The first season of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix is an amalgamation of volumes one and two of the comic book series, and it is an exceptional adaptation. Not only does it capture the gonzo world that Way and Bá created, it expands on the characters and themes in ways that I wasn’t expecting. The original comic leaned heavily into the contentious worlds of superheroes versus supervillains to bring to life an absurd satire in which we see the very real results of a father who pushes their children to the point of mental and emotional fracturing. Realizing that the heroes of the story are offbeat enough for a broader audience, the creators of the series - Jeremy Slater [The Exorcist TV series, Fantastic Four (2015)], Steve Blackman (Fargo TV series), and a slew of other exceptional writers and directors - take every opportunity that they can to ground the story in a very real world. In the process, they toe the line perfectly between the offbeat world of the comic series and more conventional TV dramas, as opposed to the conventional aspects of a superhero comic book.
The premise of the story can be found in the trailer of the series: In 1989, 43 women around the world gave birth. None of these women were pregnant until moments before. A reclusive, genius billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), went out to collect as many of them as he could. He collected seven of them, and thirteen years later, six of them were fighting crime as superpowered children. The seventh spent her childhood simply being told, “You’re not special,” “You’re ordinary.” Now in 2019, these adopted siblings gather together again upon the death of Hargreeves only to find out that the world is going to end in eight days. The biggest problem lying in their way is themselves and the psychological trauma Hargreeves left with them in their youth. This is the X-Men if the X-Men were dysfunctional.
There’s Number One [a.k.a. Luther (Tom Hopper)] who is the leader with a body the size of the Hulk and the naivety of a teenager, the knife-wielding Number Two [a.k.a. Diego (David Castañeda)] who can control the projection of the knives he throws and has taken to the streets as a vigilante, Number Three [a.k.a. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman)] who carries the power of suggestion by uttering the phrase “I heard a rumor…,” Number four [a.k.a. Klaus (Robert Sheehan)] who can commune with the dead and uses drugs to satiate those voices, Number Five [a.k.a. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher)] who is a sixty-year-old trapped in a thirteen-year-old’s body that who can teleport around a room, Number Six [a.k.a. Ben (Justin H. Min)] deceased, and Number Seven [a.k.a. Vanya (Ellen Page)] who has spent her entire life on pills to help her nerves finding her only solace in her violin.
And just to show off the absurdity of this universe that they pull off without a wink towards the audience, their caregivers are Pogo (Adam Godley), an intelligent chimp, and Mother [a.k.a. Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins)], whose secret I won’t reveal. Both gave the children the empathy they needed; it just wasn’t enough.
This is the external, but each character is given internal drives and flaws, as well, many times in complete opposition to their fellow teammates and siblings. I’ve only scratched the surface of who these characters are and what they can do.
THE FIRST FIVE EPISODES, like the comic series, cascade forward introducing new characters and relationships. Ideas mentioned just long enough in the comic books to give the characters motivation are expanded upon here in clever ways that allow us to become even more emotionally invested in the human elements of these absurd characters and the worlds they inhabit. This is the best form of show versus tell that I have seen in a long time. Every opportunity to reveal another detail about who these characters are is used for dramatic effect. We feel every pain and insecurity the characters have had to live with. There’s so much to unpack I wish I had decided to do a review per episode. By the end of episode five, many of the pieces are in place.
In THE FINAL FIVE EPISODES, because what is actually a pretty simple storyline has been bulked up with a lot of additional characters and subplots, there’s a lot more to push towards the goal line to the point that the urgency to stop the apocalypse becomes sidelined a couple too many times. And because of this occasionally slower pace, some of the emotional surprises in the second half of the series become obvious. In the comic book, they are given three days to figure everything out and once things get going, they never slow down. Here, they have eight days, enough time to worry about a myriad of other things, and they do. In the comic book, Way and Bá have six issues per story arc, so there’s no time to chew on excess meat. Netflix requires ten episodes to fill, so the creators need to beef up a bit.
While there are a few moments that are hurt by this, the greatness outweighs the couple of instances that may fall short. For instance, on the great side: Two ultra-violent, sociopathic characters from the comic books - time-traveling hitmen named Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) - become surprisingly empathetic, three-dimensional characters in the show. One of the villains, none of which I will reveal here, is a very human, very real character that in the comic books is an over-the-top satire of a supervillain. Slater, Blackman, etc. impressively keep so many plates spinning, giving us incredible shifting character dynamics and surprising plot developments that many times don’t exist in the comic books but never distract from the central drive of the source material, and an ending that diverges 180 degrees from the comic book in the best way possible.
The greatest things at work here, the heart and soul of this story, are the dynamics between the dysfunctional siblings and the father that they can no longer confront. Each sibling is weighed down emotionally, scarred from their upbringing, and ready to take it out on each other. Watching these characters through the mouthpiece of some wonderful performances really stirs the soul.
Other notable elements: Jeff Russo does an amazing job with the score, Neville Kidd and Craig Wrobleski sharing duty as cinematographers give the show the perfect look and feel, and Peter Hoar (a director of Doctor Who) sets the tone wonderfully with his take on the first episode.
There’s so much more that I want to talk about, but saying too much would reveal things that should be experienced, not only by first-time observers to this wild, wonderful world, but also to people who have been fans of the series since the 2000s. This is definitely worth the binge and then some.
And then, if you want more, find the graphic novels at your local comic book store or on ComiXology (where the first volume, as of this writing, is half off). Way and Bá are halfway through a third bonkers volume that won’t spoil anything for a potential second season, as it feels like the show is veering in a very different direction from the series. While there are a lot of similarities (Duh.), it will be a very different, yet equally enjoyable, experience.