Upon its debut, the Netflix adaptation of Umbrella Academy seemed almost lost in the shadow of bigger tentpole titles that the House of N had churned out. Like its core characters, the show was slightly rough around the edges, fighting for the spotlight that had otherwise been spent on the heroes of Hawkins in Stranger Things. Even so, Netflix thankfully still saw promise in the Academy and have dished out a second season that just about improves every issue that was present in its debut season and has left us with what might be one of the best bits of binge of 2020.
Following the events of the first season, the Academy fled certain doom and the end of the world with the help of time-travelling Number Five, only to wind up being scattered across the mid 60’s and no way of getting home. Ape-like Luther finds himself as muscle for the man that will eventually shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; rumour-whispering Allison is married and part of the civil rights movement; Diego is in a mental institute after attempting to thwart the assassination of JFK, Klaus has started a cult called ‘Destiny’s Children’; and Vanya has no memory of nearly destroying the planet because of her recently awoken powers, or the family she’s been separated from. It’s left to Five to regroup his brothers and sisters and avoid yet another potential apocalypse, as well as the grip of the nefarious Handler that’s bent on wiping him and the remaining Hargreeves family from the history books.
Wasting no time with the era they’re in, the off-the-wall alternative comic book take is still present and at full power, giving a taste of the out-there sequences and an eclectic soundtrack drumming alongside it. It’s an awesome taster of what’s to come that’ll no doubt get you hyped from the first episode, before Umbrella Academy quickly pumps the brakes on the carnage and takes great care in maintaining something the first season struggled with; balance. It was clear from our introduction to Sir Reginald Hargreeves’ adopted children, there were a few star pupils that got more attention than most. Much like their location though, the times they are a-changing and while the team may be apart, thankfully show runners Steve Blackman and Jeremy Slater have made sure that each member finds their footing on their own before putting them in line with the rest. As a result, the standout performances come in the most surprising places, with two particular players in this game of superhumans and time-travelling assassins bringing their best to the table with every chance they have.
While he may lack a physical presence in the grand scheme of things, Justin H. Min as Ben Hargreeves – the only dead member of the team that clings to the clairvoyant Klaus (Robert Sheehan) – is given a lot more screen time than before, quickly becoming a favourite because of it. The conscience and calm to Sheehan’s unruly (and still brilliantly comedic) chaos, is not just a great half of a dysfunctional double-act, but one who has his own quiet moments that establish him as the unseen heart of the Umbrella Academy, and one you hope will keep on beating even if his physically isn’t.
Besides Min’s dearly departed alter-ego, there’s also the very present Tom Hopper as loveable lug and Hargreeves Number One, Luther. Two parts Steve Rogers, and one part-Bruce Banner from Thor: Ragnarok specifically, the ogre-like team’s leader and not great negotiator of the family has been fleshed out wonderfully by the former Dickon of Game of Thrones, who’s found a funny bone within that giant frame. Shifting from the forgotten favourite we left him as in the first season, now he’s the man who’s come to terms with his monstrous side, but is still hilariously out of his depth in just about every reality-changing matter that comes his way. Seeing him spend time with a few key members of the family (David Castañeda’s Jason Todd-ish Diego is a great foil) is where the show really shines and shows just how great the chemistry is in this messed up family out of time.
That’s not to say the rest of the Hargreeves clan don’t pitch in to save the world in their own special way. Sheehan continues to channel the same frantic energy he created in Misfits and remold it here as the team’s wild card. David Castañeda’s broods like the best of them as the rebel without a clue, and Emmy Raver-Lampman while not as prominent here than in the first season as rumour-whispering Allison, still brings a compelling chapter to the series that touches a particularly relevant nerve. The only sagging section in Umbrella Academy’s otherwise entertaining frame is with the team’s most powerful members. Ellen Page had a great arc in the show’s debut season as Vanya, but feels almost put to the wayside thanks to the lacklustre plot thread of memory loss, which had a lot of potential to be explored and isn’t. On the flipside of that is Number Five’s (Aiden Gallagher) convoluted core thread that finds itself tangled up in its own timeline, just managing to redeem itself in the season’s end. Thankfully, these are minor setbacks in a show that deserves an audience for anyone that loves top-tier comic book adaptations, time-travel and the Backstreet Boys (trust me on this). Umbrella Academy is top-class stuff.
Creators: Steve Blackman, Jeremy Slater
Cast: Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Justin H. Min