WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Umbrella Academy Season 1, streaming now on Netflix.
Showrunner Steve Blackman was judicious in the changes he made to the source material when adapting Gabriel Bá and Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy for Netflix. But when he did make a change, it was usually monumental. Luckily for him, those choices paid off, so much so that one of his creations, the alternative romance between time-traveling assassin Hazel (Cameron Britton) and doughnut shop worker Agnes (Sheila McCarthy), became one of the most endearing and effective subplots of the first season.
The Hazel and Cha-Cha of the comics differ considerably from their television counterparts, played by Britton and Mary J. Blige in her first major action role. They’re still brutal killers, but in the source material, they’re seen without their oversized cartoon masks. They move through the story pursuing Number Five in much the same way they do on the show, but they remain faceless killers whose defining characteristics begin and end at their masks and ruthless efficiency.
For his adaptation, Blackman fills out both characters considerably, turning Hazel into an assassin who’s questioning his position in the world. “I wanted Hazel to sort of want to give up the life of being an assassin and I wanted to do it from something that was really, real. I wanted him to fall in love, and not a traditional love,” he told CBR.
The love he’s referring to is, of course, Hazel’s eventual romance with waitress Agnes, which serves as the impetus for him to leave his life (and partner) behind. All of that not only goes a long way toward humanizing Hazel, but also, by extension, Cha-Cha. She’s not at all interested in leaving her profession, but she can’t imagine her life without Hazel, so she’s understandably upset by his plan to run off with a woman he’s just met. Their dynamic is far richer than it is in the comics, and that’s largely due to Blackman’s introduction of the Agnes/Hazel romance.
In a broader social sense, it’s great to see an alternative romance get such a big stage, for it to gender-flip Hollywood’s affinity for pairing older men with decades-younger women. Still, despite the creative freedom working provided by working with Netflix, Blackman faced some pushback about the difference in age between Agnes and Hazel.
“The actor who plays [Agnes], Sheila McCarthy’s quite a bit older than Cameron, and I do believe love is ageless and people said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do it, there’s too much age difference.’ I’m like, ‘Yes we can,'" Blackman recalled. "I said if you flipped it, nobody would question it. So why would we question it?”
Regardless of how strong those protests were, Netflix executives clearly thought they something potentially exciting on their hands with Hazel and Agnes. The romance was kept so far under wraps that McCarthy wasn't credited on IMDb.com at the time of publication.
Blackman’s overwhelming enthusiasm, paired with excellent performances by Britton and McCarthy, elevates this romance to something more than the sum of its parts. That, plus the surreal complication of Blige fighting to keep her best friend from retiring (so they can keep murdering people) eventually force the audience to forget what anyone looks like, because the rules were thrown out the window a long time ago.
That’s how, against all odds, a romance between a time-traveling assassin and a middle-aged diner waitress became the heart of a show about a dysfunctional superhero family.
“They had just such wonderful chemistry together,” Blackman said. “He’s big, she’s short, but you believe the love story of the man who just wants to get out of the life. And they’re gonna open a farm together somewhere and you know it’s gonna be okay. And it turns out to be [this] love story, one of the most beloved parts of this show, was supposed to be just a little story I wanted to do of the two of them.”
Streaming now on Netflix, The Umbrella Academy Season 1 stars Ellen Page, Mary J. Blige, Tom Hopper, Cameron Britton, Robert Sheehan, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Adam Godley, Aidan Gallagher, David Castañeda, John Magaro, Ashley Madekwe and Colm Feore.