Have you ever watched something so abysmally terrible that it resonates with you on a deeply personal level, and you have to create a twitter account to rant about all of the things wrong with what you just witnessed? Well, that was me after spending 10 consecutive hours binge-watching Netflix’s new show, “The Umbrella Academy.” Hit me up with a follow @BadUmbrellas.
“The Umbrella Academy” is Netflix’s first foray into post-Marvel superhero television, following the cancellation of “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “The Punisher” and “Iron Fist.” But unfortunately, comparing this show with the first season of “Daredevil,” or any of “Luke Cage” is nearly laughable.
“The Umbrella Academy” is bad. It is poorly written, poorly acted and poorly paced. There are glaring plot deficiencies, things that make absolutely no sense, stunted character developments and enormous amounts of wasted potential.
That being said, is it watchable? Yes. Is it enjoyable? Yes. Is it fun? Hell yes. If you’re willing to accept the seemingly infinite flaws of “The Umbrella Academy,” you’ll find joy in the ridiculousness, you’ll fall in love with some of the characters and you’ll become completely obsessed with the entire production to the point where people will ask you “If the show is so awful, why do you keep talking about it so much?”
The premise of the show is insane from the get-go. For no reason whatsoever, 43 women around the world get nine months pregnant in a matter of minutes, giving birth at the same time. An eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves, travels the world, tracking down and purchasing/adopting/stealing as many as he can, for reasons that are completely hidden from the viewer, and likely the writers too. He winds up with seven of them.
Then, surprise! The children all have supernatural powers! He trains and tortures them to use their powers as superheroes, sending these small children on dangerous missions, and having them just straight up kill criminals. The children become wildly successful and famous, until the group fractures after the death of one of their members and they go their separate ways.
Fast forward 17 years from the team’s final mission, and the children are reunited as adults at Hargreeves’ funeral. The show begins with this simple premise, before splintering into a million random sub-plots and equally confusing flashbacks as the viewer follows the six (seven?) protagonists’ lives.
Unfortunately, the majority of characters in this show are, to put it lightly, just terrible on all levels, from their dialogue to their development to the acting itself. They are superheroes that I don’t care about at all. It’s never even made clear what the extent of their powers (the one thing that really defines a superhero) really is. I found myself constantly wanting the main characters to use or reveal their powers, or to develop them further, but they never did. The show literally forces you to piece their powers together for yourself. Finally, Mary J. Blige (who plays a time-traveling assassin) comes back to her hotel room after visiting the library and lists them all out in order, because they were on public record, because the Umbrella Academy is globally famous.
(Speaking of Mary J. Blige, Netflix touted her in the marketing as their “big name” actor – besides Ellen Page, who is also bad in this show, and looks so unbelievably sad in every scene – and yet somehow, she gives the worst performance in a show that is filled with nothing but bad acting.)
The driving force behind wanting to watch the show actually turns out to be the Netflix autoplay feature, and the sheer number of unknowns presented in each episode. I found myself wanting to keep watching just to have my questions answered at some point; I wanted to uncover all of the mysteries that seemed to be present in the shadows of each episode. I wanted to know what the superpowers were; I wanted to know how Ben died; I wanted to know more about Hargreeves and The Academy as a whole. Unfortunately, I watched for 10 hours and found out none of that. This is not fair, Netflix, you can’t string me along like a rat in a maze by hinting that there might be something I don’t entirely know yet. I should want to watch your show because it’s actually good, not because of infinite cliffhangers.
Netflix adapted “The Umbrella Academy” from its original, Eisner-award winning comic book form. The original comics are written by Gerard Way, who, strangely enough, is the lead singer for My Chemical Romance. After finishing the 10 episodes of the first season of the show, my obsessed self went and found all of the original comics and read through them.
Here’s the shocking truth: the comics are good. Like, really good. They’re incredibly stylized, they have way cooler character designs, they tell better stories in a much smaller medium and they’re innovative and significantly different than other comics in the superhero genre.
The comics take place in an alternate timeline of the world, and they embrace it wholeheartedly, allowing for more comedic moments and fantastic events to happen. In the comics Hargreeves is an alien (which is actually alluded to in the show and will likely feature in season two), and one of the first issues features the child versions of The Academy fighting a zombified version of Gustave Eiffel, who’s attempting to fly the Eiffel tower (actually a giant spaceship) back off the planet. Remember the 43 women who got pregnant for no reason in the show? In the comics, it happens because two interdimensional beings are having a wrestling match in another galaxy, and one of them does an atomic piledriver that sends a shockwave all the way to Earth. Yes, that is absolutely ridiculous, but they just roll with it, and the reader doesn’t spend any time focusing on it. It sets the tone, it’s different, it’s fun, and it’s super stylized. In fact, an alien wrestling match does more effective worldbuilding than the entirety of the Netflix show, which just takes place in “generic city, 2019.”
My biggest frustration with Netflix lies in the show’s wasted potential. They had the distinct opportunity to create a truly unique superhero world, one that hadn’t existed in a live-action medium before this point: something dark and cruel and violent yet ridiculous and funny and exciting. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they just made a worse version of “Heroes.”
I think the show made an effort to try and be more “wild and crazy” than your average superhero story, but it’s almost insulting how little follow-through that effort bears. The closest thing to originality that the show gets is putting ‘80s rock music over every single fight scene and using Klaus as “wacky and wild” comedic relief. Everything else has this sad, depressing atmosphere surrounding it—an over-dramatization of everything that not only takes away from the viewer’s enjoyment and interest in the show, but also strips the show of its uniqueness and turns the entire story into the played-out genre of “superheroes, but they’re edgy and also have their own personal issues and deal with real life.”
The most painful parts of the show are the moments when it’s really, genuinely good—when it captures something that jumps off the screen and is legitimately magical. In those moments, you can see what this show truly could be at its peak, when everything aligns and you see things that you couldn’t find anywhere else on television. The family dance montage to “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Five’s killing spree in the doughnut shop, Klaus’ performance in the prosthetics office, Diego’s stutter and relationship with Grace, Hazel and Agnes’ love story— all of these shining moments are legitimately good television.
Then you see something like an aging Five walking in place, holding a rifle in front of what is clearly a cheap green screen while grainy footage of World War One and Stalin and the Hindenburg plays behind him. Then you’re reminded why you hate this show.
This show is going to get renewed for a season two. Hell, it will probably get renewed for seasons three, four and five. Superheroes are still hot right now. The show will likely answer some of the infinite questions that plague the first season, and things should actually be better paced now that all of the characters have been “developed.” Though things will likely improve from this point, the show needs to make a massive swing in aesthetic direction, straight toward the absurd and the incredible. With the way season one ended, I’m optimistic we’ll see something that touches a place closer to the comics.
But, in the end, every single person in the world should go and watch this show, because the Hargreeves family has a CGI monkey butler with a British accent, and that fact alone makes the entire thing worthwhile.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.