'The Umbrella Academy': TV Review

Watch what it rips off instead.
2/15/2019

Netflix's latest drama, which centers on a very familiar group of superheroes, fails to inspire, despite the presence of performers like Ellen Page and Mary J. Blige.

Netflix already has A Series of Unfortunate Events and could have easily titled The Umbrella Academy, its new series, A Series of Pointless Scenes.

Sigh.

Sure, the scenes in question might not be pointless when all is said and done in this adaptation of the comic books by Gerald Way (who was also the singer in My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Ba, but four hours was about all I could endure of a series that seems to be a mashup of so many other ideas and projects, notably X-Men. And if you make it to the undoubtedly very protracted end, well, I envy your lack of other pressing matters. 

Umbrella Academy borrows something else from Marvel comic adaptations and Netflix dramas in particular — a belief that there's no urgency in the dramatic equation because there are 10 hours to tell a story. It's a false assumption, because the Peak TV era has an endless number of compelling options that are more alluring than waiting for a writers room to get its shit together.

Steve Blackman and Jeremy Slater developed the series for television and wrote or co-wrote many of the episodes, and maybe by now it's a Netflix mandate to just pointlessly fuel the watching of the next episode. But others have been able to at least squeeze out a spark in that style, while Umbrella Academy doesn't seem to much believe in the idea that episodes should have story arcs and a compelling sense of forward momentum. Oh, it's keen to add one final scene to each episode that hints, sometimes languidly, at a dramatic shift, but then the next episode comes along and the story returns to its soul-sucking quicksand of a pace.

It probably doesn't help that the writing is superficial and the acting suboptimal, or that the whole thing relies on an ostensible quirkiness and viewers' innate sense that they've seen echoes of this many other places.

The series is annoyingly inert, in short, and derivative in the process.

Umbrella Academy centers around the premise that a number of miracle births — women giving birth to babies a day after not being pregnant — happened in the world and a very strict billionaire named Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) scooped up seven of them and trained them to be pre-teen and then teen crime fighters, wearing old English school attire and tattooed with an Umbrella Academy symbol and post-Batman eyewear. In flashbacks we realize they were a thing, kind of like The Incredibles, with comic books devoted to them and endless news coverage until one day, without much explanation through four episodes, they fell out of favor.

Not much explanation is a hallmark of the series, as if delaying character development is intriguing.

Their monocle-wearing father calls them all by their number — as in "Number 1," aka Luther (Tom Hopper), whom we find on the Moon for no discernible reason and whose torso is so oversized it is, well, comic-book large, requiring gigantic sweaters and jackets. By the fourth episode, we do find out why Luther is so big. So there's a morsel.

Number 2 is Diego (David Castaneda), who is an expert at throwing knives and loves his robot mother (Jordan Claire Robbins) while passionately hating the father who programmed her. Number 3 is Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), currently a famous actress who rarely gets recognized. Her secret power is telling lies that then convince the people hearing them to do whatever she says. Number 4 is Klaus (Robert Sheehan, who has apparently been directed to act like a drugged-out Johnny Depp), who can see the dead, including his adopted brother, Ben, who is Number 6 and barely in these opening episodes. Number 5 is known as "The Boy" or just "Number Five" (Aidan Gallagher) and, skipping Dead Ben at No. 6, there's Number 7, aka Vanya (Ellen Page), the one adopted kid who "wasn't special" like the others and thus was held back from any superhero crime fighting by her father, then ended up writing a tell-all book that ruined everyone's reputation. She now lives as a third-chair violinist who mopes around so relentlessly that she's like the superhero of moping. If Page has ever been used this pointlessly before, I haven't seen it (though one would assume that she will eventually discover that she really is special and perhaps save the day).

If you squint, you can see why Netflix wanted to bring this to life, though it seems there have been alterations from the comic book. I mean, a weird "family" of superheroes who are living in a big mansion with an oppressive mastermind billionaire father and a robot mother? It's gold, right? Oh, there's also Pogo (Adam Godley), the talking adult chimpanzee who dresses and speaks like a British butler. 

But nothing in Umbrella Academy truly comes to life, though the presence of two assassins named Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton) are the closest thing. (Someone clearly said, "Let's have badass singer Mary J. Blige do some machine-gun shooting next to the guy who stole all the scenes in Mindhunter!" At least that was inspired.)

Otherwise, wow, you'd think that a series willing to go all-in on style over substance would at least make something thrillingly ridiculous. Instead, The Umbrella Academy is just an exercise in how not to tell a dramatic story. All done really pointlessly.

Cast: Colm Feore, Tom Hopper, David Castaneda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Ellen Page, Aidan Gallagher, Jordan Claire Robbins, Mary J. Blige, Cameron Britton
Developed for television and written by: Steve Blackman, Jeremy Slater, from the comic books by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)