Courtesy of Netflix

February 27, 2019

Mysteries, Time Travel and Apocalypse Abound in ‘The Umbrella Academy’

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I love ensemble shows because they avoid the problem of the infuriating protagonist. Protagonists are usually blank canvases the audience can project upon, but this often backfires if the character is too unlikeable. Thus, in shows with only one lead, I find myself latching onto the more interesting minor characters. With ensemble shows, if one character is too foolish (looking at you, Archie Andrews) or too arrogant, I don’t feel the need to stop watching the program entirely because I know that there are six more characters that I probably like better. Instead of disproportionately focusing on one character’s mistakes, the narrative is evenly spread between a group.

Netflix’s new show The Umbrella Academy benefits from this model. The show follows six (seven if you count a ghost) former child superheroes who deal with the same baggage in their adult lives that you might find in stories about former child stars. One sibling is now a famous actress trying to regain custody of her kid; another sibling is an addict trying to pawn valuables from the family mansion; another sibling had 15 minutes of fame writing a tell-all book and is resented by the rest of her family. However, this isn’t an average story about an estranged family coming together to mourn their eccentric father’s death.

The Umbrella Academy is a show that takes its time revealing its mysteries, asking the viewer to piece together a timeline based on flashbacks, paintings and high-context dialogue. All of the siblings know what drove their family apart, and every character has an intricate backstory that drives their actions, but they don’t spell this all out in the first ten minutes. The Umbrella Academy expertly draws out its story, enticing the viewer to keep watching to see the full picture. This is a show that introduces a talking CGI monkey as just another member of the family without any further explanation but waits five episodes before two characters get romantically involved. I’d recommend not Googling anything about the series or the comic that inspired it before watching — the show leaves a lot of things, even things as simple as “why is this guy so buff that he can’t even fit through a doorway” as revelations that Wikipedia pages and explanatory articles will spoil.

That being said, some of the hand-wavy mysteries take it a little too far. The show tries to introduce all of these time-travel rules about fixed points, fake eyeballs and the assassination of JFK that don’t really make sense and that I don’t really care about — I’d rather learn about Number Three’s mind-control powers or Number Four’s all-too-sober conversations with his dead brother (it’s important to note that all of the siblings have actual names in addition to numbers except for Number Five, who just goes by Number Five). Luckily, this being an ensemble show, I’m not stuck with (or apart from) one character for too long.

My only other complaint is the melodrama. It feels like some characters exist just to be killed off so that the main characters have something to be sad about. The main characters already have enough to be sad about — the show literally opens with a haunting Phantom of the Opera violin medley!

The show’s music is a high point: It utilizes my favorite overdone tools in action shows, playing upbeat pop music over fight scenes. The show uses its music choices to create a quirky atmosphere. It makes sense that the show would focus on music as such an important aspect, seeing as the comic book was created by My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way.

The resulting show is part Travelers, part Legion, part Last Man on Earth, part random dance party halfway through an episode. The Umbrella Academy is vibrant, mysterious and surprising.  It asks a lot of its viewers, packing in a tremendous amount of sci-fi nonsense and intrigue into every episode, but it certainly doesn’t overwhelm.

 

Olivia Bono is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ojb26@cornell.edu.