There’s a certain sort of oddity that feels less like imagination or creativity than its opposite — as though the maker of a given work of art were out of ideas as to how to keep us on the hook and, instead, defaulted to the most self-consciously strange option.
So it is, unfortunately, with “The Umbrella Academy,” Netflix’s new superhero show based on a series of comic books by rock singer Gerard Way. These aren’t regular superheroes — they’re cool superheroes, with oddball talents and edgy attitudes and a talking chimp butler! They’re vaguely entangled with a pair of suit-wearing assassins, played by an out-of-place Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton. And when they get in physical fights, it’s soundtracked by “ironic” peppy pop music, the clearest sign a show is more interested in maintaining a pose than in showing us something we haven’t seen before.
We meet the heroes of the Umbrella Academy as they reconvene following the death of their adoptive father (Colm Feore), who snatched them all up following a little-dwelt-upon global phenomenon whereby women magically got pregnant and gave birth. These immaculately conceived babies (whose origins, which might actually be interesting, are skipped over) grew to display surreal powers, ones that Feore’s Sir Reginald Hargreeves harnessed and mastered with military precision. Notably, he referred to his charges by number instead of name.
As adults, the pupils of the Academy are alienated from one another and from themselves. The most troubled may well be Vanya (Ellen Page), a violinist who’s grown into adulthood with the sad understanding that she lacks the gifts her siblings do and, as a result, lacks confidence. She’s a mouse among the ubermensches, and it’s a role Page plays well, though not one that seems to test her formidable abilities. Other siblings include Tom Hopper as an astronaut whose long mission to space has left him feeling floatingly disconnected back on earth; Emmy Raver-Lampman as an actress who’s won fame thanks to her power of persuasion, but who’s sworn off using it; and Aidan Gallagher as a time-traveler who’s visited the future and seen the end of the world.
That Gallagher is a child playing the contemporary of adults — because, you see, all that time travel kept him youthful, or something — feels less motivated by story reasons than the simple desire to add one more unusual element. (This kid drinks coffee and treats civilians who approach him with vicious disregard. Yawn.) “The Umbrella Academy” has a solid enough premise; indeed, its basic structure, spinning off flashbacks from a family unit, recalls last year’s far better-built “The Haunting of Hill House.” But it feels perpetually as if it’s aggressively working to shock the audience with just how weird it all is. The actors succeed to varying degrees — Hopper and Raver-Lampman, who share a flirtation that’s both troubling and sweetly revealing of their mutual isolation, are probably the best of the bunch, while Page ultimately feels marooned by the dourness of her material and a character evolution that’s written in a muddled and unclear way. In their own storyline, Blige and Britton, both able actors, struggle with some of the show’s most hyperstylized material.
The further it goes, the more “The Umbrella Academy” strives to ladle on distinctiveness, as if simply being a superhero show disconnected from the Marvel and DC universes were not enough. The ultimate irony of this show is that for all its studious quirk, it’s actually fairly tame, relative to a TV universe that lately includes shows about a spree-murdering bookstore clerk and an idyllic, sex-crazed village trapped in a 1980s of the mind. Those shows, “You” and “Sex Education,” have been trumpeted by the generally secretive Netflix as particularly widely-watched; both, too, are gleefully themselves, motivated less by the desire to be different than by sensibilities that really are. It’s not impossible to imagine “The Umbrella Academy” joining them as a show whose various hooks, from a likable cast to end-of-the-world stakes to stylization that feels grabby at first, manage to bring in mass quantities of viewers. But it’s easy, too, to imagine all but core devotees falling off before the season-ending conflagration. After a while, endless stylization for its own sake comes to feel cluttered and, worst of all, dull.
“The Umbrella Academy,” Netflix, Feb. 15. 10 episodes (all watched for review).
Cast: Ellen Page, Mary J. Blige, Cameron Britton, Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Colm Feore, Adam Godley, John Magaro, Ashley Madekwe, Kate Walsh
Executive Producers: Steve Blackman, Jeff King, Keith Goldberg, Mike Richardsonfl