The compelling thing about this show is definitely the family dynamics and not…anything else.
Umbrella Academy is a Netflix adaptation of a comic book co-written by the guy from My Chemical Romance, which if I’m super honest is probably the only reason why the comic was popular and why the show was made, and also the main reason I didn’t really want to watch the show. But fortunately there was only a very small, tolerable amount of mid-00’s grunge-emo junk in it. The show was mediocre for a whole host of other reasons that had nothing to do with that.
This review is going to have some spoilers for both seasons of Umbrella Academy, which is a bit of an issue, because it’s one of those shows that if you know what’s going to happen, there’s not much point in watching. So be careful of that.
The basic plot of the show is that superpowers exist and these seven kids were adopted by a rich abusive asshole who raised them to be superheroes, and it fucked them up, but now he’s dead and they’re adults and the world’s ending so they have to band together to do varied but nebulous things to make that stop happening. Then the world ends anyway, so there’s a second season where they go back in time and they try to stop a nuclear war and get back to their own time, which they do manage to do. Batting .500 on saving the world isn’t a great track record, honestly, but it’s not like you can blame them for that. A big part of being a good hero is being a decent human being, and when you’re raised by a rich asshole who bases affection on ability and treats you like a tool, of course you’re going to act like a tool most of the time.
It’s an ensemble cast, but the “main” character at least in the first season is Elliot Page’s Vanya, who was raised with the other kids but Totally Doesn’t Have Powers, but then ends up having powers that turn her into an MCR frontman before blowing up the moon because her obviously abusive boyfriend tricked her. She becomes actually watchable in the second season when she gets a girlfriend and a personality around the same time. It’s not Elliot Page’s fault that his character sucks—his acting is really good, if too flat in a way that’s reminiscent of Emilia Clarke’s acting in the early seasons of Game of Thrones where the directors obviously told him to act emotionally repressed and he responded to that by not having any affect.
It’s not his fault; it’s really the writers’ fault for writing such a boring character. Vanya’s interactions with her estranged siblings in the first season should have been really compelling because who doesn’t love a good storyline about fractured siblings with complicated relationships due to a really complicated past? But instead they’re just kind of tedious because the writers wanted to have her be an outcast but they did that by just having her siblings be constantly mean to her for no reason and having her constantly misinterpret their obvious concern for her as meanness, also for no reason.
“For no reason,” is kind of the mantra of this show when it comes to characterization and most other things, to be honest. It’s pretty clear that the writers took a page from their characters’ books and didn’t do much thinking ahead or talking to each other when they were putting their scripts together, so a lot of stuff that happens kind of comes out of nowhere. Vanya is kind of the worst example of this, to be honest. She has these uncontrollable, dangerous powers that were sealed away when she was a kid (which by the way, if your show’s representation of mental illness is “it’s not real and the medication you’re on is stopping you from reaching your full potential,” that’s really not a good look), so unlike her siblings she has to learn her whole powers in like three days as an adult, because the show’s timeline is really tight (and not well plotted). So she just kind of does that, and like, it doesn’t really make any sense. One second she can’t control her powers and then the next minute she’s got some bad eye makeup and is blowing up the moon in a white suit. And then she loses her memories, then when she gets them back and two minutes later she has literally full control over her powers, except that once in a while she gets really emotional and loses control of them again. And that’s a compelling narrative, to be honest, I like the trope that someone is super powerful and keeps it under control most of the time, but if they get upset something bad happens. But in this case it really feels unearned, because Vanya didn’t really ever learn to control her powers, they were just under her control the whole time, which undermines her whole backstory of not having control over them, and it’s just…badly written.
There are other examples of that in the show (how do Allison’s powers actually work? Why does Diego have telekinetic powers but only in one episode? Why do the limits on Five’s abilities seem to appear at random?), and it really all comes back to the bigger problem that the writers just kind of didn’t know what they were doing, and were just kind of making everything up as they went along.
The best part of the show is definitely the siblings’ interactions with each other. They’re a really dysfunctional family who are trying to be a family, and they obviously love and care about one another, but their relationships are hard because of things that their dad did to them when they were kids, things he made them do to each other, things they did to each other of their own accord, and things that happened that they had no control over. There’s a mess of resentment, anger, disappointment, lust, confusion, and love swirling around between them so their group relationships are hard and their individual relationships are just as hard, and it’s legitimately really interesting to watch that part. The second season especially really gets this right as they all settle into a repartee with each other that is really good to watch even if it’s entirely unearned. That part, if no other part, makes the show really compelling.
That part and Kate Walsh’s character. She’s pretty awesome. She doesn’t really do anything except have nice outfits until the second season, when she still mostly doesn’t do anything but have nice outfits, but they’re really nice outfits. I hope time travel bullshit brings her back to life again in the third season.
So Umbrella Academy is honestly really mediocre, and it’s not very well written or internally consistent, and the characterization is often off the mark and the plot doesn’t make sense, and the writers just handwave that away whenever they want to do something that seems cool. It’s really an exercise in aesthetic writing that focuses more on tone than substance and as a result totally screws up its own tone, but elements of it are very watchable, and if it were actually good I think I’d really love it for its sibling dynamics. So if you’re interested in complicated and messed up families and don’t care about things like quality, you’ll probably enjoy it too.