I’m currently four episodes into The Umbrella Academy, the new Netflix series about a fractured family of adopted kids with strange powers who were trained as masked superheroes in their youth, and now must overcome their rampant psychological issues as adults and reunite to once again save the world. It’s a good premise, based on the comics of the same name by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, and ripe with potential. It’s not yet clear if the show will live up to that potential; as our own Sam Barsanti put it in his review, some gorgeous production design and excellent performances are undermined by writing that hides the show’s strengths “behind mysteries they’re in no hurry to solve and secrets they would rather obfuscate than explore.” In these early episodes, the mysteries and secrets are still being developed, so there’s not yet the sense of frustration from a series that can’t deliver on what it sets up.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t warning bells that made me wary of committing to the whole endeavor. In the first episode, our welcome to the world of the Hargreaves family often feels like warmed-over Wes Anderson, complete with cutesy character introductions that are more an assemblage of quirks than actual personalities; diorama-like set design that seems to mimic locations in lieu of creating plausible ones; and dialogue exchanges wherein people make pronouncements at one another, rather than actually communicating. One could argue that some of these faults are actually strengths, realities built into the universe of the show: These are people who were never really taught how to live in the world, after all, so interactions in which they fail basic standards of realistic social skills are to be expected. Still, it was when the talking chimpanzee appeared apropos of nothing and began acting like Alfred Pennyworth from Batman that it felt as though The Umbrella Academy might itself be the assemblage of quirks, rather than a cohesive whole.
But then the following happens. We’ve just met each of the Hargreaves, back together under one roof for the first time since they were children. They’ve returned to mark the death of their father, a cold and calculating guy who, it’s implied, is largely the cause of the emotional damage that split the super-powered family apart and began their estrangement from one another. After a fractious meeting that devolves into petty squabbling and finds each sibling retreating to their own room in the sprawling mansion, we see the earnest and stoic strongman of the group, Luthor, pop on an old vinyl record. The music reverberates through the house, and suddenly, The Umbrella Academy comes alive.
There’s a number of things this sequence does right. First, it captures the emotional wavelength of each character, using dance to elucidate a part of their personality that didn’t necessarily come through in their halting exchanges with their brothers and sisters. Tom Hopper’s Luthor conceals a boyish dork beneath his hulking exterior; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) has elements of a happy optimist buried under her world-weary celebutante image; Diego (David Castañeda) hasn’t just cast aside all concerns but his crimefighting vendetta, as his studiously practiced moves reveal a man who wants to be as good at having fun as he is at busting criminals; Robert Sheehan as Klaus might just have some ambivalent feelings toward the father he loathes, after all; and Vanya (Ellen Page) can take a moment to expose the soul under her depressed and alienated exterior. They all lose their guarded outer selves for a minute, as the music does what music has always done—connect us with ourselves.
Second, it offers the opportunity to bring together the exact set design in a way that serves the story, rather than simply provide visual spark to play off the sometimes lacking script. As the camera pans out from Vanya in that final shot, revealing each character dancing alone in their respective rooms, yet connected via the whole of the house and sound, the audience can finally connect them all in their minds, as it provides us a reason to call these isolated and damaged souls “family.” It finally shows rather than tells, in other words. The Anderson-lite staging and visual synchronicity come together in service of story, uniting plot and camera in narrative tandem to create a tableau that enriches the greater whole.
And lastly, good god, it’s fun. There’s a sense of joyous release in the scene, as though the show were exhaling, letting down its meticulous crafted preciousness, and exposing the messy, human beating hearts that should be driving this thing in the first place. “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tiffany’s pop hit from the ’80s, may be awfully on the nose thematically, but it undeniably works as a way in to these characters and their psyches. In short, it does what good pop culture should do: use frothy surface sheen to illuminate and reveal greater depths and complexity.
This isn’t the first Netflix series to use an out-of-left-field musical sequence. A number of the streaming giant’s genre shows employ similar tactics, from the “What’s Up” montage in Sense8 to whatever the hell you want to call The OA’s oddball routine. But putting a narrative maneuver formerly limited to artier stories into a superhero tale doesn’t seem so risky or unusual in a post-Legion world, the FX series having demonstrated that audiences are willing to follow historically conventional heroes down all sorts of aesthetic and structural rabbit holes, so long as it’s done in an engaging and intelligent way. The influence of Noah Hawley’s show is present in moments like these, where the blend of whimsy and comic book powers makes good on Academy’s ornate visual style.
I don’t know if I’ll end up enjoying the rest of Umbrella Academy. But in this single moment, it demonstrated a willingness to be giddily vulnerable, fey and awkwardly human in its depiction of this absurdist superhero universe of cartoonish outcasts and talking butler chimps. If it continues to use music this well, it will make the show’s other shortcomings far more forgivable. I’m going to watch this scene again, right now.