It’s a guess but a fair one that a series about a dysfunctional family of superheroes is not normally your cup of tea, or mine.
But The Umbrella Academy (streaming on Netflix) is a different kettle of cod. It’s a different kind of take on the whole superhero thing. Also, there are, for you and me, a set of reasons to pay attention to it.
Me, I remember when it was being made in Toronto. A group of actors involved, who came from other countries, were being housed in my neighbourhood and often gathered in a bar I visit. Some became part of the local drama, although nothing more salacious than the usual theatrics unfolded.
Being made in Toronto and with a large cast, it also features many Canadian actors. The two lead roles are played by famous Canadians and a small army of local actors turn up in supporting roles. Also, the use of Toronto settings, in what is a highly stylized and gorgeous production, is stunning. Rarely has the city looked so splendid.
The 10-episode series is based on award-winning comics by Gerard Way (who is also the singer with My Chemical Romance) and, in many ways it’s about family dynamics.
The starting point for the surreal story is in 1989, when 43 babies were born to mothers who were not, as far as anyone knew, pregnant. Seven of them were gathered and raised by an eccentric billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), who trained them as “The Umbrella Academy” to fight crime and become very special people. But when the story opens, Sir Reginald has just died and the narratives of the seven are told in flashbacks.
This can become complicated and confusing as storytelling. Yet one figure among the seven tends to stay front and centre. That’s No. 7 (Sir Reginald simply gave them numbers before the kids were named. The “7” is Vanya, wonderfully played by Ellen Page. It turns out Vanya never developed a superpower, as the others did. She is simply a great violinist. Isn’t that a superpower? The question is embedded in the drama.
The other scene-stealer is No. 4, named Klaus (Irish actor Robert Sheehan, best known for the series Misfits), a young man who exists on a diet of drugs and alcohol. His power is that he can communicate with the dead but mostly he causes drug-fuelled mayhem.
The storyline involves one of the Academy members becoming aware of an impending apocalypse and trying to convince the others to help him stop it. But for much of the time the series goes into the past and shows these heroes as kids or teenagers trying to function and grow up under the guidance of a cold and twisted father-figure. The underlying theme is the need for a loving family and how, sometimes, that need is fulfilled by siblings, not parents.
There are times when the academy members go into action and there are explosions and frantic action. This is not a series for everyone, I’ll warn you. But there are other times when the series is about love and leading a loveless life. It is, in a word, maddening but still captivating. And throughout, it looks stunning.
Also airing this weekend: Note that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Sunday, Crave/HBO 11 p.m.) returns at last with new episodes.
Escape from Dubai: Mystery of the Missing Princess (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.) is a fascinating account of the attempted escape last year by Sheikha Latifa, the 32-year-old princess, from the United Arab Emirates. At the time she made a video claiming her powerful family was holding her against her will. Then she fled by boat with the help of friends. But she was seized in international waters. The case became prominent again recently when former Irish president and UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson visited the princess in Dubai and Robinson was accused of colluding with the woman’s family to keep her against her will.