Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol, reviewed and pondered
An expensive-looking mature-content superhero TV show based on a cultishly adored comic book: That’s unusual. Two expensive-looking mature-content superhero TV shows, based on two cultishly adored comic books, streaming on the same day: That’s unusual, maybe — or maybe the best trick the new mainstream ever pulled was pretending to look weird.
The Umbrella Academy is on Netflix today, the entire first season available to binge. The DC Universe service honors that dying god The Weekly Release Schedule, so today you can only watch the season premiere of Doom Patrol. Both series are about mournful misfits with superpowers who live in a gigantic house owned by a wealthy, foreign-looking bearded rich man. Both misfit coalitions do not want to be part of their own titular superteams.
The Umbrella Academy has the more complicated setup. In 1989, unpregnant women around the world suddenly give birth to children possessing powers beyond those of mortal people. Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts seven of the babies, raising them in a fancy square-block household in a big city. When they are teenagers, he dresses them in leather jumpsuits straight out of the first X-Men movie trilogy. They become a famous kid superteam.
Then everything goes wrong. In 2019, when the Hargreeves children reunite to bury Sir Reginald, they’re all one big mess. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) sees dead people, a nonstop haunting that has driven him to flamboyant druggy hedonism. Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) is a movie star — she played the lawyer in the wheelchair in that one film! — but her marriage is breaking down. Luther (Tom Hopper) was sort of the squad leader, but he’s been living a hermit’s life on the moon for years.
Only Diego (David Castañeda) is a full-time crimefighter, a Marvel-Netflix type who fights gritty criminals and barely ever bothers to wear his mask. Then there’s Vanya (Ellen Page), the powerless sibling who wrote a memoir about her insane childhood. One sibling is dead. Another one has been missing for years. Until suddenly he returns — but Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) still looks like a teenager, even though he talks like an old man. He carries dark tidings from the future. “The world ends in eight days,” he tells his family. “I have no idea how to stop it.”
The whole apocalypse storyline of Umbrella Academy is just awful. You’re eternally aware you’re watching a very slow countdown to a superpowered world rescue. Particularities among the characters dissipate. Allison is introduced as a celebrity, and nothing about her fame ever remotely comes into play. (She does talk a lot about a daughter we never see.) There is one major mystery in the season that will be obvious to anyone wondering why a certain character is acting so suspicious. There is an extended tangent involving time travel that becomes, literally, repetitive. A fun hitman couple played by Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige have a good rapport, but they sit around waiting for missions like bored viewers waiting for plot points.
The series premiere joins all the major characters in a lonely-together dance-along to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which completes the homage to Royal Tenenbaums with a fully Wes Andersonian extreme-long dollhouse shot. It is a wonderful sequence, and nothing else in the season really resembles that. The vibe of Umbrella Academy started to remind me of a lesser seasons of American Horror Story, where crazy twists circle back on themselves: A character who sort of dies, but then doesn’t, but then sort of dies again; betrayals forgiven and then double-betrayed. There are jokes about furries, have we time-traveled to 2005? Lord help you if you make it to the final scene, which kicks the narrative can 40 miles down the road. This is one of those comic book narratives that thinks it’s being very clever, but “A superteam squabbles before saving the world” was already the plot of two Avengers movies and a Justice League.
Doom Patrol comes on even stronger in the first couple episodes, radiating sexy-violent snarl. This ain’t your parent’s superhero show: Look, there’s Brendan Fraser’s butt! Fraser’s playing NASCAR driver Cliff Steele, a boozehound cheating on his wife with the nanny. In a car crash, Cliff loses every part of his body except for… well, he loses every part of his body. But his brain lands in a giant robo-bod built by Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), a scientist running a rooming house for superfreaks. Elsewhere on the premises we find Rita (April Bowlby), a golden-age movie star cursed to blobulous immortality by some ancient mystic something. And there is Larry (Matt Bomer), a dashing midcentury jet pilot whose body was burnt to a crisp by some radiant spacey something. Last to arrive is Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), who has multiple McAvoys of split-personality mutation.
