All families are dysfunctional in some way

29 January 2021

The last time I got excited about a comic-book-to-television adaption was when Riverdale came out several years ago. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised that something similar was created by the lead singer of My Chemical Romance (Gerard Way) with less teen angst and the inclusion of fascinating characters such as an alien, robot, fish-man and a chimpanzee that exhibits traits of a nurturing father figure!

At the beginning of the series, the narrator explains that 43 babies were born to women who had shown no signs of pregnancy on 01 October 1989. The following episodes focus on seven of these babies; orphans adopted by an eccentric Frankenstein-type scientist named Sir Reginald “Reggie” Hargreeves, his wife, Grace, and butler, Pogo. Reggie is an emotionally detached and neglectful parent as he merely sees his children as subjects for a chain of experiments. They are trained with superhuman tendencies like exceptional strength, the power of persuasion and telekinesis to save humankind from the apocalypse; this destruction is foreshadowed in different ways of self-destruction throughout the series. Each child is stripped of their identity; despite being the same age, they are assigned a number in place of their name. We see how this affects each child’s development and mental health; Luther (No.1) struggles with an inferiority complex and Diego (No.2) has a stutter. 

The first season takes place in 2019. The Academy (later known as Team Zero) was disbanded when the children were teenagers after the loss of one of their own. Now, aged thirty, they reunite to solve the mystery of their adoptive father’s supposed suicide. The second season is set in the 1960s and refers to important historical events. As a person of colour and Black Lives Matter advocate, scenes with Allison’s (No.3) work in civil rights, particularly her staging a coup at a whites-only café, resonated with me. 

The series is not devoid of humour; there is an excellent soundtrack including Boney M, Paloma Faith, The Death South, and even a cover of Adele’s Hello in Swedish (by ‘My Kullsvik’). Slapstick is well implemented by Lila (Ritu Arya, Doctor Who) and Cha-Cha (Mary J Blige, Empire) who work for a secret service organisation whose sole aim is to thwart the Academy’s missions. We also have the hilarious and flamboyant character of Klaus (Robert Sheehan, Misfits). Klaus (No. 4) is a psychic medium and is best friends with his deceased brother Ben (No. 6), who assists with missions (and Klaus’ various other antics) as an octopus ghost. For example, in season 2, they inadvertently start a cult together. The character of Five is also amusing as he spends most of the series in the body of a prepubescent boy due to miscalculations in his travels and alterations of time and space. 

The central character of the series is Vanya (Elliot Page, Tallulah), who is forced to take anxiety medication. As the scapegoat of the group with the most typically human psychological disorder, she is ostracised and abused for being ‘normal’ by her family. She is the only one with a real job but is berated following the publication of her autobiographical book, Extraordinary, which reveals the doings and undoings of the Hargreeves’ family. When Vanya (No. 7) forgets to take her pills, her dormant powers emerge, and she unintentionally injures and kills others; Reggie gave her antidepressants because he was afraid of the extent of her abilities. Vanya later has an amnesiac attack and has no knowledge of these dangerous outbursts. Mirroring criminals not being aware of the existence of their illness during a bout of severe mental instability, how can Vanya acknowledge and repent for her crimes or be held responsible? The series concludes with Vanya taking control of her powers; she sees them in a positive light and uses her newfound appreciation to punish wrongs that have been inflicted upon her.

Overall, reminiscent of the series, Orphan Black (Tatiana Maslany), this is a thought-provoking series that utilises flashbacks, alternate timelines, dance sequences and frequent visits to the afterlife, with lovable and relatable character development. I also feel that there are many themes to unpack and discuss in the series – self-image, substance misuse and post-traumatic stress disorder being just three – that will be of interest to psychology assistants and specialists working in clinical, educational and forensic settings. Can’t wait for season three later this year!

Reviewed by Associate Editor (Culture), Chrissie Fitch MSc; E: [email protected], T: @fitchy_chris