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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In its season two premiere, The Umbrella Academy reinvents itself for the better

Illustration for article titled In its season two premiere, iThe Umbrella Academy /ireinvents itself for the better
Photo: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix
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The first season of The Umbrella Academy had a lot going for it: Heaps of style, an engaging cast, and some compelling central mysteries. Unfortunately, what it didn’t have going for it was a particularly strong grasp on plot and pacing. The first season meandered its way towards its apocalyptic climax, never quite figuring out how to marry its story of a dysfunctional superhero family with its mystery box-style plotting. Thankfully, showrunner Steve Blackman seems to have spent the off-season reevaluating the show’s strength and weaknesses. This season two premiere delivers a stronger, better version of The Umbrella Academy—one that finally starts to pay off the promise of the series.

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“Right Back Where We Started” picks up where the first season finale left off, with Five teleporting his siblings away from the moon-related apocalypse they accidentally caused. But this premiere also offers a clean slate and a new hook for the season. In a zippy montage set to Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From” (which gives the episode its title) we learn that something went wrong with Five’s time travel powers. Though the Hargreeves all land in Dallas, Texas in the 1960s, they arrive in different years. Klaus and Ben show up in February of 1960, Allison in 1961, and Luther in 1962, while Diego and Vanya wind up months apart in the fall of 1963. When Five finally arrives on November 25, 1963, he finds a timeline where JFK has declared “war on the Reds” and Soviet forces are attacking the streets of Dallas.

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The opening sequence throws viewers into the deep end in the best way possible, reassuring us that the characters we know and love are back, but that we don’t really need to remember too much about the first season’s convoluted narrative. In a stylish unbroken take set to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Five watches as his siblings—now clad in black and in full control of their powers—do their best to hold back the Soviets. And then, for the second time in 10 minutes, an apocalypse wipes out all life on Earth.

Illustration for article titled In its season two premiere, iThe Umbrella Academy /ireinvents itself for the better
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix
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Thankfully, an elderly Hazel saves Five from the nuclear bomb that vaporizes his siblings—zapping him back to November 15, 1963, where he’s got a little over a week to restore the timeline and save his family. Between that apocalyptic ticking time clock and the fractured nature of the Hargreeves siblings, this premiere is a pretty shameless retread of the setup for the first season. But for a show that’s all about rewriting the past, I actually don’t think it’s such a bad idea for The Umbrella Academy to try to redo its first season. Especially when this premiere has a streamlined, character-centric confidence (not to mention a stylish new setting) that make the material feel brand new.

The most welcome thing about “Right Back Where We Started” is the way it positions all seven Hargreeves siblings as equal members of the show’s ensemble. That wasn’t always the case last season, when antagonists like Cha-Cha, Hazel, and the Handler got ample screentime to the detriment of heroes like Luther, Allison, and especially Diego. Here, however, each Hargreeves sibling essentially functions as the star (or co-star) of their own 1960s adventure story.

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The Umbrella Academy starts with its most world-weary character. Five has been through lot in his long lifetime, including decades as a lone survivor and years as a time traveling assassin, plus everything he experienced last season. So he doesn’t really bat an eye when Hazel is murdered by blonde mercenaries and he’s left trapped in 1963 with 10 days to save the world. Instead he gets to work finding his siblings and saving the day, which is exactly the same propulsive energy The Umbrella Academy brings to this premiere.

Illustration for article titled In its season two premiere, iThe Umbrella Academy /ireinvents itself for the better
Screenshot: The Umbrella Academy/Netflix
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Season two is anchored around the Kennedy assassination, which took place (or, rather, is going to take place) in Dallas on November 22, 1963—three days before the nuclear apocalypse and seven days from when Five lands with Hazel. While amnesiac Vanya is blissfully unaware of the impending event (she’s spent the past month bonding with the sweet family who took her in after accidentally hitting her with their car), Diego’s first thought upon arriving in the ’60s was to preemptively kill Lee Harvey Oswald. That earned him a stay at a psychiatric ward, where he’s processing his “hero complex,” plus some anger- and daddy-issues too.

The impending assassination also haunts Allison, who’s perhaps experienced the biggest change during her two years in the past. Not only has she gotten a 1960s makeover and become a civil rights activist, she’s also married one of her fellow organizers. Elsewhere, Luther has embraced his simian form and found work as a brutal bruiser in an underground fight ring. And a sober Klaus has better learned to control his powers and adopted a new John-Lennon-meets-Elton-John hippie rocker aesthetic.

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Though Klaus has the misfortune of having been stuck in the past for the longest (three full years!), he at least has the benefit of a friend (a.k.a. a “ghost bitch”) to keep him company. One of the exciting things about season two is that Justin H. Min’s Ben has been bumped up from a recurring player to a series regular, which allows the show to build on the great comedic chemistry between Min and Robert Sheehan as Ben and Klaus roadtrip from San Francisco to Dallas.

Illustration for article titled In its season two premiere, iThe Umbrella Academy /ireinvents itself for the better
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix
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While this premiere mostly uses Ben and Klaus as comic relief, there’s the promise of more emotional stuff to come too. Five ends the episode by reminding Luther that he knows what it’s like to be stuck out of time, and the dog tag behind Klaus’ gaudy starfish necklace reminds us that he does too. While last season used time travel as the icing on its superhero cake, this season positions it as a raison d’être of the series, both in terms of timeline shenanigans and social commentary. Though The Umbrella Academy is as fun and cheekily self-aware as ever, “Right Back Where We Started” suggests the show actually wants to explore some meaty stuff about its 1960s setting too—from racism and sexism to homophobia and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Across the board, “Right Back Where We Started” is an impressively assured season premiere; one that balances its complex plotting with stylish action and thoughtful character moments. Last season, The Umbrella Academy too often kept its storytelling vague when it would’ve been much more compelling to lay its cards on the table. “Right Back Where We Started” lays a solid foundation on which to explore mysteries that feel focused and purposeful rather than frantic and scattered. If last season spent too long waiting to get to the fireworks factory, this season opens on that factory and only promises to get more explosive from there.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s binge-review coverage of The Umbrella Academy! New reviews will drop at 8 a.m. CT every day for the next nine days.
  • In case you need a refresher, Netflix released a helpful season one recap video featuring the cast and The A.V. Club has our own guide as well.
  • The first season finale sort of implied that Five was sending the Umbrella Academy back into their teenage bodies, but that’s not a thread that’s picked up on here.
  • Alien conspiracy theorist/accidental Umbrella Academy tracker Elliot (Kevin Rankin) notes that the Hargreeves siblings would occasionally look for each other at the alley where they first arrived, but I find it curious that none of them were able to track each other down—especially when Five does so fairly easily here.
  • Going out as a hero after 20 happy years with Agnes is a fitting ending for a reformed baddie like Hazel, but I’m curious if we’ll get more Cameron Britton this season. (I’m not watching ahead for these reviews, nor have I seen the season two trailer.)
  • Two characters the Hargreeves could easily run into in the 1960s: A younger version of Sir Reginald or the older version of Five who broke his contract with the Commission while on assignment at the JFK assassination.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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