Okay, I admit it, I am beyond surprised. I won’t tempt fate by titling this post with ‘Season One’ because we have yet to see if Netflix will greenlight a second season, but surely it’s inevitable, because this series is great- it’s possibly the best comic book show on television I have seen, and lord knows there have been so many over recent years.
Much of my praise is because I am such a huge fan of Watchmen and the movie based on that graphic novel, and the fact that The Umbrella Academy is so close in tone and approach, putting messed-up superheroes in a real-world situation contesting with a looming apocalypse. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but as a Watchmen fan, its right up my street, and may actually have stolen some of the thunder from HBO’s own genuine Watchmen spin-off which is due later (?) this year (on the other hand, I really had my doubts that anyone could pull off something like Watchmen on television, but The Umbrella Academy patently proves otherwise so it’s actually gotten more excited for what Damon Lindelof and HBO might come up with).
The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic book from Dark Horse that I am utterly unfamiliar with so I cannot judge how faithful it is or how many liberties have been taken with the source material. I certainly would not suggest the series is perfect- it’s a little overlong (eight episodes would have paced it better than the ten we are given) and while most of the cast are great there are a few weak spots, but on the whole its great, with some genuinely interesting characters, some surprising diversions and real scope (it’s an endless surprise to me just how cinematic HBO and Netflix stuff is). The allusions to Watchmen do keep popping up (one characters experiences in Vietnam, another suggestion about the JFK assassination, the apocalyptic denouement at season end, a character’s ability to shift through time offering him an almost Dr Manhattan perspective on things) but I suspect they are in the original comics? If not it’s clear that the shadow of the Watchmen movie looms large (in a good way) with the series real-world setting (emphasis less on silly costumes and gadgets than on consequences of the powers), the clever use of source music, lots of moody rain, the realistic art direction- and yet at the same time there are sometimes hints of an irreverent, almost Pythonesque tone that is very unlike Watchmen’s very dour, serious approach to deconstructing its genre so I’d say the show maintains a fairly unique identity.
Some of the twists can be seen a mile off but I don’t think it detracts from the show at all- there are some genuine surprises and some intriguing mysteries that are not explained which I hope augurs well for them being delved into in a second season. There are at least three plot points mentioned in the series that I had expected to be developed but weren’t – and indeed one major tease thrown in at the start of the final episode that really wound me up (in a good way).
On the whole this was a really promising series and I was both surprised by it and left excited for what may follow. Maybe the comic book future is not wholly in the hands of Marvel Studios despite the best efforts of DC to screw things up.