Genre Fiction as Family Dramas (Mild Spoilers ahead)
I have just finished the first season of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy and I have some stuff to talk about.
When watching this Saturday-Morning-style superhero Drama, created Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance fame, I could not help but notice it’s similarities to another Netflix genre series; The Haunting of Hill House by Mike Flanagan (Hush, Oculus & Gerald’s Game).
Both shows operate as long-form film-quality schlock, one is an intense horror series in the vein of The Conjuring and the other is a riff on X-Men archetypes. The two couldn’t be farther a part in content, style, direction and aesthetic, but both have the exact same dramatic core.
They are both dramas about sibling relationships.
Both shows have a cast of wayward, resentful and emotionally stunted siblings where a death forces them to come together and attempt to resolve their various grievances.
I find these stories so emotionally resonant because of the importance I place on my own sibling relationships. When these characters made stupid, selfish, short-sided and spiteful decisions; I completely understood it. I’ve lived a lot of it.
Your bothers or sisters are the people you love and hate more than anyone. No one can bring out your best and worst like them.
So when these shows set aside their ghosts, time-travel-paradoxes, superhuman powers and plot contrivances; you just watch extremely well-written characters fight with their siblings like you would.
Some of these hit with an emotional wallop when they lean into discussions about depression, careers, inferiority-complexes and insecurity. If you’ve lived these things with siblings in your life, these shows can feel like a mirror.
That having been said, both shows have their fumbles and one is far stronger dramatically than the other. I will keep out discussions of direction, style and production because those are largely a result of the genre difference here. An R-Rated haunting house story is not the same Netflix’s Superhero series and vice-versa.
By the end of Umbrella Academy I was almost screaming at the screen, “Just talk to your damn sister!” Characters keep making the same mistakes and it keeps biting them in the ass. It made me stop wanting to cheer for them.
The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, has a far tighter structure which allows the sibling drama to play out more organically, without plot contrivance forcing actions or reducing drama. Hill House sticks the landing better on the sibling drama better than Umbrella Academy. Largely due to trappings of their genre and how that places plot over character.
Umbrella Academy started extremely strong with its siblings all at each others throats. The core was Ellen Page’s Vanya as the one sibling without powers. The emotional damage of being completely overshadowed by their siblings was captured perfectly and should have been the central conflict of the series.
The emotional core I was invested in was the family coming together to understand the damage they have done to each other. I was waiting for more moments where the siblings pair off to talk and resolve their issues.
That didn’t really happen. What we got was not bad, not at all, but it was dense with plot and superhero tropes. The eventual reveals end up being an amalgamation of Pixar’s The Incredibles, X-Men’s Phoenix Saga and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. A host of superhero tropes.
This didn’t derail the show, but it did weaken the emotional core for me. It turned these interesting characters into players in overused Superhero stories, rather than a group of siblings whose bullshit I was invested in.
The Haunting of Hill House ended its season with each sibling forced to face their greatest fears, failures and faults or be devoured by the demonic forces of the house. Resolving their issues was paramount for surviving the ghosts. This is how creators tie plot and character into one.
The best scare in Hill House only worked because two characters were arguing and avoiding resolving emotional damage. I was screaming, “Just talk to your sister!” and the scare was used to get them to cut their bullshit and talk. It was amazing. What followed was the single greatest monologue about depression I’ve seen in years.
I even tweeted Mike Flanagan about it and he liked my comment. Commence nerd freak out.
I adore both these shows and will continue to watch more. The Haunting of Hill House will continue as an anthology with different families and players being cursed by the titular house. The Umbrella Academy ends on a cliffhanger and has yet to be renewed for a season 2. Which would be unfortunate, for all its dramatic flaws, it has a stellar cast, imagination for miles, great characters, style and a fantastic soundtrack.
I’m not ready to say goodbye.
Both The Haunting of Hill House and The Umbrella Academy can be streamed on Netflix.