It doesn’t seem likely that Netflix and DC Universe, competitors in the field of subscription streaming video, get together to plan their schedules. So chalk it up to coincidence that Netflix is releasing “The Umbrella Academy” on the same day (Friday) that DC Universe is releasing “Doom Patrol,” while you note that the “Doom Patrol” comic books were a primary model, along with “X-Men,” for the “Umbrella Academy” comics.
Or chalk it up to our apparently bottomless appetite for superhero teams, which television happily feeds: The new series join DC Comics titles like “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Titans” and “Black Lightning” and Marvel shows like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Runaways,” “The Gifted” and “Legion,” to name a few. On the horizon are a couple of heavyweights, HBO’s “Watchmen” adaptation and Netflix’s “Jupiter’s Legacy.”
So what do these two handsomely produced new shows add to the conversation? Continuing proof that comic books and TV shows have very different vocabularies, and that converting the first into the second requires hard choices. The most enjoyable adaptations commit to traditional TV values (“Black Lightning” on CW) or go all in on replicating the comic book experience (“Legion” on FX). Shows that fall in between often exhibit a particular variety of lifelessness — they’re action thrillers in which the action feels forced and they’re family dramas in which we don’t really care about the family.
Which brings us to “The Umbrella Academy,” based on the comics series created by Gerard Way (the multitalented artist who was also lead vocalist of My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Bá. Like “Doom Patrol,” which Way has generously cited as an influence, it’s about a superpowered band of outsiders assembled by a possibly mad, definitely abrasive genius who doubles as father figure.
And, in this case, as actual father: Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopts the seven future members of the Umbrella Academy team as babies, shortly after they’re all born on the same day to mothers who didn’t appear to be pregnant. Frequent flashbacks show them being harshly raised and trained in a dark, many-chambered mansion, giving the show some Harry Potter schoolboy flavor. That motif is emphasized by the prominence in the story of Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who returns from the future trapped in his 13-year-old body (though he’s aged several decades beyond his 20-something foster siblings) and spends the 10-episode season dressed in his hunter-green, short-pants school uniform.
The show’s primary mode, however — as the estranged team members reunite for their father’s funeral and find themselves under attack by mysterious assassins, one played by Mary J. Blige — could be called “Legion” lite. (The show’s creator, Steve Blackman, was an executive producer on that FX series.)
It takes stabs at hallucinatory, Gregory Crewdson-like visual setups, and it goes for a hybrid futuro-retro production design — the killers receive their orders in pneumatic tubes that pop up wherever they happen to be. The soundtrack, ranging from They Might Be Giants to the Hollies to Nina Simone, feels annoyingly self-conscious.
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Its attempts to capture the visual and narrative virtuosity of the comics are halfhearted, though, and we’re left with a polished but increasingly dull version of the same old story: saving the world as a byproduct of overcoming adolescent resentments and family dysfunction; teenage alienation as an apocalyptic force that has to be brought under control. The first episode introduces the stock characters (loyal son, too-perfect daughter, rebel, cynic, screw-up) in lively fashion, but then the story bogs down in anemic mystery and filler, like a risible detour into the Vietnam War.
It’s easy enough to watch, at least until the requisite season-ending big battle, a pale echo of “Carrie.” And there are performances that keep you interested, including Kate Walsh as a kind of time lord, Cameron Britton as a philosophical hit man and especially the 15-year-old Gallagher (of Nickelodeon’s “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn,”), who’s remarkably assured as a hard-bitten 58-year-old in a middle-schooler’s body. He carries the show as far as he can.
The news about “Doom Patrol” is provisionally better, though much less definitive, since only two episodes were available. Selectively drawn from the long-running DC series and adapted for TV by Jeremy Carver (“Supernatural”), it’s about an older group of misfits than those in “Umbrella Academy,” and it works in a satirical, high-concept mode rather than teenage melodrama.
The dilapidated heroes present for the show’s inception include the self-explanatory Robotman and the bandage-swathed Negative Man, voiced by Brendan Fraser and Matt Bomer, along with Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), whose power and curse is an extreme form of elephantiasis, and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), with as many powers as personalities. They have their own mansion, in the rural Midwest, where they’re overseen by their own eccentric genius (Timothy Dalton).
“Doom Patrol” operates inside big quotation marks, with Alan Tudyk (who plays the villain Mr. Nobody) providing an arch, self-referential narrative in which he anticipates critics’ reactions to the show and intones, “Let the pretentious title sequence begin.”
Dressing up the standard superteam tropes with this kind of metafictional framework could get old fast. But a show that gives you a donkey who spells out messages in big green clouds of flatulence gets at least one more week from me.
The Umbrella Academy
Streaming Friday on Netflix
Streaming Friday on DC Universe
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