Why Is ‘The Umbrella Academy’ So Popular? (Column)

The secret to the popularity of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” may be in its music choices.

At the end of one episode, the series plays a cover of Adele’s “Hello” in Swedish over a montage of various characters’ travails; the language choice seems chosen at least in part as a way to earn points for quirk that seems, in the moment, purposeful and excessive. Later in the season, a fairly brutal fight scene, culminating in a death, takes place scored to the 1990s pop standard “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).”

“The Umbrella Academy” is not the first series to take from the work of Quentin Tarantino and his imitators the idea that being purely random — mixing moods with the goal of creating audience whiplash — is the key to success. (Obviously, creating ironic counterpoint can be a worthy goal as a means of getting a story somewhere, but here, it’s often the only goal.) But it may be the first to have succeeded quite as hard as it has. In its first season, this adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book series about a family of superheroes was, in Netflix’s telling, the streamer’s third-most-watched series of 2019. It only came after “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s signature hit, and “The Witcher,” a heavily-promoted adaptation of a beloved literary and video-game franchise.

Both of those series seem much more vividly a part of culture, even for people who do not watch them, than did “The Umbrella Academy.” It would likely be possible for a big TV fan to go through the world not knowing this show existed — which, again, is not an accomplishment unique to “The Umbrella Academy.” As the show launches its second season July 31, its success seems emblematic of what generally makes a hit these days. It’s certainly more of our moment than streaming series that have found their audiences with star power or an obviously grabby premise. This show feels perhaps ideally built for a nihilistic youth culture for whom the idea that a story’s tone comes from somewhere and refers to something has no meaningful currency.

The plot here concerns seven children who, under the tutelage of a mad billionaire, grow into potential saviors of the world; in the second season, having been told by one of their number that apocalypse is coming, they must work to avert it from a starting point of Dallas in the early 1960s. That their story will thus intersect with the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy, then, only comes as a surprise in the “Oh, that’s what this show is about now?” sense. It also gives the show the chance to overlay a grounded and realistic story about a struggling sixties housewife and mother played by Marin Ireland into the plotline of Vanya (Ellen Page), a violinist with the power to destroy the world, as well as to bring Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), a superheroine who can control people’s actions, into the civil rights movement.

A show being all one thing would be boring. And yet “The Umbrella Academy” demonstrates — here and elsewhere — a greedy desire to be all things, if not at once then as close together as possible. Hence we get killings set to giddy pop music, and plot that reverses upon itself without successfully being what it’s about in the first place, and unnecessarily showy surrealism. (Last season, this came in the form of a chimpanzee personal assistant; this season, it’s a goldfish who, from his bowl, wears and controls a life-sized human suit.) Most of all, we get a cast of characters so overstuffed that this show, at least, cannot do their individual relationships to one another justice. Storylines like Vanya’s and Allison’s are treated with passion but a lack of seriousness; this sloppy broad-brush painting comes to seem like deeper evidence of greater passion as the show gets its hooks in the viewer. 

It works for its fans, and “The Umbrella Academy’s” insistence that the future can be changed if one is willing to assume an insouciant enough attitude would seem to hold an obvious elemental appeal to an audience that has been through one upheaval after another during their short lives. It’s apparent, too, that these same audiences are seeing through the choking number of choices being made to complicate the show and finding certain elemental things about these character and their relationships, aspects of the show I just cannot see above its clattering noise. This may simply be a function of, sadly enough, age; in this series’s outré emotional beats and genre synthesis for its own sake it’s not hard to see a similar tonal variation and skittery unwillingness to be pinned down of an hour spent browsing TikTok.

For that reason, “The Umbrella Academy” ultimately feels more like a show of the future than perhaps anything else succeeding on Netflix. “Stranger Things” is quite literally a work of nostalgia that, in its pursuit of clear, clean-lined storytelling, is a throwback in form as well as subject matter; for all “The Witcher” toyed with tone and timeline, it basically wants to be “Xena.” “The Umbrella Academy,” like other shows on Netflix (“Cursed,” a Camelot-remixing curio that zoomed to number-one on the site’s daily most-watched list) and elsewhere (Amazon’s ultraviolent, goofy “Hunters”) seeks to make a lack of control into a virtue, and in so doing attract viewers unacquainted with or unmoved by the sort of TV that is made with guardrails. It is popular for the same reason its popularity has not seemed to meaningfully extend beyond core obsessives: Because it so very badly wants to be different that what it is, moment to moment, is a moving target; its music is of the variety that sounds discordant to all who expect harmonies and who don’t realize that the discord is the point. It’s a cast and crew of adult professionals elegantly pulling off a bratty teenage rebellion. And it’s the sort of show that, when watching, forces the viewer to realize that there will soon be quite a bit more along precisely its same scrawled and jagged lines.

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