Last week The Umbrella Academy season 3 arrived on Netflix, bringing the Hargreeves kids back for another adventure. An adventure that involves them fighting against another group of Hargreeves children, because time travel.
If you’ve checked any of the discussions about the show online, you’ll know that there’s one major criticism that’s been showing up pretty consistently. The fact that the third season is way too similar to the first two seasons in one key respect.
This is a big problem, and just so happens to be the same problem plaguing other science-fiction shows, most notably Star Trek: Discovery. Spoilers for Umbrella Academy season 3 and Star Trek Discovery season 4 follow
The big problem with Umbrella Academy
The main plot of The Umbrella Academy season 3 focuses on the fact the Umbrellas, and their alt-timeline siblings the Sparrows, have to save the world from a threat they indirectly had a hand in creating. If that sounds familiar it’s because the first and second seasons did the same thing.
The specifics of the matter differed, but the third season is still very much more of the same as the first two servings. Five even points this out, when he complains about having to spend the past 28 days preventing apocalypses and not getting any chance to enjoy retirement.
If you’ve been paying attention to Star Trek Discovery, you’ll know that it has suffered from the exact same problem its entire run. There’s some sort of huge-galactic threat that the crew of the Discovery needs to solve before time runs out. A galactic threat that gets pretty outlandish each season.
Considering Discovery’s third season is about fuel that could explode, and the fact that it was caused by a traumatized child, it’s almost impressive that the fourth season managed to surpass it in the way that they did. In that arc, we met aliens who use a black hole to mine planets, destroying everything around them, and communicate with smell. Yes, really.
As my colleague Marc McLaren noted, those kinds of world-saving stakes are not entirely uncommon in science fiction. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, features heroes trying to save the world in every other installment.
Don't accept Umbrella Academy 4 as "business as usual"
My counter argument to that is that there’s usually some sort of variety. Ok, in the grand scheme of things a genocidal purple alien with magic stones isn't that different from a vengeful Egyptian goddess trying to send evil people to hell before their time. And generic terrorists aren’t all that interesting, but we could critique Marvel villains all day long. That’s not why we’re here.
The fact is both Umbrella Academy and Discovery have just jumped from one giant disaster to another, without any sort of palate cleanser between them. So we end up with a weird issue of escalation, where a season seems to try and one-up its predecessor.
Umbrella Academy is a perfect example of this in play. Season one was a general “stop the apocalypse” deal. Season 2 was basically the same, except it happened in the past so the entire future was also at stake. Season 3 upped the ante even further by putting the entire space/time continuum at risk.
This sort of progression has about as much variety as my grandmother’s cooking (None whatsoever, in case that wasn’t clear). The other issue is that escalation only gets you so far. How do you follow a story where the entirety of time and space is at stake? In an ideal world your heroes will have had some downtime in a previous season, so you don’t need to keep increasing the stakes to obscene and comical levels.
Outlook: We've seen how bad this gets
Just like how Iron Man 3 followed the world-saving events of The Avengers by having Tony Stark battle against a poorly-masked racial stereotype and his own inner demons. It’s not as good a movie, by any stretch, but it calmed things down and let the armor-clad hero partake in an adventure that wasn’t nearly as intense as nearly dying in a nuclear inferno in space.
We don’t know what Star Trek Discovery Season 5 is going to cover yet, but I would not be surprised if it involved something more threatening than the roving black hole of death. Though I would like to hold out hope that the writers are taking some of the cues from Strange New Worlds, and toning things down a bit.
Meanwhile Umbrella Academy season 4, should it actually happen, has the challenge of figuring out what the titular heroes are actually going to do now they saved all of reality itself. Especially now there are no more comics to adapt. Something more grounded I hope, though it’s impossible to say what given the third season finale’s pseudo-cliffhanger.
We’re just going to have to wait and see, provided Netflix doesn’t cancel the show first.