We’re not sure that The Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman doesn’t also have supernatural abilities like the group of gifted misfits that he babysits for Netflix. He is, at the very least, blessed with good timing. That’s because the show’s second season, which lands on July 31, feels pulled from the pages of our current news cycle, despite being set back in the mid-’60s.
Communism. Racism. Homophobia. A nuclear apocalypse caused by a time-traveling troupe of weirdos with superpowers and major daddy issues. Save for that last bit — you know, with the doomsday event caused by the circus of oddballs that is the Hargreeves family — the issues that The Umbrella Academy tackles in its second outing carry a weight of importance the first season was missing, and it’s so much better for it.
Of course, there’s still time-traveling paradoxes that cause flatulence-producing psychosis and tyrannical talking fish and aliens wearing human skin suits (all the bits comic book fans salivate over). Yet for its next act, the show is determined to get us to not only laugh at the ridiculous antics of its clan of overgrown preternaturally-talented toddlers, but to care about them and their struggles, too. We chatted with creator Steve Blackman on this season’s new trajectory, meeting more Academy ‘siblings,’ and the tons of Easter Eggs that he’s hoping fans find.
Why head back to the 1960s?
First and foremost, I wanted them to be in a new place, a new setting. So I had already planned before the end of Season 1 that they had to go back in time and thankfully, we had great source material in Gerard [Way] and Gabriel’s [Bá] work. Volume two of the graphic novels was called Dallas and there’s a section of it which was set in the ’60s around the Kennedy assassination, and right away, I knew that’s where I wanted to put them. I mean, the ’60s were a tumultuous time — lots of issues of civil rights and homophobia. There’s a lot of fear with communism. It just seemed a great time to throw this dysfunctional family into it.
Weirdly, it sounds like you’re describing 2020.
It seems very relevant now, doesn’t it?
It does. Was there any feedback from Season 1 that you took into Season 2?
A little bit. I mean, I always thought that the theme of Season 1 would be “meet the family,” and Season 2 is really “get to know the family.” I think what I learned from Season 1 is people really responded to some of the oddities. I mean, we’re always trying to subvert the genre of the superhero show, because, at the heart, this is a dysfunctional family show. But in Season 2, I felt I wanted to balance the oddness and really just dig into these weird relationships more. At the same time, I didn’t want to skirt over the social issues of the day. We’re a heightened reality show, but we wanted to deal with racism. We wanted to deal with homophobia.
How do you do that in the context of this strange superhero genre you’ve created on TV?
It had to feel organic to the storytelling. We wanted to feel it from Allison’s eyes and from Klaus and from Vanya. What I worked very hard with the writers on is to make it feel like her [Allison’s] story was organic to that time period. She fell in love with this guy who happens to be in civil rights. She finds a voice for herself. I mean, she lands not only without her physical voice, which is something, but for her first experience, she walks into a place that has a “Whites Only” sign. I thought that was a wake-up call to the viewers saying, “This is going to be a fun season, but also we’re going to deal with some serious issues this year.”
What’s it like to look back on the season now, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the protests happening?
Well, it’s all very humbling. I’ve got to be honest with you. I mean, this Black Lives Matter movement is such an incredible thing to watch and to see it grow and see the push to end violence, racism, and police brutality. We finished writing the show over a year ago. So this [current] movement hadn’t begun yet, but the stories are the same. I’d like to think as a country, we’ve come further along than we have. But clearly, what we see now with George Floyd, we haven’t come as far as we wanted to and we have to do better. I think that’s where this show might feel very timely because we’re showing that things improved but not enough. We have a long, long way to go.
What’s the biggest obstacle the group is facing in trying to save the world this time around?
First of all, they don’t start out together, and that is by design. I felt that it was too easy for them to arrive together. I know they’re a lot of fun when they’re together, but it was nice to have an anchor to other storylines to show the challenge of coming back together as a family. To find each other and then to be willing to leave your old life. Klaus, Luther, and Allison have had years in specific time periods. So, there was a challenge for them to sort of leave those lives and join up with the family. And that was a fun device to sort of show that struggle. But ultimately, they’re stronger when they’re together, so they find their footing when they find each other.
And they find new powers. We see some of the kids able to do new things this season. Is that a byproduct of storytelling needs or were those abilities just waiting all along?
It’s a bit of both, to be honest with you. I think some of it is coming with the stories, but something I’m trying to do, which is slightly different than the novels is having the powers in the TV universe always evolving. Because remember, they broke apart when they were teenagers. They didn’t finish their training with their dad, and they’re still sort of discovering stuff. One of the other things we’re going to find out going forward is they’re stronger together, their powers work better when they’re together as a team than when they’re apart. But I see all their powers changing a lot, going into future seasons.
Will we be seeing other gifted kids in those seasons?
Well, we know there are 43 mothers who gave birth on that day in 1989. We’ve now met one other one [in Season 2]. And we’ve discovered that our kids thought they were the only ones. So clearly dad hasn’t told them everything. What’s wonderful for storytelling purposes is now we can meet more of them, and some of them are going to be good, and some of them are going to be bad. We could see feuds happen and new alliances. It’s exciting.
Where does The Umbrella Academy land? They’ve caused the end of the world twice now. Are they part of the problem?
Well, maybe. Here’s the problem, we fuck shit up all the time at the academy. In the DC/Marvel universes, there are these perfected characters, but these guys are not them. They struggle to do good things. Their personalities continue to get in the way, all of the emotional baggage continues to get in the way of saving the world. I think that’s the fun of the show. I think they will do better, but there’ll be a lot of new challenges along the way. Meeting these other possible “siblings” will be one part of that.
For fans looking ahead to Season 3, what’s one scene they should be paying attention to this season?
Well, I’m going to answer that in a slightly coded way. The writers and I have embedded tons and tons of Easter eggs in the show. They’re all over the place, and they may not be seen in the first viewing but as the show is released, I’m going to drop some hints, as will Netflix, of things they should be looking for. There are clues and things that allude to the past and things that allude to the future. Places where we want to go if we have another season, but I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised with what we’ve embedded in the background in scenes that they probably won’t even notice at first. I’m going to keep Reddit very busy.
Speaking of the future. Would you ever go off-book or has Game of Thrones given you too many nightmares?
Too many nightmares. I really don’t want to get ahead of [Gerard and Gabriel], only because I’m really good friends with both of them, and I really respect them. The idea is I want to work collaboratively with them, I don’t want to feel that I’ve gone so off where it’s a totally different thing.
Is there an endgame?
I think Gerard had many volumes ahead of him in his head, I think he knows really where he wants to go for many graphic novels. I think there’s always an end plan of how many seasons you want to do in a comic show. But it certainly won’t be limited by Gerard.
Of all the UA members, whose power does the world really need right now?
Such a good question. I’m going to give you two things it needs. I think you need Allison to rumor people, and I think we might need Five to go back in time and undo some stupid things that we’ve done.
‘The Umbrella Academy’ returns to Netflix on July 31.