You could be forgiven for questioning whether you were watching a superhero show or Wes Anderson’s foray into television if you started watching The Umbrella Academy. It has all the hallmarks of the renowned director’s works. Symmetrical shots? Check. An excess of dysfunctional family drama? Check. Long montages put to popular music? Check, check and check. So…where’s the “superhero-ing”?
Based on a series of comics by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, Umbrella Academy follows the adoptive family of some child superheroes after they’ve all grown up and gone their separate ways. The father is a manipulative monster, and all have been left with deep emotional issues as a result of their experiences. Reunited by their father’s mysterious passing, the siblings are forced to work through their various issues, all the while attempting to stave off the impending apocalypse.
As suggested by the synopsis above, the series isn’t afraid to embrace the insanity of its source material. Time travel plays a key role in the plot. One of the main characters, Number 5 (Aidan Gallagher), is a 58 year old man in the body of an adolescent. Another, Klaus (Robert Sheehan) can talk to the dead, or at least he could if he wasn’t stoned out of his mind all the time. There are two assassins who go by the names Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige). Yet this insanity separates it from the rest of the pack in terms of genre, and the Anderson aesthetic suits the oddness of the overall premise.
However all of this wouldn’t work if the audience did not empathise with the members of The Umbrella Academy. Luckily, showrunner Jeremy Slater has picked an immensely likeable cast, and given them excellent dialogue and character development to play with.Particular standouts are Sheehan, and Ellen Page as Vanya, the black sheep of the family. Every pairing combination provides drama and humour and equal measure. None of them are boring. Furthermore, it also manages that tricky balancing act of mixing a quirky, comedic tone with moments of pathos. Unlike so many other shows nowadays, The Umbrella Academy realises that not every emotion needs to be undercut with a joke.
Even moments that should be funny, if only because of their surreal nature, become genuinely touching, primarily due to the actors’ commitment to what could otherwise be very silly material. Admittedly, sometimes the budget can’t quite keep up with the ambition. Some of the costumes look a little like early era Doctor Who, and as the apocalypse looms closer and closer, the CGI begins to show some constraints. Yet it moves with such pace, and the characters are so thoroughly human that you can’t help but be invested in their story and where it takes them next.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia Commons