Over the last two weeks, I’ve experienced ten hours that I will, unfortunately, never get back. Those ten hours were lost watching The Umbrella Academy, one of Netflix’ original series. And unlike most of the content I’ve seen on Netflix, this is one which I truly wish I could turn back time and un-see.
Why? Because it’s literally everything wrong with American television in one series.
The Umbrella Academy is an adaptation of the comic book series of the same name, created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics. I’ve never read the comic series, though I’ve occasionally heard good things about it. Unfortunately for me, my abysmal experience with the Netflix series guarantees that I will never pick up the comic to find out how good or bad it really is (which may or may not be a shame… but I’ll never know).
Netflix has presented series about superheroes before, mainly, the various Marvel Comics characters Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Punisher and Iron Fist. Those series were—mostly—popular enough that Netflix decided it could present new superhero content that would replace the Marvel content they were losing (Disney, owners of Marvel, have taken their content off Netflix for their own future use). So they struck a deal with Dark Horse Comics, and a new series was born. And I have the mental scars from seeing it.
Comparing TUA with a Marvel superhero series would be tough; about the closest analogy would be to Marvel’s popular X-Men franchise—if the X-Men were all epsilon-grade semi-morons. TUA’s premise is that a group of unusual children, all born in surprise births, were literally bought and collected by a mysterious and eccentric man and taken to a mansion where they were trained as children to be a superhero team. They wore costumes (prep school uniforms) and went on missions, and were very popular with the public. Their father was intent on making them capable of saving the world someday. So far, so strange, but so good.
But here’s where everything went seventh-level-of-Hell bad: The adoptive father turned out to be a complete tool who treated his children horribly; he was a cold, unfeeling, unsympathetic, uncaring and unloving disciplinarian. And because of his total and stunning lack of empathy for his charges, each and every one of them grew up to be emotionally stunted, resentful and clearly quite dim. (Minus one who died on a mission, of course.) Eventually they left the Academy to live their own lives, none of them being particularly successful at it.
When their father mysteriously dies, the children come back together as adults for the first time; but dragging all their emotional baggage with them, leaving them fighting and sniping at each other incessantly. Even when one of them returns to tell the others that the literal apocalypse is days away, and they must work together again to stop it, the siblings can’t stop fighting and arguing, and making the most idiotic decisions at every opportunity. The final result of all this is—spoiler alert—the apocalypse happens anyway, and the siblings teleport away in time to save their own miserable skins as the rest of the billions of the world burn. End of season one.
I will not be watching season two. Because season one was nothing but the kind of crap that passes for American television these days, and I’m long since sick of it.
Long ago, American television developed the soap opera, TV series where characters were generally self-centered and obnoxious, stupid, devious, conniving, cheating, lying and stealing their way through life. These characters were designed to “generate drama” with their unconscionable antics, designed to keep people (mostly bored housewives, back in the day) gossiping and marveling at each episode, and coming back the next day to see the next human catastrophe unfold.
Soap operas turned out to be incredibly, unimaginably, disgustingly successful; so much so that eventually, TV producers decided the format would work in prime time as well. “Prime time soaps” like Dallas and Falcon Crest appeared, later followed by youth-oriented soaps like 90210 and Dawson’s Creek. Soon these soap elements started to creep into other series, to generate that extra drama that seemed needed to support otherwise-boring fare. Perhaps the penultimate show where soap-like antics totally overshadowed completely vacuous content was Lost, which may be the most incredible waste of television time on record today, but which certainly achieved its real goal of getting people talking and selling lots of ad time in its slot. And now even “reality TV” builds in scripted moments and manufactured problems in order to create strife and suspense in vital, life-changing things like decorating gardens and making potroasts…
But back to TUA: For ten episodes I watched these characters, siblings that grew up and worked together, who as adults could barely stand each other. At every decision point, the group could never come to a consensus; individuals would balk at what they were told to do, or ignore the group and strike out on their own, always with disastrous results. Occasionally a small group of them would start to come together, only to find a new reason to despise and abandon each other. Old wounds would open from their painful past; and instead of sympathizing and commiserating with each other, they would taunt each other or insist that the other’s pain was nothing compared to their own. None of them could apologize, nor forgive.
And in the climax, when they realized that one of the siblings would cause the apocalypse, they amazingly came together to stop her… and again, made nothing but wrong decisions in their effort to stop her. Essentially, they failed… but even more telling, their actions were instrumental in creating the apocalypse anyway… they all caused the apocalypse.
Which, to me, says a lot about more than American television; it speaks directly to American life.
Television has spent the last century influencing Americans, their lives and culture. Television has proven to be an instrument capable of bringing people together, to share stories, to provide information, and to provide lessons both academic and social. Television has helped to mold America and give us a common voice.
But in recent years, television has been giving us stories that divide us; stories of people who distrust neighbors and even old friends; people who take advantage where they can, and shoot without question or warning; people who assume strangers are dangerous and their sons and daughters aren’t safe; people who expect every foreigner to be a spy, assassin or terrorist; people who assume our government leaders are all corrupt and imperious; and people who assume that even Nature is against us, and God has gone blind and deaf to our pleas.
And as television presents us with more of these stories, our culture absorbs them, and starts to emulate them. Americans are now more divisive, short-sighted and unsympathetic than ever before, quicker to anger, quicker to distrust, and quicker to make bad, stupid, selfish, knee-jerk decisions.
And we’re getting it from television.
TV has finally turned into the bad influence that evangelists used to warn us about in decades past… but years after the evangelists lost their breath yelling at us and created their own televangelist networks instead. And as American television has expanded to hundreds of channels, and now streaming networks, it simultaneously expands its spread of the insidious culture to our homes and our mobile devices, 24-7-365.
At one point, I had hoped to someday write for television. I envisioned stories like my own, stories of people who brought valuable skills and viewpoints with them and banded together against adversity. But as it’s become clearer to me that that’s the last thing television wants to show, I’ve since abandoned that childish notion and moved on.
If The Umbrella Academy, and all the other shows like it, are the future of American television, you can count me out, as a viewer, as a contributor, and as a fan. TUA, and American television, get the same failing grade from me.