18 Feb 2019

Screen Time: THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY Season 1

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY Season 1
Cast: Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, David Castañeda, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Mary J. Blige, Cameronn, Colm Feore, Adam Godley, John Magaro
Directors: Various

Kenny J: Netflix has finally brought us their long-awaited live action adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba's comic book series. It's a pretty faithful realisation of Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, the first two volumes of the Dark Horse comic, a fact that is both a strength and a bit of downfall for the first season. When adapting any comic for the screen, let alone one with such weird and idiosyncratic ideas as The Umbrella Academy, creators have to walk a narrow line. There are many concepts here that comic readers will accept without even a second thought - time-travelling assassins, super-powered child teams, chimpanzee valets and mannequin girlfriends - but I wonder if the general streaming viewer has much time for this, especially when there is so much of it delivered up front with little or no explanation. It is a shame as once the series has set out both its premise and the relationships between its many characters, it is a fun watch with some excellent performances.

Regarding those performances, there are none more impressive than from Aiden Gallagher as the world-weary thirteen year old Number Five and the electric turn by Robert Sheehan as the troubled Klaus. Their two characters have the most interesting arcs, so they have a lot to play with, and when either of these actors are on screen the show is at its best. Really, all members of the immediate Umbrella Academy family should be applauded for bringing pinpoint portrayals to the show. There is one scene in the first episode where Ellen Page and Tom Hopper tell us everything we need to know about Vanya and Luther respectively through the physicality of their acting.
Unfortunately, this scene also sticks out from the otherwise melancholic tone of the first half of the season. It's the first but not last time the show makes missteps like this. The source material moved at a pace, introducing themes and ticking them off across twelve issues, but Netflix's adaptation feels like it meanders when it tries to flesh out secondary characters that were almost one-note in the comic with narratives that distract from the main thrust of the story. As is often the case with Netflix's output, shaving three episodes from the season would have made for a tighter watch. The tonal misjudgements don't stop at the plot. The prominently pop-infused soundtrack also misfires at times. These are emotionally scarred heroes, broken by the ironclad indifference of their adoptive father, and yet they keep Toploader on their playlist? When one of the property's creators is also the lead singer of arguably one of the biggest rock bands of the last two decades you would have thought it might just be, well, a bit better.

Once the series sets up its multitude of plot thread dominos it does a great job of knocking them down. If the first three episodes leave you with very few answers, or later on you're halfway through a scene and suddenly find yourself asking “Why?”, more often than not your curiosity will be sated within minutes. This is why I hope casual viewers persevere with The Umbrella Academy. If one lets these questions ride for a while the payoff is brilliant - all that's  needed is a little patience - and besides, the chemistry between the bickering siblings is amusing too, playing out like a soap opera or serial drama, albeit one with superpowers and deep-seated psychological issues. The emotionless spectre of Colm Feore as Sir Reginald Hargreaves is never far from the viewer's thoughts as we watch to see if this misfit family can work through his fallout quick enough to stave off the impending end of everything: a mystery all of its own that I wish I did not know the solution to before going in.
I for one am glad to see how brave showrunner Steve Blackman has been in bringing The Umbrella Academy to the screen. It would have been easy to carve its eccentricities away leaving only the bare bones of what made the original such an interesting proposal. It is part sci-fi, part noir, but all drama. For all its bagginess it is an enjoyable offering of comic strangeness with more love for its source than can often be found elsewhere. I would recommend a watch to anyone who can get beyond the initial low barrier of eerie gloom because beyond that they will find a clever, snaking story full of well-meaning if misunderstood heroes. 7/10

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