Here’s our review of Netflix’s Original Series The Umbrella Academy, which premiered on Feb. 15, 2019. The first season consists of ten episodes that are available to stream in up to 4k Ultra HD resolution with HDR via Dolby Vision/HDR10. Audio is provided Dolby 5.1. New to 4k? Read How to Watch 4k/HDR Movies & TV Shows on Netflix.
The Umbrella Academy is based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name created by Gerard Way. The main timeline takes place in 1977 (the year Way was born), however in an alternate history where John F. Kennedy was never assassinated.
In Episode 1 titled “We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals” the show flashes back to the early years of the academy when Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) first introduces his students (all seven of whom he adopted) to the world as a new breed of crimefighters.
But the show really takes place in the present time in which Hargreeves has passed away (supposedly) due to a heart attack. The students, now adults, return to the mansion in which they grew up. There’s a little bit of Home for the Holidays in this series as we learn how dysfunctional the family was, and still may be, as they search for meaning in their lives which were shaped by a militaristic but genius father who they were forced to call The Monocle (watch the series for more about Hargreeves — we’re not giving that much away!)
What’s an interesting aspect of the show is when the flashbacks happen the adult characters often see themselves as children — reliving their most memorable moments which were not always pleasurable. It’s during these times we are introduced to the conflicts the characters are still dealing with as adults, and learn how The Monocle treated each student differently.
What makes the series so compelling, both the comic and TV series, are the characters in the academy. Among the seven are Spaceboy (played by Tom Hopper), The Kraken (David Castañeda), The Rumor (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Luther “The Séance” (Robert Sheehan), The Boy “Number Five” (Aidan Gallagher), The Horror (Justin H. Min) and The White Violin (Ellen Page). They are also referred to as Number One, Number Two, etc. and in addition have their given names like Luther Hargreeves, Diego Hargreeves, etc.
The bounty hunting couple Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton) remind us of other odd, bad guy duos like Vincent & Jules (Pulp Fiction) and Mr. Shlubb & Mr. Klump (Sin City). In the series, the two are after The Boy and will go to any length to terminate him. Britton’s performance as a semi-intellectual goofball really stands out in the show.
Grace, the student’s robot mom, is a fascinating character played by Jordan Claire Robbins. She was programmed by Hargreeves but seems to have an artificial intelligence that wants to bust out of its shell. In the third episode titled “Extra Ordinary” the students attempt to learn more about their mother and what she could be hiding under layers of artificiality.
Pogo the butler (Adam Godley) is yet another character that shines in this series. His brief, yet impactful appearances add another layer of complexity to the show not just because he seems to know more than anyone else about the academy and Hargreeves’ pursuits but because he’s also a chimpanzee.
Ellen Page’s performance as Vanya, however, is really flat. Her expressionless face probably gets more screen time than deserved, although her character may carry the most mystery as she searches for what’s “special” about her.
Netflix presents The Umbrella Academy in 4k Ultra HD resolution with HDR10 or Dolby Vision depending on the output device. For this review the series was viewed on a Samsung 4k/HDR10 TV and also an iPhone X displaying 4k/Dolby Vision.
We won’t say this show stands out in terms of video quality but it does hold its own among other Netflix series. There are some scenes, like the post-apocalyptic future Number Five visits, that really show off the capabilities of 4k resolution enhanced with High Dynamic Range color depth. The screenshots we took haven’t been Photoshopped at all for this article.
The set design is really impressive in this series. If you look closely at the screenshots you’ll notice a lot of little details that make each scene visually dynamic. For example, in the shot above of Grace in the home’s kitchen there are illustrations of martial arts positions on the wall, a dissection of a cow, and a beautifully-lit window through which sunlight enters the room. The same goes for the rest of the mansion which must have a been a blast preparing for this series.
However, what one might notice about the lighting in The Umbrella Academy is how the characters often blend in with the scene rather stand out — as if they weren’t lit to be the focus of the shot. See the stills above of “The Rumor” and “Grace” above for reference to this comment. This isn’t true all of the time, so one might wonder if it was the cinematographer’s choice rather than an oversight.
We don’t have much to say about the audio in The Umbrella Academy except that it sounds like most TV dramas. The dynamic range is fairly normalized in comparison to motion pictures which may have extreme variances between audio levels, especially in action films. In The Umbrella Academy the audio is clear and underscored with a soundtrack that doesn’t overpower any of the characters’ dialogue.
A description of the audio mix on IMDB simply describes it as Stereo, although Netflix streams it in Dolby Digital 5.1 like most of their titles.
The Umbrella Academy is one of the better comic book TV adaptations we’ve seen, and doesn’t rely on digital effects that are often overused in motion pictures of the same genre. One of the series’ strengths is in character development, and even with the dozen or so main subjects the story manages to equally balance their importance.
While The Umbrella Academy TV series varies from the comic book much to the chagrin of fans who started following the story ten years ago, show creator Jeremy Slater has done a great job adapting it to a live-action TV show.
It’s hard not to compare the series to Syfy’s Deadly Class that premiered a month ago (also a comic book adaptation), as both stories revolve around unwanted kids who end up training as crime fighters (The Umbrella Academy), assassins (Deadly Class), or some combination of the two. But The Umbrella Academy seems to have a better grasp on building empathy for the characters, and this may lead to more viewer interest in future episodes.
There is plenty to think about in this series beyond the typical “fight the bad buy” plots found in other superhero shows, and, there are plenty of characters with whom Slater can build a second season and further develop these complex personalities and relationships. Let’s hope it gets the green light for another run.
[Update: Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy now streaming on Netflix.]