Why do we love the people in our lives most in the moments immediately after we hurt them? I’m asking because I’m genuinely curious, but also because it seems like a question that showrunner Steve Blackman and creator Jeremy Slater of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, and Gerard Way (of the band My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Bá, creators of the original Dark Horse comic, devoted a lot of serious thought to. If you like dark and weird and funny with a gooey emotional center and aren’t opposed to just gobs of ultraviolence, you can now stream the “biggest digital show in the U.S.” in full.
You won’t want to like it at first. After all, Umbrella Academy arrives just on the heels of Netflix’s and Marvel’s conscious uncoupling. As The Defenders and The Punisher and Foggy Nelson move on to Disney Plus, we’re left to get acquainted with another host of lesser antiheroes, and how many different ways can there be to tell that kind of story, really? More generally, there’s an obscene number of shows on an equally obscene number of platforms jostling for your attention, and your queue is, if you’re being honest, pretty full without Netflix’s first comic-book adaptation not based on a Marvel property. I’m not saying you have to give The Umbrella Academy a chance, but if you do … it’ll take your eyes a little while to adjust to it, OK? The lighting and saturation is kind of like if David Fincher shot the whole thing on a faulty last-gen iPhone set to eternal Low Power Mode. And just to lay all of the cards on the table, this tweet, while cutting, is very fair:
How much do you think Netflix will offer me for my new TV show, Marvel's Hogwarts Umbrella Academy of Unfortunate Events— Matt Brennan (@thefilmgoer) February 19, 2019
The Umbrella Academy resembles other, more popular shows, and yes, could easily be narrated by Jude Law and star Daniel Radcliffe. Instead, there’s an elderly butler monkey named Pogo, who wears a tweed blazer with stately brown elbow patches, and Dickon Tarly in a giant furry bodysuit. It’s a weird show. Come to think of it, “weird” is probably underselling it. At one point Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton, who both play time-traveling hatchetmen, eat too much weed chocolate and commit arson.
We’ve gotten this far without them, but I think it’s time for the basics of the story: On the same day nearly 30 years ago, 43 women gave birth, which was strange, considering none of them were pregnant when the day started. An eccentric billionaire named Sir Reginald Hargreeves adopted—or uh, bought—seven of these children from all across the globe and trained six of them into becoming a crime-fighting team in his gigantic, lifeless brownstone in an anonymous metropolis. In addition to ripping them from their homes and bringing them to a sterile and strange new place, Hargreeves also gave them numbers and built a cyborg nanny to assign them names, which duly and colossally fucks them up.
What’s cool is that Umbrella Academy skips the origin story and starts near the middle, with the children gathering for their father’s funeral. The Hargreeves have always had superpowers and were destined for great things, which—as you eventually discover—makes them resilient to and receptacles for almost endless trauma. It helps that the kids’ powers make them more vulnerable in some ironic way. Luther (that’s Dickon, played by Tom Hopper) is massively, peerlessly strong but has body image and abandonment issues. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) can hypnotize people to do whatever she wants, but suffers from imposter syndrome. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) can summon the dead; unfortunately, they tend to stick around. Diego (David Casteñada), the master marksman, literally brings knives to gunfights. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who never gets a people name, can slalom through time, but tends to get lost and has trouble making friends. There’s also Vanya (Ellen Page!), who doesn’t have powers and has to figure out who she is without them.
There’s some examination of the limits and morality of sacrifice in furtherance of the greater good, and, of course, an existential threat, but really, Umbrella Academy is about a group of hapless misfits trying to remember, forget, and forgive, in whichever order best allows them to heal. If you like shoot-outs and melees and explosions, there are plenty of those—but the moments when someone makes an effort to reconnect, or apologize, or admit something to themselves are what moves the plot forward.
Did I make it sound too serious? Umbrella Academy is technically “dark” and “gritty” and “thoughtful,” like a lot of other stuff adapted from comic books, but unlike those, this one has musical numbers. Near the end of the first episode, there’s a full-mansion cross-section dance sequence with the children wigging out to Tiffany’s classic 1987 remake of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s wildly charming.
There’s a diner massacre set to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants, an apocalyptic time-lapse montage set to a Noel Gallagher song, a sad nighttime drive set to “Exit Music (for a Film),” and a multilevel fight scene soundtracked by the skitteriest parts of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Gerard Way also, obviously, snuck some new music in there.
The best part of Umbrella Academy, though, is its tender emotional frequency: its willingness to laugh at itself, but also dog-paddle through uncomfortable conversations and stew in the awkward silences. Why do we love people most in the moments after we hurt them? As far as I can tell, in those moments we look past ourselves, which weirdly lets us see ourselves for who we are most clearly. And that happens to the extraordinary and the ordinary alike.