'The Umbrella Academy' Season 2: TV Review

Netflix
Once again, full of breathtaking visuals and stultifying characters.
7/31/2020

Netflix's comic adaptation returns for a second season of cheeky action/comedy montages, time-travel paradoxes and pending apocalypses.

Netflix's The Umbrella Academy is the story of a dysfunctional family with an assortment of superpowers who occasionally find a way to combine their talents to do remarkable things — but much more frequently fall victim to their own egos and insecurities, pushing the world closer to the brink of an apocalypse.

The show occasionally finds a way to harness the powers of a solid cast and tremendously talented crew to deliver moments of almost shockingly good TV, but much more frequently falls victim to dull characterizations and repetitive stylistic choices. The latter tendencies render it interchangeable with super anti-hero team-ups like Doom Patrol, The Boys or Legends of Tomorrow.

When we left the dysfunctional savants of the Academy, they had just neutralized sound-wave-manipulating violinist Vanya (Ellen Page) to avert one apocalypse, only to accidentally trigger another when massive pieces of the moon began to break off and pummel the Earth. Using his inconsistent ability to manipulate time and space, Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) is able to zap his adopted family away from the disaster in 2019, only to accidentally drop each of them in the same Dallas alley at different individual points over a three-year period leading up to the JFK assassination. Number Five actually arrives on November 25, 1963, and is surprised to discover he's in the middle of a Russian-instigated World War III, so he has to go back and reassemble the gang to prevent the apocalypse they caused by avoiding the apocalypse they caused by preventing the apocalypse.

You with me?

Knife-throwing Diego (David Castañeda) has been tossed in an asylum along with the mysterious Lila (Ritu Arya); mind-bending Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has become some sort of civil rights organizer; Klaus (Robert Sheehan) has become some sort of cult leader (with Justin H. Min's Ben still a ghostly tag-along); Luther (Tom Hopper) is using his super-strength (and ape-torso) to bare-knuckle box in cahoots with a famous figure from the Kennedy assassination; and Vanya is on a farm, where she has befriended a frustrated housewife (Marin Ireland) with a troubled son.

The specifics of how these characters got where they are and how Number Five will get them back together is the thrust of the season, which only occasionally feels like it's happening adjacent to Stephen King (and Hulu's) Kennedy assassination time travel saga 11/22/63.

There are parts of Umbrella Academy, based on the comic series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá and overseen by Steve Blackman, that I find borderline breathtaking. It's generally a handsome and well-produced show, and there are scenes that do as good a job of capturing the energy and dynamic range of the comic book frame as anything I've seen on television.

I'm also a sucker for the show's trademark motif, the action scene or montage cut tightly to an ironic or semi-ironic soundtrack selection. Nothing in the second season equals the catharsis dance set to "I Think We're Alone Now," but darned if they don't keep trying, at a rate of two or three per episode — one of which usually feels gratuitous while the other is usually the highlight of the hour. I especially liked one warehouse brawl set to Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," as well as a later, well-choreographed fracas set to a boy band classic.

Another thing I actively love about Umbrella Academy is the costuming, especially for Kate Walsh's The Handler, last seen getting very killed, which needn't be an impediment in a show that includes time travel and ghosts. Those costumes are part of the show's frequently nutty cartoonishness, which yields snapshots of inspiration, like the new authority figure at The Commission who has a fishbowl containing a giant goldfish for a head.

The performances in Umbrella Academy are a mixed bag, especially since my two favorite pieces of the first season were Mary J. Blige's Cha-Cha and Cameron Britton's Hazel, both now absent. I forget Luther and Diego every time they're off-screen, and though both Hopper and Castañeda are decent when the show lets them find humor in their characters' tough-guy personae, too often they're used for limp and flimsy psychology exercises in pathos.

Page is actually the only actor in the main cast who successfully lands the dramatic beats that fall flat elsewhere. Gallagher is very good in the tricky part of a fifty-something-year-old man trapped in the body of a schoolboy. Sheehan is a wonderfully adroit physical comic and when that's how Klaus is written, he's a lot of fun to watch.

I think Raver-Lampman is the most frustrating part of the cast, because she's a very watchable actress and the show has no clue what to do with her, adding and dropping parts of her character with no consequence. She's trapped in the worst part of the second season as the Umbrella Academy writers seem determined to remind us of how smartly Watchmen — the best of the super anti-hero team-ups — treated the history of race relations in America. The Watchmen secret seems to have been two things: narrative centrality and specificity. Umbrella Academy makes Allison's dabbling in the Civil Rights movement into the season's "F" or "G" plot — so essentially sidelined and irrelevant to the point of being close to offensive.

It treats the Civil Rights movement with hollow nebulousness — a sit-in is portrayed as a novelty in 1963, when the actual Civil Rights movement largely moved past that tactic after 1960 — peripherally tied to events in Dallas at the time. It's fuzzy writing and a missed opportunity, particularly when actual provocative commentary about the erasure of Black women in the Civil Rights movement was right there for the exploring.

Still, I watched the second season with a pretty good sense of what all of the main narrative was and what the characters were looking to achieve, which definitely was not the case throughout the first season. That clarity made it easier to focus on the parts of the show I loved and to let my interest waver when it came to the things I could take or leave. So that's some improvement.

Cast: Tom Hopper, David Castaneda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Ellen Page, Aidan Gallagher, Justin H. Min, Ritu Arya, Yusuf Gatewood, Marin Ireland

Creator: Created for TV by Steve Blackman, developed by Jeremy Slater, from the comic books by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

Premieres Friday, July 31 on Netflix.