Umbrella Academy would make a great musical. The Netflix series about former kid superheroes turned disillusioned adults is at its best when it’s in toe-tapping, melodious motion. Each season, characters have found excuses to shimmy it out or belt out a song. Even their fight sequences are often punctuated by infectious needle drops. When the music plays, the Hargreeves siblings are in the zone, and the show is a joy to watch. After the last note plays, though, things fall apart.
The Hargreeves siblings – ape-man Luther (Tom Hopper), vigilante Diego (David Castañeda), mind-controller Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), necromancer Klaus (Robert Sheehan), time-traveler Five (Aidan Gallagher), and super-powerful Viktor (Elliot Page) – have been dysfunctional by design since Umbrella Academy began. Still, in the show’s third season, their infighting begins to grate. Gone are the stylish summer days of their trip to the 1960s in the show’s excellent second season. Instead, the group has bounced back to a variation of the modern-day, where they’re face to face with a new bunch of heroes called The Sparrows.
The Sparrows, a group of alternate heroes raised by a version of their exacting patriarch, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), includes an array of new characters and someone who looks just like the Hargreeves’ long-dead brother, Ben (Justin H. Min). The new season ties itself into narrative knots to pit the Sparrows and the Hargreeves against one another, despite seeming like they could get along just fine. The manufactured drama is just one of this season’s overarching plot points, as the group also finds themselves closer to a true apocalypse than ever before.
The apocalypse in season three of Umbrella Academy feels more real than those that preceded it, as does the nihilism that begins to eat away at our heroes when the doomsday clock starts ticking once again. For all its faults – and it has plenty – the new season, presumably written during the COVID-19 pandemic, has gained some depth. The show hasn’t forgotten its past, even as the group sits again on the precipice of oblivion. The writers are more interested than ever in mining the recent and deep-seated trauma that impacts each of the series’ heroes. If only Umbrella Academy’s main characters could mature along with their plotlines.
The members of the Umbrella Academy may be trying to unpack their trauma, but that doesn’t make them any less of a hot mess this season. The show’s scripts are chock full of frustrating and baffling character choices, from one sibling’s disturbing and bizarre turn to aggression to another’s wacky, childish response to a major revelation. At times, watching this season feels like watching a horror movie whose protagonist has you yelling at the screen, only there are six protagonists instead of one.
Often, the siblings will cause each other serious harm, then casually hang out again moments later. In fact, the series seems to have developed an issue with portraying vaguely realistic responses to almost any situation. The biggest shocks and twists, including massive betrayals and character deaths, are often met with mind-boggling nonchalance from most group members. If it’s a stylistic choice meant to indicate their total lack of care for one another, it’s an ineffective one. Instead, it comes across as a strange oversight, as if someone simply forgot to write in half the group’s reactions to any given narrative beat.
On a formal level, at least, Umbrella Academy maintains its flair. The show has a knack for creating individual scenes, often episode openers, that are self-contained delights. It has a great sense of visual tone, conveyed through playful camera shots, impressive choreography, and all those well-timed soundtrack moments. The cast also continues to impress despite the wildly inconsistent material they’ve been given. Gallagher continues to be a standout as an angry old man trapped in a teenager’s body, and Sheehan lends the series effortless comic relief as offbeat bohemian Klaus. Often given the show’s most tedious plots, Hopper’s Luther gets to have some fun this season, too.
Page, whose character transitions to match the actor playing him, deals well with some sensitive material, but the series fumbles with some of the finer points of Viktor’s plotlines. Meanwhile, Castañeda and Emmy Raver-Lampman, both charming and natural in their roles, are given the most outlandish plots of the season. Allison, in particular, goes down a deeply frustrating path that initially seems to come from a place of thoughtfulness but quickly curdles into something off-putting and out-of-character.
At its lowest points, the newest installment of Umbrella Academy feels more dysfunctional as a show than the Hargreeves do as a family. The bickering is taxing and pointless, the characterization is perplexing, and not every big narrative swing works. But at its best, the show retains some of the glimmers of its triumphant second season, with individual moments that shine and a third act that sharpens its focus. If you don’t get waylaid by the bumpy ride through the season’s middle stretch, its last few episodes are surprisingly rewarding. But that’s the way the Hargreeves roll, too, right? Always getting it together at the last possible minute.
The Umbrella Academy season 3 is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.