The Umbrella Academy is not your average comic book adaptation. Instead of focusing on superheroes in their heyday, the series takes a look at an adopted family bred to be a superteam who instead became fractured and lost in their adulthood. Executive producer Jeff King, who is known for his work with DC’s Convergence miniseries and who has produced for shows like White Collar, Continuum, and Blindspot, sees the Netflix series as a chance for viewers to connect with the characters as they look back on a troubled life before conquering an unknown future… or lack thereof.
King knows how difficult it is to bring a comic successfully off the page and onto the screen, but his background with DC Comics gives him an edge. “Having a background in comics writing and having a background as a writer and as a showrunner and director in TV allowed me to really have a good responsive, intuitive grasp of where I feel the nexus of a good adaptation of a comic into a series comes from,” King told us. “When I read the original script by Jeremy Slater and then especially Steve Blackman’s draft that became the basis for the show… I really responded viscerally feeling like, wow, this is going to be a great adaptation of that underlying material. Because you can never do it word for word, beat for beat because a good comic is like poetry; expanded, filled with water, it would be a thousand-year TV series.”
King also has the producer’s ability to encapsulate what The Umbrella Academy is about, and it serves as a pitch to the show’s potential audience. “When someone asks me what the show is about, I tell them the things that you need to know,” King said simply. “They’re an adopted family of superheroes raised by a cold, distant father to protect the world, who as teenagers break up — one disappears, one dies, they become famous, they move on — and they have to reunite when they are thirty-somethings because of their father’s death and to come back to his funeral and then to solve a larger mystery.” Succinctly but enticingly put!
Except that’s not what it’s about on a deeper level, according to King. “What I hope we’re going to take away is any of those life experiences that everyone can relate to: what it’s like being a kid in a family even if you feel like a weird outsider, being a grown-up and having to take on those responsibilities and a milestone like a parent passing. Those are all things that we can relate to, so hopefully what you’re taking away from it is that little tug in your heart or that little place in your stomach where you relate to a character deeply because their personal lens on it feels like yours.”
With the funeral of Hargreeves being the starting point for The Umbrella Academy, King makes an interesting comparison to a classic film that uses the same plot device. “If I had to shorthand it a little bit, I would say it’s kind of like The Big Chill with superpowers because that’s my lens. That’s the way I’m seeing it; I’ve had a parent pass. I’ve never had superpowers, but I’ve certainly been dysfunctional. So I kind of get how the metaphor extends to me. And it’s also fun!” King added as an important distinction for those who might think of the initial premise as depressing.
The Umbrella Academy benefits from amazing performances from notable actors and innovative use of special effects from a surprising source. “The performances are amazing when you finally watch the whole thing,” King teased. “Ellen Page is putting on a master class exploring her character. Robert, Emmy, Tom, David, Aidan — I mean, they’re all terrific! Mary and Cameron are bonkers! Colm Feore who plays Hargreeves and Jordan Claire Robbins who plays Grace are both extraordinary, and we were blessed with this amazing work by WETA Digital to do Pogo, the anthropomorphic talking chimpanzee; it’s WETA’s first TV series work ever!”
Those interested in checking out The Umbrella Academy can enjoy all ten episodes of the first season which just dropped on Netflix on February 15, 2019. King had some final advice for how to enjoy the series: “You can Netflix and chill and devote at least some of your Presidents Day weekend to a really great new show!” The full audio of this interview with Jeff King, along with discussion of the first few episodes, will be available in the February 24th edition of our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast.