A diverse bunch of seemingly unconnected children are born simultaneously. All of them have some kind of superpower, and there’s a shadowy, abusive, powerful figure who wants to round them up for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
I’ve seen a few people comparing Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy to X-Men, and the Academy in question does have superficial similarities to Casa de Charles Xavier. But the premise for Gerard Way’s comic wasn’t derived from Stan Lee. It’s a riff on Salman Rushdie’s brain-bending magical realist masterpiece, Midnight’s Children. So in the first minutes of the pilot I went all squiggly and said to myself, “Salman Rushdie and a solo violin playing a schmaltzy earworm from The Phantom of the Opera? Sign me up!” Superhero TV was poised for some next-level stuff, creating a universe rife with 1980s pop culture phenomena and cashing in every dividend from a solid-gold allegory.
You know what, The Umbrella Academy is not bad. The soundtrack is killer. Even hairy gorilla arms can’t prevent Tom Hopper from being adorable. The bizarre, mannered performances by Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton as a pair of bureaucracy-dogged time-jumping assassins are entirely giggle-worthy. And if Rushdie fathered the premise, the stylebook seems to have been sired by Daniel Handler; touches reminiscent of A Series of Unfortunate Events abound in its dour-meets-steampunk aesthetic. But it took maybe eight minutes before I was asking myself if this was one of those insiders-only crypto-adaptations that would only make sense to someone who’d read the comics repeatedly and obsessively. The Umbrella Academy does handsprings to keep you watching, and yet never realizes that all it has to do is exhibit a modicum of non-superpowered follow-through. Have you ever had a flaky friend who spent so much time concocting flamboyant exotic excuses for missing drinks (or your wedding, or the deadline for the rent money) that you’re exhausted just listening to them spin, and feel the overwhelming urge to point out that just doing what they said they’d do would have taken a tenth of the energy? The Umbrella Academy is that friend.
The pilot sets up the Rushdie-esque high concept right at the beginning: Forty-three babies are born simultaneously to women who hadn’t even been pregnant when they’d woken up that morning. Intrigued? All these babies will turn out to have unique supernatural abilities, and they will be the subject of lifelong, ominous interest from an abusive authority figure. In Rushdie’s novel, this premise is allegorical; the children are born in the hour of India’s newborn independence (Partition, meet Parturition!), and the shadowy peril is Indira Gandhi. In The Umbrella Academy, we open on a young girl at a public swimming pool in Soviet Russia, who goes from flirting with a boy at the pool to transition labor in three seconds (and manages to deliver a full-term baby without removing her one-piece bathing suit). We stay with this nameless character (I assume it’s the mother of Vanya, played in adulthood by Ellen Page) for several minutes, as voiceover narration explains the outlandish situation, until a reclusive billionaire magically appears to purchase the infant. The narration explains that of the 43 children born in this remarkable way, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) gets his mitts on seven. Then we’re off to the races, with The Umbrella Academy children going on hero missions while wearing fetching British-style prep-school uniforms and little eye masks.
I promise I am all too happy to suspend disbelief: I didn’t spend one second looking for my protractor when Jaime Lannister fell into the Blackwater Rush. So it’s a pretty reliable indicator that something’s gone sideways when I spend most of an episode asking, “Why do there need to be 43 children if only seven of them are characters? What happened to the other 36 kids? How did Sir Reginald know where to find them, and how does he know to look for them? Why spontaneous pregnancies? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable to have normal pregnant women give simultaneous birth to superheroes? How is that girl delivering a baby with her swimsuit on? Why is it even called The Umbrella Academy? What is the meaning of the umbrellas? Did I miss something?” Honestly, if one can’t get past that kind of petty detail, some much larger, non-petty element is not sticking the landing. In this case, that larger element is hard to pinpoint, but perhaps it boils down to setting up an allegory and not delivering one. We have to own our references, do we not? If you’re creating a story about a melancholy prince of Denmark with daddy issues who’s given to long soliloquies on the nature of existence, people will assume there is a thematic or metaphorical reason for building a universe off Hamlet. That story becomes part of the foundation of your story, weaving an internal dialectic through and around and underneath your script, inflecting your characters and influencing your plot. That’s why you chose to write it that way, isn’t it? If you didn’t want people to think about Hamlet, you wouldn’t have written that monologue where your protagonist wonders whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and whatnot. By the same token, don’t reel your audience in with reference to a definitive text of postcolonial literature if you’re not going to put Rushdie’s high concept to work. Once it’s there, it needs a job to do.
