any of the other characters, even just to get around a room. I like that a lot, and it’s what made me interested in watching this series in the first place. Like the others, Five has complexity to him based in his difficult childhood — his perhaps even more deserved than the others, given that he got stuck in the future when he was still a kid. Five works well as a character when he has difficulty adjusting to his new normal life, and his best moments tend to be when he is A) drunk, B) treated like a child, or C) completely batshit bananas. He’s an effective comedic element, and I hope the series plays around with him in that role more in the future.
However, that’s not what they do in this season. Five is arguably one of the more important characters in the series. Certainly compared to Diego and Allison, Five gets more screen time and special character moments. He’s on-par with Klaus as far as significance to the story is concerned — he kick-starts the main plot with tales of impending Armageddon and introduces the first antagonists of the series. But after about halfway through, his arc and character development more or less stops. Five differs from Klaus in one very important aspect: he doesn’t really have flaws. I mean, he is flawed in that he has difficulty relating to people, makes poor decisions, and doesn’t really know what to do with himself once his goals are fulfilled, but the show hasn’t made these flaws a crucial part of his character (yet). Five is a classic Mary Sue; he has the most useful regular power out of the group, he’s skilled in combat and tactics, he’s a child genius who knows everything, he has the best grasp on the main plot contrivance, he’s the center of attention as soon as Vanya mentions that he’s been missing, he has a mysterious past, and, oh yeah, he’s a time-traveler. I’m not saying this couldn’t all work out — his failures temper him quite a bit, for instance — but the combination of notoriously fickle child genius dialogue and the role the character fills within the story combine to make him cringe-inducing at times. Let’s just say I get major Book of Henry vibes from Five. He does improve later in the season, though.
And then there’s Ben. I like Ben.
Ben, or Number Six, is dead. As you can imagine, Ben being dead makes his role within the story somewhat limited. I’m actually kind of surprised that the first season doesn’t show how he died at all. His death clearly had a profound impact on the other characters, as they address it several times but deign to talk about it. It’s unclear when or how he died — it happened after Five disappeared but before the main group broke apart, and it’s implied that Ben’s death was something of a turning point in the characters’ lives.
One character in particular.
Yes, that’s right — you thought I was done talking about Klaus, but ha! Despite his failure to summon his father, we learn that Klaus can in fact summon and talk to dead people. Ben is introduced haunting Klaus, and from the way the latter talks to him, this is an ongoing occurrence. It’s unclear as of the first episode whether or not the others know about this, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. None of the others can see or interact with Ben, so Klaus is his only window into the living world. Ben says nothing over the course of the first episode, but you can tell from his expression that this is not an ideal situation for anyone, least of all him. Not only does Klaus seem eager to do anything to keep from seeing dead people, Ben included, but even if he wanted to communicate with the others or vice-versa, they’d all be relying on Klaus and Klaus alone to convey that dialogue accurately. You can imagine how well that would go down.
So yeah, we have a solid block of characters with their own motivations and interrelationships, troubled pasts, and superpowers to boot. I live for this sort of thing, and I genuinely like quite a few of these characters. However, characters alone don’t make a story, no matter how compelling they are. So how does the rest of it hold up?
Part Three: This Show Knows Me. That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing, TBH.
It is hard to get around the fact that this is yet another superhero show. While I love the “people with magical powers” genre in general, I have to admit, it has limitations. Even series like Preacher, which shares notable similarities to parts of The Umbrella Academy, are still about entertainment far before they concern themselves with any of the more relevant topics they touch upon. Fantasy is a great way to explore tough issues through the periphery, referencing them or using metaphors that people dealing with those issues can relate to. But narratives like this walk a delicate line, because if they remove that filter too much and try to face issues like the Holocaust, hate crimes, racism, economic inequality, sexual assault, and so on, but keep their fantastical trappings, they tend to blunder on both accounts. Harry Potter trying to tackle the Holocaust is like hearing about a war from news anchors dressed like furries.
Series that incorporate fantastical elements are frequently improved when they add deeper themes, but they have to know their place. They are, after all, entertainment.
The Umbrella Academy aims more to the entertainment side of the line, which I think is a good thing for this series. I do wish that it was more self-aware and aimed for comedy in its main plot as well as in its general aesthetic and many of its side plots, as the comics it’s based on do, but I’ll take what I can get. As often happens with ensemble fantasy and science fiction series like this, there are two main plots — an A plot and a B plot. The A plot, as usual, is the big driving Bad Thing is Coming, and it’s pretty bog standard. Five returns with news that the world is about to end, so the characters must solve the mystery of how and stop it before it’s too late. The B plot is the series of personal arcs and character relationships that are the meat of the exercise, and they get plenty of time, but they’re also noticeably better than most of the rest of the series. This is the sort of show that understands character, but doesn’t really do much else for me. It’s not bad, and I find it enjoyable, but as you can imagine, these reviews are going to be focused on character more than anything else.
I say “not bad.” That’s a bit of a lie. Plenty of parts of this show are actively quite bad. For me, the stronger elements are easily enough to pull the series together, and the wilder swings in quality make it infinitely more entertaining than the bland mediocrity of, say, a Marvel film. I can’t deny, though, that among my love for the quirky characters and implied depth, there’s a substantial miasma of Problems. Individually, they won’t break the show, but collectively, they could derail it rather quickly. The better parts of the series are a bizarre mix of X-Men, Watchmen, Preacher, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Chew (the latter more so for the books), but the weaker elements invite some less appealing comparisons. Gotham. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Dare I even say… Suicide Squad?
The show is far from the level of any of those latter examples, at least assuming you find something to like about it, but the resemblance for some scenes is uncanny. It’s most noticeable in the music, which is made up of radio hits from 2014 and what a teenager might consider “classics.” Now, I’m not one to speak much on musical taste, as my current listening trends involve a healthy dose of blockbuster scores, Rise Against, Mumford & Sons, whatever the fuck Spotify recommends to me, 80s music inherited from my dad, and bagpipe electronica. A bit of Beatles and Disney soundtracks every now and then (as you might be able to tell, I’m very white). So if even I can recognize all of the songs in your soundtrack and find them distracting, you know you have a problem.
The music works for scenes like where all of the family members are individually dancing, and I don’t even mind it for the character introductions. The show manages to make its kind of predictable, on-the-nose musical choices an aesthetic, and while it’s not a good aesthetic, it fits the cinematography and pacing pretty well. It’s just that they use it a lot, often when they don’t need a pop soundtrack at all. I think it’s an attempt in some way to reclaim some of the cartoonish style of the comics, but I prefer when it does so with the camera work and costumes. There’s a lot about this series that feels fake, but appropriately so. It doesn’t need much more to stand out stylistically.
The rest of the aesthetics are kind of the same — mostly fine, if stylized, like how the camera has some strange zoom, pan, and fish-lens effects incorporated into shots for seemingly no reason. It’s a little distracting, but I’ve seen worse. The editing leaves something to be desired, but again, it’s usually serviceable. For now. The show does some weird things in later episodes that make the editing outright bad, like when it cuts frames without changing the camera angle and characters appear to skip forward. It’s trying to create the effect you get with jump cuts, but it does so with single cuts in a scene where little time is passing. Rather than create a nervous energy from characters wandering around a single room in a rapid span of time, it just strangely bypasses parts of mundane activities, like opening windows or walking down hallways or picking things up.
In all, it gives me a lot to talk about, both good and bad, and I like that. This is the sort of series I like to write about for these reviews. It’s also an interesting adaptation, so expect reviews of the books in the near future.