The characters previously appeared on Titans, a DC Universe drama I avoided because watching it felt like cheating on my beloved Gotham. Maybe that backdoor pilot explains why the first episode of Doom Patrol proper is a terribly organized origin-story clip show. We see Cliff’s tragic backstory, and Rita’s, and Larry’s. The whole thing’s narrated by Alan Tudyk, playing a villain who is hard to explain, and whose voiceover is very meta. “Critics! What do they know? They’re gonna hate this show!” he says at one point. Not totally true, but that’s the tone Doom Patrol seems to be going for: self-aware to the point of aggression, like the show’s daring you to accuse it of being just another superhero story.
The problem, initially, is that it kind of is. Cliff has ongoing flashbacks of his dead daughter, just like Netflix’s Punisher. And then Cyborg (Joivan Wade) joins the team. You’ll recall Cyborg appearing in 2017’s Justice League movie. The difference here, I guess, is that Doom Patrol has Cyborg screaming on a gurney while someone cuts off his arm and holds it up, limb-stump oozing crimson spaghetti. I dunno: Sometimes I wish the CW’s superheroes didn’t feel so sanitized, but then here’s one counterargument, the most adolescent version of mature content. “Anyone ever tell you to shut your f—ing hole?” Cliff says, and “Oh god, I would so f— that joint up.” Some of the superheroes don’t want to do superhero stuff, but they all wind up doing superhero stuff, because they are superheroes. Sorry: They are f—ing superheroes, motherf—er!
The historical roots of these two series require a spiraling Wikipedia of explication. Witness comic history: a confounding, self-devouring family tree of homage and reclamation, mutual imitation and genuine sparks of madcap inspiration. Doom Patrol started in 1963, though the current incarnation owes explicit everything to a run written by Grant Morrison that began in 1989. The Umbrella Academy launched in 2007, a go-go moment for fresh graphic-novel IP when you started to worry every new comic was an elevator pitch for its own movie deal. You could go crazy contrasting one superhero thing to another superhero thing, debating originality vs. copycattery. I’ve seen (accurate) comparisons of The Umbrella Academy TV series to the X-Men, because “Ellen Page on a superteam facing apocalyptic premonitions” was also the plot of Days of Future Past. And I’ve seen (suspicious) theories that the original Doom Patrol was DC’s crosscourt-rival take on Marvel’s Fantastic Four.
But I think these properties are TV shows now — and they are the kind of TV they are — because of Deadpool. The 2016 megahit became the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever at the worldwide box office. And it was a very specific kind of R-rated. Violent and sexy, foulmouthed and gross, meta and self-aware — but also, deep down, very sweet, with a story that commented on conventionality without ever challenging it. Deadpool says he’s not a hero, but he isn’t not fighting villains. He kills a lot of people, never anyone you care about. In Deadpool 2, he averts an apocalyptic future by sacrificing himself to save a cute kid, and then he doesn’t actually die: all the feels, with F-bombs.
Both Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol reflect the influence of Deadpool. Bodies are twisted apart, explosions of goreblood painting characters red. When Larry removes the mummy wrappings from his face, it looks exactly like Wade Wilson’s beet-red charred visage. Cheerful pop music plays over scenes of loopy violence.
I like Doom Patrol a little better than Umbrella Academy, though in fairness I’ve only seen two hours of the DC series. Doom Patrol’s second episode takes another tour through origin fatigue, sending some characters into hallucinations of their sorrowful past lives. We see Cyborg burnt to a crisp, the body of his dead mother still on fire in front of him. But from there, the Cyborg subplot takes a detour I legitimately didn’t see coming, and the longer plan for Doom Patrol starts to look quite a bit trickier. The show seems to be trying to recapture the magic Morrison brought to these characters. A worthy ambition! But you don’t just want someone to adapt Grant Morrison. You want someone to be Grant Morrison, to do to superhero television what Morrison was did to superhero comics: tell a personal story, push into ever-more-eccentric cosmic realms, throw cliché to the wind.
One lesson superhero TV shows still haven’t learned from Morrison is that these superpowered stories can be anything, really, funny-scary bursts of insanity where the only limit is imagination. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow is moving furthest in that direction, building a rocketship of pure quirk engine-fueled by low ratings. Meanwhile, on Doom Patrol, one cliffhanger moment shows someone painting a picture of all the main characters lying dead. Paintings predicting certain doom were also a key plot point on Heroes, NBC’s briefly wonderful powerfest that began, like Umbrella Academy, with a season-long tease toward the End of the World. The weirdest thing about these shows, unfortunately, is that we’ve been here before.
The Umbrella Academy: C
Doom Patrol: B-