The Umbrella Academy: Season 1

I un-enthusiastically loaded up netflix on Saturday morning with the intention to watch a documentary film that had been recommended to me. There was a big splashy advert for The Umbrella Company, and I thought that was probably a better choice to watch while consuming breakfast and the first cup of tea of the day, and I’d come to the documentary when I was a bit more awake. Spoiler alert – I never made it to the documentary, and instead just spent the whole day watching the 10 episodes of The Umbrella Academy with only a couple of pauses to seek food and fresh air.

Even though I’m not too keen on reading comic books/graphic novels, I’ve always been drawn to the superhero genre, and X-Men were my entry point. The Umbrella Academy is clearly a close relation of the X-Men (or a rip off if you’re feeling uncharitable) and therefore plays to similar themes of normal/other, identity, destiny and found families. The tone of Umbrella Academy is slightly more grungy though, a little bit steampunk, a bit more sweary and a lot less spandex.

The series is mostly set in ‘present day’, I think there was a specific reference to it being 2019, but there are no mobile phones, a slightly clunky fudge to prevent some of the problems being solved too easily. A diverse group of children, born under unusual circumstances and with a random set of powers, were purchased by an eccentric white rich guy, and trained in the titular academy to be a team of superheroes. Now they’re in their late 20’s, disillusioned and separated until the death of their adoptive father brings them back together. There are also a lot of flashbacks to them as children to gradually see how their upbringing made them who they are, and then there’s time travel, so we also get to see the future. The different threads can get a bit messy and hard to track at times, but if you let it wash over you, it actually hangs together very well. There are a few clunky transitions to flashback, but for the most part we never stay anywhere long enough to get bored or be put to sleep with exposition. It’s very much show, don’t tell.

The group of characters are well developed, both individually and with a complex network of relationships both past and present. I expected Ellen Page to be excellent, but the rest of the cast were unknown (until I imdb’ed and spotted that Klaus was actually Nathan in Misfits and I hadn’t recognised him at all!) and they all delivered nuanced performances as characters who’ve grown up under weird circumstances. I loved the family relationships and all the baggage bubbling barely under the surface and exploding at inevitably the worst times.

The plot is twisty and satisfying; I did guess the main twists quite a way in advance but it was still interesting to watch how they came through. The 10 episode format works well and I’m glad they went that route rather than a film which wouldn’t have given all the characters enough room to breath. There were a couple of episodes that dragged a bit in terms of plot, but there were still enough character moments to make them worthwhile. Not all the plot ideas really went anywhere and some big questions that were left unanswered, but hopefully that was deliberate to leave plenty of material for another season.

There’s creativity to the style as well that I liked. The direction and design, when at its best, was clearly drawing heavily from the comic book style. So much of the story and character in graphic novels has to be driven by the images, and that is carried over to the television series. There were scenes that I ended up rewinding just to fully appreciate the style, or to focus on a different part of the screen to see what other characters were doing, I must have watched the above scene half a dozen times, in just two and a half minutes it perfectly expresses every character, establishes the style and even gives you the layout of the house. It’s funny and sad and just perfect.

I went into this series expecting absolutely nothing and emerged 10 hours later completely obsessed with it.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.