Some may consider the first season a bit of a let down, but Season 2 of Umbrella Academy did a stellar job at connecting the Hargreaves family dots to make a genuinely funny, gripping super powered jaunt through time.
Minor Spoilers, nothing past Episode 1
We are in the golden age of superhero related properties. Whether it’s the blockbuster MCU or a gritty DC reboot, we are lucky enough to be able to see great plots, characters and ideas come to life in a way that not long ago was considered niche. It’s crazy to think, when I was growing up, the only mainstream superheroes were Batman, Superman, Spider-man and the X-men. My baby brother has a shield now, instead of wolverine claws.
Though as with any cultural phenomenon, there comes a time when somebody asks what exactly the next great idea will be. What will grip the hearts and minds of cinema goers, Netflix bingers and boxset buyers for years to come.
And whilst that question is being answered, others will wring out the last drops of creativity from the current trend. With superheroes? Marvel did all they could with earnest, epic adventures. Gritty remakes got old quick with DC. Venom and Suicide squad have the whole “flip the genre on its head” and made baddies the goodies, to mixed success.
At the bottom of the barrel is the stuff you didn’t want to try at first, because it’s not pretty, not mainstream and a little weird. It’s Umbrella Academy.
Time traveling back to 2019
Assuming everyone reading this has at least seen season one (if not, spoilers, duh), it was an interesting premise. A family of gifted babies all adopted by the eccentric Reginald Hargreaves as his own private superhero task force, only to have the realisation; they are completely messed up. One died, one goes missing and the other five over time realise just how stupid this whole superhero gig is, and go their separate ways. It turns out taking super powered children and treating them like weapons is not conducive to a healthy upbringing.
The debut season did suffer with some issues. The biggest criticism I could level at it is simply that it was trying too damn hard to do something whacky and different at every turn. Episodes meandered left and right following character after character without really ever getting to the point.
It felt as though the show writers were spending too much time subverting expectations, not only for a superhero genre but for a TV show. Expecting a plot are you? Well, we will reverse time this episode so it’s all meaningless, aha! isn’t that so interesting? Let’s have an episode about Klaus going to war, aha! Isn’t this so random? Well sure, but it is really hard to care when I have no real idea what is going on, the characters all hate each other and nobody is particularly likeable anyway.
Traveling further back to 1960
The highest praise I can award season 2 is the decision to make it an actual joined up television series. No more meaningless meandering for hours at a time, with every piece of character development being thrown aside opting instead for a one dimensional, subversive gag.
The show picks up right where it left off. This time Five’s last minute time jump lands the siblings in an alleyway in Dallas Texas; but over 4 separate years in the 1960s. When Five lands last, an older, beleaguered Hazel warns him of the newest end of the world, as Five sees his family fight the invading soviet armies, missiles plummeting to the ground in the distance. He zips away, ten days prior and only a few days before JFK rolls into town, in an attempt to stop the apocalypse. Again.
There is a purpose underpinning (almost) everything, and it shows. Although the first few episodes start slowly, when it unravels it really starts to unravel. Each character develops in their own way, trapped in time without their family and finding a way to survive. It’s a clever shake up, as giving the siblings a fresh start not only allows us to see who they are outside of the Academy, but the 1960s Dallas setting provides a palate cleansing contrast to the 2019 they left behind.
The action is good too. The budget clearly got a boost this season, with more locations, set pieces and general production value, you really get the impression that some thought went into this, in tandem with a fair bit of money. From uncovering secret plots, to tackling sinister enemies from all sides, we get to see the siblings be the Academy for short periods, rarely getting some respite. When they do, we get a treat with some great character driven stories which transcends the pretty strange source material.
A Character Assassination
The sisters Allison and Vanya really shine here. Allison (who is mixed race) faces the stark reality of a racist mid 20th century US, finding love and purpose in the fight again oppression. Meanwhile Vanya, suffering from amnesia and oblivious to the events of the last episodes winds up on the step of a seemingly typical small town American family, finding in her confused state feelings she may not have known she had.
It’s an interesting dynamic for both women, adding depth and complexity to what were otherwise fairly one note characters. Elsewhere central character development was… light, with Luther, Five and Klaus more or less maintaining their trajectory, though in fairness we get to see more of them “in action.” The ghost of Ben is involved a little more, and Diego has a weirdly prominent role early on, and actually does fairly well along side some new characters who add interest in their own way.
Speaking of which, the new additions are pretty solid across the board, even though they are largely foils for the individual family members’ own evolution. Plot drivers or not, I feel that more than anything the connection between these characters and the main gang adds emotional depth to what could have otherwise been a very detached action based season. Seeing the connection between the siblings and their 1960s life gave us something to root for, or at least something we could get behind until the world ends.
A Working Formula?
It is undoubtable, this show is odd. Time police, ape men and murderous Swedish brothers, there is very little about Umbrella Academy which is a mainstream superhero show. It is very easy to compare it to Doom Patrol, which launched around the same time, and features the same “reluctant superhero” formula we see in Umbrella Academy, perhaps even with the weird factor turned up to 11.
But what Umbrella Academy has achieved was really from toning back the weirdness in favour of some linear storytelling. On paper it may look like a boring decision that would drag the show down, but in reality it puts some great (but manic) ideas into some rails which make an engaging premise. After the first few episodes the frustration that was an ever-present in season 1 falls away, and all we are left with is a genuinely fun, exciting story that has a thread for everyone to enjoy.