A Plodding, Overstuffed Umbrella Academy Season 3 Wastes a Promising Story

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A Plodding, Overstuffed <i>Umbrella Academy</i> Season 3 Wastes a Promising Story

The return of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy continues to be one of the streamer’s most attractive and ambitious original shows. But in its third season, the cracks are increasingly apparent when it comes to finding satisfying reasons for all of the cyclical pandemonium. Based on Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s comic book series of the same name, Season 3 of the Netflix show follows previous seasons in having its core narrative arc loosely based on the comics, this time Vol. 3: Hotel Oblivion and the yet unreleased Vol. 4: The Sparrow Academy.

In the Season 2 finale, “The End of Something,” the Hargreeves siblings time-hopped out of 1960s Dallas, Texas, only to find their actions altered their original 2019 timeline. They find that their adopted father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), is now alive and has a whole different family of adopted super children called The Sparrow Academy. The prologue of “Meet the Family” provides a clever montage of exactly how that happened, and who they grow up to be: Marcus (Justin Cornwell), Fei (Britne Oldford), Alphonso (Jake Epstein), Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez), Jayme (Cazzie David), alt Ben (Justin H. Min) and Christopher (you’ll see).

The action picks right up with the two families squaring off in the Sparrow Academy’s great room. It’s exactly this sequence that’s indicative of the broader problems the series has with pacing and the writers’ inclination to lean into their established formula features instead of changing things up. What commences is a battle between the two sets of siblings. It’s funny for a bit, but then it keeps going… for too long. It ultimately spirals into a very long series of escalating confrontations all through the house between Umbrellas and Sparrows so we can see the new siblings’ powers and how they fare against the existing siblings’ skill sets. It’s exposition by way of fists and kicks. And yes, the show still uses inventive camera moves and clever VFX transitions against quirky pop songs or alternatively arranged versions of known standards to invigorate their action scenes. But that repeated formula isn’t as stimulating as it once was, especially because this season has too many of these encounters, many of which end in détentes between the warring families, because wiping each other out kind of defeats the purpose of the arc.

With Reginald siding with his Sparrows, the Umbrellas are wounded and cast out into a world that doesn’t seem to be on the precipice of destruction, which pleases Five (Aidan Gallagher) very much. Exhausted with repeatedly playing universe saver, he’s content to find a new life in this now. Luther (Tom Hopper) is down with that because he really liked the look of Sparrow Sloane. Klaus (Robert Sheehan) has a personal quest he wants to pursue. And Lila (Ritu Arya) shows up via her time travel briefcase to drop off a new addition who Diego (David Castañeda) ends up dealing with: 12-year old Stan (Javon Walton). The only two who want out of this timeline immediately are Alison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), who left her husband and little girl in the past, and Vanya (Elliot Page), who left behind her love Sissy (Marin Ireland) and her son Harlan. The duo work out a plan to go back, while their brothers are busy setting up a new staging ground. The lack of harmony amongst the siblings is per usual and has them all rolling around like marbles dropped on a shiny floor for a bit until a paradox threat, born of their time jumping, makes itself known and demands their focus.

Early episodes like “The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine’’ and “Pocket Full of Lightning” fill a lot of their time by pairing characters like Five and Klaus for a road trip (which ends in a hilarious visual homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark), or Luther being kidnapped by the Sparrows for leverage which allows him to bond with Sloane and gives us more of a peek at the other empowered siblings. Also, the most important emotional throughline introduced early is Vanya’s. In the wake of the relationship with Sissy, Vanya transitions into his authentic self, Viktor Hargreeves. That is mostly done through physical change represented by his new hair, clothes, and the overall effect on Viktor’s whole countenance after he embraces this body that now feels right. It’s striking to see the marked difference in Page’s portrayal of the character, which gives the storyline even more weight and importance. The writers and the core cast do a very graceful job in how they address it, and how they don’t ignore it, which makes for some great moments between all of the siblings regarding the revelation. But the most powerful moments are between Viktor and Alison, which finally manifests some real care between the two characters the show hasn’t often portrayed before.

Unfortunately, the season isn’t as effective in establishing the Sparrows as fully formed people. In fact, only Ben and Sloane really are given the narrative space to be fleshed out, while the rest of the siblings are mostly reduced to what they can do, and how they are ultimately exploited for the incredibly complicated story that unfolds around paradoxes and Reginald’s machinations to use all of the factions to his selfish purposes. They end up coming across like conduits for the various plots, so they don’t resonate well because you can’t find yourself caring much for newbies when you don’t know them. Even in the case of Luther and Sloane, you’re really rooting for that poor isolated lunk of a man to finally find someone, anyone, not so much because the show makes you adore Sloane as her own person.

As for the core cast, Page and Gallagher are the MVPs of the season. Page brings the heart and shifts to the role of motivator in getting her family working together, while Gallagher continues to channel the old soul inside a kid’s body so well, with versatile comedic timing that works whether it’s meant to be intentionally funny or just capture his character’s frustration. Hopper gets to branch out in a much warmer story this season, and it’s appreciated. Raver-Lampman’s Alison goes on quite a dramatic journey too, but Castañeda is saddled with an odd story that never really gels.

Plot-wise, for a series that has enjoyed topping itself with the complexity of its storylines year after year—with the ramifications of “doing X” eventually resulting in chaos—Season 3 says, “Hold my beer.” On one hand, kudos to showrunner Steve Blackman and his writers for not getting sloppy in regards to ignoring unfinished storylines. They pick up and run with a lot of story threads that were embedded in previous seasons and finally flesh them out which is appreciated. But on the other hand, with an entirely new cast, new timeline, the addition of myriad secrets, major twists and an expanded storyline for Sir Reginald and Mom (Jordan Claire Robbins), it’s exhausting to track and follow it all. Perhaps eight episodes would have been more effective in creating a tightly coiled season with more streamlined stories and less meandering between major story turns. In the end, it feels like a very densely plotted season that doesn’t mind sacrificing the potency of emotional moments trying to pay everything off.

In particular, “Six Bells” and “Oblivion” are a baffling pair of season-ending episodes where the writers seem happy to undercut their big turns and moves without really mining them for their full emotional worth. Let’s just say that which is taken away is given back, so a lot of the stakes are undermined. All of the talk and purpose throughout the season about the Umbrellas finally choosing to appreciate one another and function as a found family is really deflated like that sad last balloon leftover from a party. In fact, the last 10 minutes of the season feels like everyone has just thrown in the towel with one another, as well as the whole concept of bouncing around time. That’s not only surprising and baffling, it doesn’t exactly set the stage for enthusiastic audiences to be excited for a potential fourth season.

The Umbrella Academy Season 3 arrives Wednesday, June 22 on Netflix.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.

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