There’s just so much stuff going on in this show. Supernatural origins, adoption (or purchase), militarized schoolchildren, an abusive dad, a literal robot mom, a CG talking Alfred Pennyworth chimpanzee, a mysterious disappearance, a mysterious death, a doomed love, a tell-all memoir, a shit-ton of psychic pain and a looming apocalypse-by-symphony. It has everything! The only thing it’s missing is character development. Other than Vanya, who’s grown up with herself and most everyone else believing she is what J.K. Rowling would call a “squib,” and who undergoes the kind of unfortunate transformation that befalls people who’ve been forced to repress their gifts and live in isolation, there’s no real depth to any of the siblings. In fact, besides Robert Sheehan’s Klaus, who does sober up eventually, no one really grows or changes. (One exception, a really well-done dance scene between Luther and Allison, played by Tom Hopper and Emmy Raver-Lampman, takes place in a time-suspended alternate reality and doesn’t quite count.) There are probably fictional universes in which static characters aren’t a drawback, but The Umbrella Academy doesn’t build one. It sets up a dysfunctional family drama in which superpowers are a metaphor for regular powers like persuasion and discernment and intuition and strength. And then… Then they have some fun action sequences and a lot of well-shot frames and dolled-up color and cool music cues and, like, flair. And it feels ponderous instead of deep and forced instead of fanciful because series creator Steve Blackman and his team were so busy with the trappings that they forgot to give the characters fully articulated souls.
I would have loved a show that made explicit use of Midnight’s Children. (I suppose I will have to wait for Netflix’s adaptation of Midnight’s Children). Stepping out of the “genetic anomaly” or “mutant” paradigm of superhero stories and trading pseudo-pop-science for the sensuous, melodic, involuted logic of magical realism would have been fun, and The Umbrella Academy does touch that space a few times, mostly in its use of music: Luther and Allison’s alternate-universe dance number and the pilot episode’s amazing dollhouse cross-section in which everyone’s separately rocking out to “I Think We’re Alone Now” both have magical realist timbres, as does the concept of a violin solo so devastatingly beautiful it literally kills everyone. Gerard Way obviously loves music, and that’s the element of the series that does achieve liftoff, repeatedly. There are ways of using music to denote character (watch Otto Preminger’s masterpiece Laura, or its creepy David Lynch grandchild Twin Peaks if you don’t know what I mean), and Vanya’s relationship to music is probably one of the reasons the character resonates (if you will) more than the rest. But clever sound cues cannot totally replace the work of true character development. And a reference to a literary progenitor cannot substitute for that work either.
In the end, I don’t reckon you can get away with too much non-specificity. Like your undergrad creative writing teacher always said, there are really only two plots in the world; everything else in fiction is really born of character, and character is all about detail—piercingly specific, deeply personal detail. So Vanya, in the isolation tank of her own very specific ordinariness, actually earns our attention, like a scrawny kid bullied by football players who grows up to be a rock star. The rest of the characters kind of hang around wondering why they haven’t convinced you of their needfulness, and they don’t seem to get that it’s because they have to pull their weight as flesh-and-blood humans even if they’re impressively gorilla-hybridized or have the theoretical ability to change your reality through the power of suggestion.
One of the characteristics of Midnight’s Children, which people seem either to adore or despise, is a deliberately meandering and long-winded quality: The book’s more than 450 pages, and peppered with long, explicitly digressive passages. There’s even a character who exists purely to listen to the protagonist’s ramblings, and who frequently urges him to stay on track. In some ways, that quality is Midnight’s Children’s greatest influence on The Umbrella Academy: The series has an effusive scattershot of things and images and ideas and story points, and while that creates the illusion of depth and complexity, it doesn’t follow through on anything like enough of those impulses to build the real thing, which Rushdie achieved by doing the nuts-and-bolts work of imagining his characters thoroughly. The digressive, appositive-heavy voice is a character’s voice. It earns the right to be what it is by intense focus on what makes narrating protagonist Saleem Sinai who he is, and it sustains that focus for hundreds of pages. And because it is an allegory, it ties itself by definition to real events and times and places and people. It’s not a move that pays off when you’re inhabiting a world of abstractions, and that’s essentially what The Umbrella Academy gives us—and it’s why, in the final estimation, the series fails to deliver.
The Umbrella Academy is now streaming on Netflix. Read our conversation with the series’ cast and crew here.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.