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I always enjoy a series that effectively blows up its premise, which the season one finale of The Umbrella Academy did very well (along with blowing up everything else). The series won me over with its core premise and diorama of dysfunctional superpowered siblings, then promised a sequel of significantly different proportions. And whilst the second season is far from flawless, it manages to be both fresh and familiar to fans of the first.
Following the explosive ending of the first season, Number Five’s botched escape attempt strands the Academy in Dallas at various points throughout the 1960s. Five himself drops out of the timestream last in November 1963 – just in time to witness his siblings fighting side-by-side in a spectacular opening scene, before being vaporised in a nuclear holocaust. He is then forced to return a few days earlier, to unite the Hargreeves siblings and stop the coming apocalypse… again.
So the second season of The Umbrella Academy is a re-tread, but it’s the good kind of re-tread: one which uses the same core premise to explore new themes and character beats. And, like an obese customer at Sweeney Todd’s, a great deal of the fat has been cut off between seasons. Hazel and Cha-Cha, the tedious time-travelling terminators who managed to be at once screamingly out-of-place and utterly featureless, are gone; having been effectively palette-swapped for a set of silent Scandinavians who have it out for the heroes.
The washed-out colours and neo-noir aesthetic have also been traded in for a vibrant retro-futuristic style, one that contrasts effectively with the grounded and semi-realistic production design. And without the extra weight attributed to introducing the audience to the lead cast, The Umbrella Academy has room for a greater emphasis on character development. The entire Hargreeves family has been uprooted and forced to readjust to living in Kennedy-era Texas, which is a task far easier for some.
Despite being set in 1963, The Umbrella Academy is potently relevant in 2020 – both years in which the phrase “black people are human beings” can be met with controversy, where the world is run by a cabal of sinister billionaires and a worldwide disaster is seemingly encouraged by the fact that the President of the United States is still breathing. When the series drops the escapist superhero antics and grounds itself in authentic allegory, it feels challenging and sincere in all the right ways. At the same time, this season is far less dour than its predecessor, meaning that some important heartfelt moments are ruined by the occasional ill-timed quip. For the most part, however, the series manages to maintain its characteristically quirky tone whilst navigating the more pathos-heavy beats.
Verdict: The Umbrella Academy more-or-less delivers on its promise of superhero spectacle, but also goes above and beyond to provide an engaging and empowering story through its core cast of familiar characters.