Features and Columns · TV

‘Umbrella Academy’ Gets a Welcome Do-Over With Its Second Season

The Netflix superhero series finds its groove in a 1960s-set season that’s pure entertainment.
Umbrella Academy Season 2 Robert Sheehan
By  · Published on July 30th, 2020

Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the second season of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix.

Superhero movies may be taking the summer off, but there’s still some good news for fans of comic book crusaders: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is back with a wildly fun and original entry in the genre.

The second season of The Umbrella Academy is, thankfully, also an improvement on the first season in nearly every way imaginable. Where the first attempt to adapt Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book series was — with due respect to some good performances and expert needle drops — dully paced and largely devoid of life, the second outing is entirely enjoyable and well-made to boot.

When we last left the jaded, dysfunctional members of the Umbrella Academy, Five (Aidan Gallagher) was pulling his siblings through time to avoid the fallout from Vanya (Ellen Page) accidentally blowing up the moon. As the new season’s trailer reveals, the gang ends up in Dallas in the early 1960s, their fates inextricably linked to the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination. The noir-ish, fantasy-adjacent first season was all over the map, but the second season succeeds by only trying to be one thing: an X-Files-tinged time-travel adventure.

This doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for laughs, but much of the second season of The Umbrella Academy is a candy-colored romp through the ‘60s, a prismatic series of character-driven mini-stories that stand alone well and piece together easily when the time for Avengers-like assembling arrives. In a narrative gift that keeps on giving, flamboyant, free-spirited Klaus (scene-stealing Robert Sheehan) quickly becomes a cult leader with the aid of his ghost brother Ben (Justin H. Min) — one of the season’s best running jokes involves Klaus’ eternal wisdom being fraudulently basis in ‘90s pop music.

In another, more serious but equally thoughtful plotline, Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) faces anti-Black vitriol from the moment she arrives in the ‘60s, where she quickly becomes engaged in the civil rights movement. This season gives our previously self-involved heroes reasons to think about ideas that are bigger than themselves, and it realistically tackles the dangerous biases of America’s so-called glory days in the process.

Aside from great storylines, the second season of The Umbrella Academy is also more streamlined in a dozen different, small but significant ways. Ellen Page’s Vanya, who spent the first season as an easily bamboozled sad-sack, is wisely given a clean slate and a more deeply-felt story — one that includes a rare and tender portrayal of a non-verbal autistic character.

Elsewhere, ape-man Luther no longer looks like he has cartoonish balloon arms, and his comparatively boring character is given less screen time as writers rightfully choose to make pint-sized, slightly maniacal Five the de facto group leader this time around. Gallagher, the youngest member of the cast, takes on the role with aplomb, playing the tall-socked teen assassin with a mixture of unsettling threat and slick cleverness. Dud characters who dragged down the first season are mercifully absent, while the well-cast newbies who rise up to take their place are intriguing and empathetic.

The series is on its game when it comes to everything from choreography to cinematography to costume design, and it offers up several scenes that beg to be re-watched. There’s a whimsical air to many shots — as when a woman’s irked face is bifurcated by two fish bowls, with an oblivious boy’s freckled cheeks distorted behind one of the bowls. Fight scenes, most of them involving David Castañeda’s badass Diego, are shot as if the filmmakers itched for a challenge: they take place behind ornate windows, or in dark, twisting hallways, or are interspersed with Five’s disorienting time-travel blips.

Opening sequences, like the one that traces Klaus’ divine ascendance, deliver moments of joy or surprise in quick succession, usually set to a song that melts into the moment like a perfect pat of butter. The series’ music has always been its strong suit, and that’s especially true this season, with a wide-ranging soundtrack that runs the gamut from The Backstreet Boys to Boney M. to the Butthole Surfers.

The Umbrella Academy Season 2 would be watchable even if it only fixed the glaring surface-level issues of its earlier iteration, but it also goes one step further — and indeed, further than plenty of superhero stories are willing to go — by actually trying to mean something.

It scrapes at the trauma the Hargreeves siblings were subjected to as kids and puts them through very real traumas in their 1960s version of reality as well. But it also unites them more often than it divides them, cultivating realistic — if weird — sibling relationships and ditching season one’s self-pity to instead demonstrate the myriad ways in which love and loyalty can close distances and heal wounds.

Few shows get the opportunity to evolve from mostly bad to thoroughly great, but The Umbrella Academy pulls it off in an adventurous second season (streaming on Netflix beginning July 31st) that deserves to be in heavy rotation on your summer watchlist.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)