TV Review: The Umbrella Academy vs. Doom Patrol

Talking Chimps vs. Farting Donkeys

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February 15th saw the premiere of not just one, but two super-team television shows. The first, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, is based upon a popular Dark Horse comic book by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá; the second, Doom Patrol on the DC Universe streaming platform, is adapted from a long-running DC Comics series. And while both shows focus on a ragtag team of superpowered misfits coming together to fight evil, one is clearly better than the other in the way that it translates its source material to screen. Mild spoilers ahead for both The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol.

I know that I mention this almost every time I review a comic book film or television series, but we are truly living in a comics fan’s wildest dream. In a world of Thanos snaps and Spiderverses, there’s no better time than right now to see the weirdest and most far-fetched corners of the comics multiverse splashed across our small and big screens. From the success of films such as Guardians of the GalaxySpider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and Aquaman, it seems proven that audiences are willing to embrace the strange, obscure, and colorful. Gone is the dark and gritty realism of The Dark Knight - a wave of newfound success has come to the vivacious oddities of comic book fandom. Television is no different; with the advent of Netflix, Hulu, and niche streaming services like DC Universe, shows based on comic book properties are also beginning to embrace the medium’s wacky roots - from the campy fun of The CW’s Arrowverse and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the mind-bending thrills of FX’s Legion, weird has proven to be a fine investment. February 15th saw two fairly obscure and odd comic book titles, The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol, adapted to the small screen. One on Netflix, and the other on the fledgling DC Universe streaming platform, they both center around a misfit super-team of powered individuals banding together to fight evil, but one is much better at capturing the magic and fun of its source material.

From the start, The Umbrella Academy wears the big boy pants with a budget obviously multitudes larger than Doom Patrol’s. Stylized, glossy, and gorgeous to look at with a killer soundtrack, the show follows a group of immaculately conceived superhero “siblings” that drift apart and then reunite after the death of their adoptive father (Colm Feore) to stop an upcoming apocalypse, all the while uncovering some dark family secrets. The show hews relatively closely to the comic, and retains much of the source material’s quirk: from talking chimps, gorilla men astronauts, and time travel, The Umbrella Academy is super weird. So, why then, isn’t it actually all that fun? The series, adapted by The Exorcist showrunner Jeremy Slater, is dripping with style and production value, but is ultimately narratively hollow. The Umbrella Academy suffers from many of the issues that plague Netflix’s original programming, especially its recently defunct Marvel series, in that they’re stifled by an obsession with being “prestige.” Like its Marvel brethren, the show is a four-episode mini in a ten-episode body, unwilling to parcel out story and progression more than a few drips at a time (the show’s counterpart is only six issues long). It’s a comic book show bogged down by personal melodrama to pad out its episode count; from unrequited crushes to repressed childhood angst, The Umbrella Academy is just chock full of tedious subplots unbecoming of a comic book show. The show also commits a grave error in wasting the talents of Ellen Page. As Vanya, the supposedly only unpowered sibling of the group, Page is sidelined for much of the season until the last two episodes.

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“…from talking chimps, gorilla men astronauts, and time travel, The Umbrella Academy is super weird. So, why then, isn’t it actually all that fun?”

It isn’t a complete slog, however. A beautiful-looking series, The Umbrella Academy fires on all cylinders whenever it dives into one of its signature music-driven set-pieces - which are way too few and far between - with some fantastically inspired action, camerawork, and choreography. Steve Blackman, the series’ other showrunner, brings over plenty of the visual charm and cinematography from his previous stint on FX’s Fargo. Also, like its comic book counterpart, the show features some darkly comic moments that inject it with some much-needed life. All-in-all, The Umbrella Academy works best when embracing its wacky comics roots, and falls apart whenever it’s pretending to be a lethargic family drama. 

This brings us to DC Universe’s Doom Patrol, February 15th’s other superhero premiere. A series based on the long-running DC comic book of the same name, it’s steeped in almost 60 years of comic book history. Like an even more dysfunctional version of Marvel’s X-Men, Doom Patrol revolves around a group of loners and “freaks” gathered by crippled genius Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) to fight crime. While the show at first seems like the janky, low-fi stepbrother of The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol is almost instantly charming and engrossing. Opening with a hilariously meta monologue from the team’s eventual archenemy, Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), the show starts on a dryly self-aware note. “TV superheroes. Just what the world needs. Be honest - have you hung yourself yet?” Just a few moments later, he remarks “Critics, what do they know? They’re going to hate this show.” Doom Patrol’s pilot episode is a master class of snarky wit and efficient character development, making me care more about its core cast in an hour than The Umbrella Academy did across all ten of its installments. Starting with “dead” racecar driver Clifford Steele’s (Brendan Fraser in flashbacks, Riley Shanahan in the present) installation into a robot body, the first episode casts a rotating spotlight on its gallery of misfits, highlighting each member’s tragic backstory with a captivating little vignette. In addition to the lumbering Robotman, the team consists of Larry Trainor The Negative Man (Matt Bomer in flashbacks, Matthew Zuk in the present), a closeted test pilot empowered and disfigured by a crash caused by a cosmic anomaly; Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a 50s era actress who developed the (barely controllable) ability to stretch and grow after being exposed to toxic gas; Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a teenage runaway with 64 distinct personalities, each with its own superpower; and Vic Stone (Joivan Wade, recurring), a cyborg superhero struggling with his duality that appears in the second episode. The flashbacks play out as Steele wanders around Doom Manor, lamenting his lost humanity while getting acquainted with his fellow housemates - it’s natural, compelling, and just plain fun to watch.

Where The Umbrella Academy struggles with its languid pacing and flip-flopping tone, Doom Patrol offers a full acceptance of its zany comic book roots. It may not be fair to compare the first two episodes of the latter (only the first two episodes were available ahead of its premiere) with a full season of the former, but the difference is night and day. Breezy and fun, DC Universe’s second streaming title is a comic book adaptation in proper form, even if its interdimensional farting donkeys can be a little too much sometimes. Doom Patrol also succeeds on a more intimate level, its pilot a small-scale story that has little to do with the grandeur of armageddon: with The Chief out of town, our team gets bored and leaves the manor and gets into a heap of trouble sparked by its various superpowers - that’s it. Relatable and low-key, it’s the perfect introduction to our cast of characters.

The Umbrella Academy and Doom Patrol may have many similarities, even being released on the same day, but their executions are wildly different. While The Umbrella Academy was a chore to work through at multiple points of its ten-episode season, Doom Patrol is eminently bingeable and nimble. Superheroics don’t always fare the best diving deep into the insanity of comic books (the overbearingly cerebral second season of Legion comes to mind), but full-tilt weird almost always beats splitting the difference.

Grades:

The Umbrella Academy: C+

Doom Patrol: B+