Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is a 2019 superhero comedy-drama series, with a second season released in 2020 and a third slated for this summer. Based on the comics of the same name by Gerard Way (of MCR fame) and Gabriel Bá, it follows the children of the titular school for superheroes – an inexplicable mass birth in 1989 results in children born with superpowers. The first season concerns the end of the world in 2019 – though it takes a timeless approach to the setting, which anachronisms intentionally muddying the show’s visual style and period. Season two revolves around the assassination of JFK and is set in 1963. It stars Tom Hopper as Luther/One, David Castañeda as Diego/Two, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Allison/Three, Robert Sheehan as Klaus/Four, Aidan Gallagher as Five, and Elliot Page as Viktor/Vanya/Seven – the surviving siblings of the Academy, who struggle with their powers and their upbringing.
The first episode, for all intents and purposes, is effective. It’s concerned with the dysfunctions, dynamics, and emotional states of the siblings in the wake of their father’s death. He was controlling and distant – he only ever called them by their numbers. It’s evocative and funny. After that point, however, it’s not a very good show. Viktor’s powers are never defined beyond ‘he can control soundwaves’, and the character is capable of whatever the plot requires at that moment. Character and story beats that should’ve been part of the first season are kept until the latter half of season two. The dialogue has the standard lack of subtext that I’ve come to expect from the Originals line of shows; ‘I came back in time to stop the apocalypse’, or ‘I stay high to silence the voices of dead people’, are motivations that the audience can gather all on their own without the writers constantly repeating them.
The ins-and-outs of the Netflix Originals house style are not why The Umbrella Academy is terrible. It stumbles into a lot of bad clichés and makes some dire creative decisions. It’s hard to find a word or phrase that properly sums up the horrors of this series. The writers drunkenly trip on their own shoelaces and fall face first into a broken bottle more than once.
Five, for instance, is an old man in the body of a teenager. The Handler, the face of the mysterious time-travelling Commission manipulating the overarching events in some way, has a strange relationship with him. They worked together before he was de-aged, and now they’re enemies, so the dynamic will inherently be off-beat. No problem there, it’s a quirky set-up. But she’s constantly making flirtatious comments around him, making remarks about his “tight shorts”, and looking at pictures of him in the bath. It’s really weird. There’s a myriad of not-gross ways to imply that they were once romantically involved.
Luther and Allison have a will-they-won’t-they storyline throughout the two seasons currently available. Out of context, that’s perfectly reasonable. Remember that they’re step-siblings, however. These people were adopted and raised as siblings, and they are constantly referring to one another as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Bit of a red flag. It isn’t until midway through season two that anyone else mentions this fact, and then it’s waved away as if it’s not weird. It’s weird. Don’t do it, please. Furthermore, Allison is played by Emmy Raver-Lampman, a black woman, and Luther is revealed to be a half-monkey man as a result of a life-saving treatment given to him by their father. Here’s a relationship between a black person and a monkey, which is such a blatant recurrence of racist tropes that it doesn’t need elaborating. From what I’ve seen of the comics, Allison was a white woman, so this is a mistake the creative team made all by themselves – one that they didn’t need to make. Probably could’ve ignored the incest in the source material, anyway.
Klaus, in the middle of season one, accidentally travels back to the Vietnam War. There, he falls in love with a fellow soldier called Dave. When Klaus returns to the present, however, the show falls into one of those bottles I mentioned earlier. Now he has Vietnam flashbacks – the character legitimately hears gunfire and helicopters in his head. He pines for his lost lover, Dave, who was killed in action. It displays such a staggering lack of self-awareness in a show that set itself up as about a dysfunctional family of superheroes. This issue is compounded in the second season, as it now envelopes the entire show. The world is ending, and Five jumps them back in time. They end up scattered throughout the early 1960s in Dallas, Texas – incidentally, it completely ignores the previous apocalypse in favour of a new Red-Scare-nuclear-war apocalypse. The timelessness of the setting is forgotten in favour of an attempt at historical writing, as the show decides to smash bottles into its own face for ten episodes.
The costumes are more evocative of the setting than the violent homophobia of the people wearing them. The props and set design are crisp in the sequence where police escalate a sit-in into a riot. Klaus and Allison seem completely unscathed at the end. It’s an approach to historical writing where the horrors of the recent past – incessant discrimination, violence, and corruption – are treated like a funfair. You must be this tall to ride the McCarthyism Coaster! Take a picture next to the “whites only” sign! Visit the giftshop for your Vietnam flashbacks on the way out. The wistfulness that audiences feel for a dead decade is unjustified, if compared to the day-to-day experience of what it was actually like. The nostalgic ahistoricism does not fit with this passing interest in representing the gnarlier sides of history. What would’ve been better? Treating the horrors of the past like a ghost train, ineffectually visited upon the protagonists at inopportune moments? Or, hoping the timelessness of the setting carries over, and simply washing the skeletons of history away? A superhero comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family could’ve been forgiven for the latter.
What can’t be forgiven is the implication that the apocalypse is being orchestrated by a secretive Jewish organisation. In episode 10 of season 1, “The White Violin”, the Handler speaks to two rouge agents. She notes “we have an old saying at the Commission”, repeating a Yiddish phrase which translates to ‘the eggs think they’re smarter than the chicken’. I think the history of the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jewish people control the media, or are orchestrating some New World Order, or are secret lizard people, doesn’t need repeating. It’s so fundamentally-unhinged that it feels impossible to ‘accidentally’ repeat within fiction. Showrunner Steve Blackman has said that the character was not written as an antisemitic stereotype, but I can find no explanation of his reasoning for the scene. How can you indicate that a sinister bureaucracy in control of the timeline speaks Yiddish, if you aren’t trying to invoke an antisemitic stereotype?
Being interested in conspiracy theories, like The X-Files, is the issue. Both of these shows use the assassination of JFK as a reference point. Whereas The X-Files used it as a tongue-in-cheek example of government secrecy, The Umbrella Academy takes these conspiracies at face value. “[A] nasty little squad of lizard people are planning to kill Kennedy”, half-jokes Diego. At the end of the season, it’s suggested to be true. There really is a secret cabal of mask-wearing lizards trying to take over the world. Which makes two shadowy organisations – that totally aren’t stand-ins for Jewish people – vying for control over reality.
The problem with writing a series where conspiracy theories turn out to be correct is that most conspiracy theories are, at their core, dog-whistles. They take the discontent that’s inherent to modern life and wrap it up in the allure of mystery, before circling back on the same old tropes. ‘You’re not in control of your own life’ is a given, in a world where child-enslaving billionaires have more influence than governments. ‘You’re not in control of your own life because of the Jews’ is where conspiracy diverges from reality. Unlike The X-Files, which knew that political satire was unavoidable, The Umbrella Academy doesn’t ground or deconstruct these notions. It’s unaware of the antisemitism imbued in the subject matter, meaning the quirky veneer falls flat. ‘Oops, we did a Nazi propaganda on accident’ is not a very good development of the mission statement. It’s the worst-case scenario for a show about superheroes and dysfunctional families. There isn’t a wider margin with which to miss the point.