Review: “The Umbrella Academy” is both fantastical and familiar
“The Umbrella Academy” is probably one of the most off-putting shows on Netflix. It opens with a scene at a pool in Russia, in which a teenager spontaneously gives birth in the pool after giving a potential suitor a peck on the cheek, setting the stage for the chaos that ensues.
After 42 other women give birth spontaneously all on the same day, Sir Reginald Hargreeves — a wealthy British man whose butler is a talking chimp and whose “wife” is a robot — adopts seven of the children. Six of the seven children have special powers, ranging from those as conventional as super-human strength to those as strange as the ability to possess monsters from other dimensions. Hargreeves creates a team of “superheroes” with the six who have special abilities, branding them as “The Umbrella Academy” and calling them numbers instead of names. Hargreeves neglects the “ordinary” child, Number Seven, while training the rest of the children to become the superheroes they become by the end of the series.
The children eventually grow up and leave the house after being mistreated constantly by their father, only to reunite after learning of his death. The series focuses on The Umbrella Academy when they are adults, as they attempt to stop the apocalypse after Number Five returns from an unplanned trip to the future and informs them that the world is going to end in a matter of days.
While the main plot point sounds conventional — stopping the apocalypse is a pretty overplayed plot point in superhero franchises — the show is anything but. From fight scenes set to the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants, to a subplot that involves Number Five surviving the apocalypse with a mannequin, the show devolves into such wonderful chaos that it becomes overwhelmingly surreal and increasingly difficult to find any plot points that resonate with a typical audience.
That being said, I want to focus on Hazel, played by Cameron Britton, an assassin who works for an organization called the Commission that serves as an anchor to a bizarre show. The Commission is dedicated to ensuring that the events of the timeline of humanity remain intact (e.g. the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the end of the world, and so on). Its hardest job is making sure that humanity’s illusion of free will is maintained as they keep tabs on humanity’s predestined timeline. It typically does so by sending assassins to kill specific people who threaten the timeline without an explanation as to why their target is a threat. Hazel is one of the Commission’s top assassins, and he is sent with his partner Cha-Cha, played by Mary J. Blige, to kill Number Five to ensure that the apocalypse occurs.
We first meet Hazel as he checks into a subpar motel with Cha-Cha. Immediately, they find that they have to share a room, prompting Hazel to complain about the various aspects of his job at the Commission. All of Hazel’s concerns seem mundane at this point, as he mutters on about the Commission cutting his dental insurance, making him carry around a heavy briefcase that contains a time machine and giving them a room that smells like “cat piss.” Hazel, who is an ordinary-looking, tall, fat white man, comes off initially as a boring guy who finds every opportunity to complain about something, whatever it may be. He’s disillusioned, mediocre and whiny. The trope that he seems to embody is aided by his dynamic with his partner Cha-Cha, a strong woman who shuts him down when he complains and is content with doing her job well.
Hazel, at first, seems to be an unextraordinary static character whose only real purpose is to act as a foil for Cha-Cha. In the first couple episodes he appears in, all he really does is find a donut shop at which to spend his free time in between complaining and trying to kill Number Five. I remained unimpressed with the way his character was written, primarily because he so heavily and obviously embodied the overplayed “dude working for a large force who loves donuts and complains about nothing” trope. You know the type — think Chief Wiggum from “The Simpsons” but with a more exciting job.
Midway into the season, Hazel learns that killing Number Five will result in the end of the world. Upon realizing the consequences of his mission, Hazel becomes increasingly skeptical of the Commission. In the same vein, Hazel also becomes increasingly vulnerable, slowly falling for the donut shop owner, Agnes, played by Sheila McCarthy, as he slips into an existential crisis about what he really wants to get out of the short remainder of his life. His softer features appear as he treats Agnes with only respect and adoration and realizes that he finds little satisfaction and fulfillment in his position at the Commission. His complaints, originally trivial-seeming, suddenly become more and more sincere and well-founded as he realizes his desire to escape his life at the Commission and move out to the country with Agnes.
Itis this transition in attitude and perspective that makes Hazel’s character arc one of the most surprising in the show. His descent into existential turmoil leads him to ask important and yet depressingly obvious questions, such as: “Why am I making myself miserable working for a company that treats me poorly?” and “What if I just left my job, ran away with the girl I love and lived a quiet yet happy life?” Though he works as an assassin for a fictitious company, the questions that Hazel entertains on his quest to self-discovery make him one of the most pleasantly relatable characters on the show.
Though Hazel may not be the most interesting character of the series, I think his disillusionment and ennui quietly resonate with all audience members. At some point, we’ve all been prompted to ask the questions that Hazel asks himself. Hazel’s inner conflicts and relatively mundane story arc provide the audience with the relatable and grounding aspect that the rest of the chaotic show is missing.