by Sam Allen 

There are just times when you need a little escapism. Sequestered in your home, annoyed by everything around you, unable to hold the attention span necessary for reading, a good Netflix series is probably your best go-to. Your choices tell you who you are.

But but but… what about the thankless task of scrolling through series after series preview, without a pleasurable ending, without (gasp) finding “the one?”

Well, scroll no further, dear reader. Amid the near-literal myriad of series available for your viewing pleasure, I have found one: a diamond in the rough. Read on, but only if you don’t mind a few spoilers about the first couple of episodes.

The Umbrella Academy

Aladdin quotes aside, The Umbrella Academy transports you to a far-near away place: New York City! It’s flat, it’s immense, and the heat is…..cold. There’s a vast cast of characters sewn together by a common origin. There’s also excellent writing, and, hey, mystery abounds. Plus, a chimpanzee is the family butler!  What’s not to like?

So, what’s it about?

The series opens with a sweeping world tour: Europe, South America, Africa, but with a twist: babies. Babies snatched up by….someone. Turns out, that someone, is a reclusive billionaire who spends his life alone in a mansion in the Big Apple. We don’t know why, but the babies in question, albeit not the billionaire, have special powers, unbeknownst to them…yet…because, well, babies. They shall be known as The Umbrella Academy.  Why?  You must watch.

The tykes grow and grow, and then their makeshift father figure eventually dies. Zoom in on one Umbrella Academy member, Vanya Hargreeves, played by newly-out Elliot Page. Turns out that Vanya’s power is music: she is a prodigy.  When we first meet her, Vanya is practicing in a dark, empty concert hall when she learns the news. While she seems to find comfort in the dim aloneness of the hall, she knows that she must go “home” – to the “family” mansion. She’s in New York, so it’s not too much of a trek. 

Once there, Vanya wanders her childhood home, softly touching this and that, until she finds what she’s looking for: a copy of a memoir that she wrote as a teenager, about her father, and her life in the limelight. Turns out the babies were celebrities. Tellingly, there’s dust on the book, and the chimpanzee butler, equally softly, breaks it to Vanya that her father probably never read it. No wonder Vanya looks like a lost lamb. And, no wonder Elliot Page is perfect for this role! He’s perfected a forlorn look that, in all honesty, usually makes me wonder how he’s doing.

All hell breaks loose when the other Umbrella Academy members discover that Vanya has come home. Apparently, she hasn’t really kept in touch, and some of them are jealous of her celebrity lasting past her teenagehood. Some of them haven’t been so lucky. One of her “siblings” is rifling through the “old man’s” desk, searching for whatever he kept secret from them. Vanya, who seems to have been the favourite, protests. She gets nothing but bile back from her more forceful “sibling.”

Amid all of the surface plot, there’s (of course) more bubbling below. Mystery, time travel, and perhaps devastation, await. And I’ll just leave it at that. Because, dear reader, you need to watch this.

Family And Identity In A Frenzied World

The Umbrella Academy, despite its fantasy elements, is perfect for those of us who have had strained relationships with our families of origin. There’s sibling rivalry and seemingly-un-breachable distance between characters who “should” be close. And the universal home-going after a death with the silent reverie from memories shattered by the reality of another person’s envy makes for poignant storytelling. The distant-father archetype might bring up a pang or two in some of us, although, for me, the formality of Reginald Hargreeves makes me chuckle. My dad was formal like him, especially at dinnertime, yet he also managed to be relatable and immensely loving. A paradox perfect for a series like this.

Also, there’s a specific comfort in finding “family” albeit makeshift identities, in modern or postmodern alienation. All of us seem to live a multitude of lives these days. Online personas are just one—or many, depending on how many platforms you call “home”— and they range from heated to heartfelt.  Then there’s work, and family, and our individually-crafted array of “public” faces that make up what sometimes feels like a scramble of identities. Who are we really, below so much smoke and mirrors? Our family of origin, The Umbrella Academy points out, sometimes feels too small to contain this busy world.

The work has to be done. It’s timeless, but it tells us who we are in the doing of it, not in the ascribing. Being born is big work itself, but, as The Umbrella Academy makes it clear, it’s only the first step in the journey towards identity. Hopefully, in the end, we will all find family—this time without the quotation marks.