My blog might convince some people that I spent my youth as a Potterhead, or as a Star Wars Expanded Universe junkie. My first literary serial love was always A Series of Unfortunate Events: darling, dearest, dreadfully mishandled by the 2004 movie. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Daniel Handler’s unique humor to be on screen, but I remember, as a kid, for the first time during a film, feeling a sense of betrayal. Well, now Netflix has brought the books to life, with the original author as a producer and a schedule that will give each of the 13 ASOUE books plenty of breathing room. How’d the series turn out?

The Bad Beginning

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The first two episodes were great! … except for a subplot that kind of misses the point of the books and might end up tainting the whole production. I’ll get into that.

The plot of The Bad Beginning remains intact in the first fourth of Season 1. The clever and capable Baudelaire trio— inventor Violet, bookworm Klaus, and biting baby Sunny— find themselves in the care of the sinister, abusive, and incompetent Count Olaf after the trio’s parents burn to death in the family mansion. The only people in this setting dumber than Olaf, it seems, are any adults who might possibly provide the orphans with a good home. So Sunny, Klaus, and Violet must figure out, on their own, a way to escape the Count before his evil scheme to snatch the Baudelaire fortune comes to fruition.

The actors, naturally and effectively, bring the strange world of ASOUE to life. Special mention goes to Usman Ally as Count Olaf’s hook-handed henchman— funny or intimidating whenever he chooses to be, sometimes changing between edits without straining credulity. It’s a joy when Ally’s on screen, and I hope the writers keep in the development he undergoes later on. Poe finds a good balance between straight man and stupidest man in the room— incidentally, it only occurred to me watching this series that there might be a reason why Poe is coughing after the fire (besides the obvious, innocent one). Though Neil Patrick Harris can charm with anti-humor as Olaf, he can’t find a way to work with the heavy makeup like Carrey could. On screen, the Count always looks like normal-aged Neil Patrick Harris in a disguise (which, for all I know, might actually be a disguise in this adaptation, as Olaf is infamous for them). Olaf's a lot more charismatic on film as opposed to in the books, a development likely unavoidable if you're casting NPH. I don't think we'll ever see a truly-awful Count Olaf on screen, but hey, the books are still there, and it's weird to demand that a show become more awful for your benefit (although ASOUE would be the one show to get away with it).

So yeah, great score, good utilization of anachronistic setting (a phrase which here means “a location where one can drive old cars and use the Internet”), some laugh-out-loud moments, a well-maintained downer atmosphere, and a climactic play where the show doesn’t cop-out on the original ending like the movie did. Sounds perfect, right? There’s just one thing, and... and it turns out I misinterpreted that "one thing" entirely when I first saw it. If you want to see my original reaction, you should check it out here; let's say for now that future events in the season revealed how wrong I was.

The Reptile Room

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I decided to watch two episodes of this series every Friday, instead of a binge-watching the entire thing. But I think Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events planned for breaks in its design. The show, at the beginning of The Reptile Room, takes time to remind the audience about the characters, situations, and general plot surrounding the Baudelaire orphans (I think that was the first time I got “Baudelaire” spelled right on the first try!). Such a recap hinders adults with the license to watch the series all at once, but this program’s a misery-for-all-the-family show, and it's still a darn good one.

This time, Violet, Sunny, and Klaus fall under the care of Dr. Montgomery, a sweet and caring herpetologist who hides several secrets… such as why the trio’s parents never mentioned him before. But before the trio discovers any answers, Count Olaf returns, wearing a disguise that only works on humans above the age of 18. Uncle Monty’s time with the Baudelaires, as soon as his time with everything else, gets cut short. That’s not a spoiler, according to the show.

This series does not recreate the book word-for-word; the children have begun piecing together the clues that will lead them towards a secret organization. And, as a fan of the books, it’s cool to see the hints already set from the beginning. I don’t know if Handler planned out the entire saga in advance, but this show certainly has, and already that creative decision added complexity to one of the most simple and pure characters from the books.

Although the actors still excel in their roles (make no mistake, this dialogue is dastardly difficult to get right), a lot of the show’s runtime stalls the story with repeated jokes. In the books, an adult falling for Count Olaf’s tricks was an annoyance, but the series spent most of the time with the orphans, who shared the reader’s exasperation. Once you suspend your disbelief (a phrase which here means “accept that these adults are unrealistically incompetent and stop complaining”), the show decides to put your suspension to the test every five minutes or so. We know the adults suck. We get it. This series will have plenty of time later to remind us of that, even without the subplots that have this type of joke transcend into plothole. Even a joke well told can get old if it’s repeated often enough, to the point where you’re screaming, “For Crow’s Sake, he jumped out of a waist-high window! Right in front of you! Go after him!” We all know, of course, that writers should never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever let a joke drag on for too long. Never.

Still, what was good with A Bad Beginning applies here. I’d like the series to expand their comedy targets to its weird world and systems, but to be frank, there isn’t enough entertainment out there that tells kids how awful adults can be. And I did find, watching this segment on January 20th, some relevance in seeing a nonwhite, charismatic, learned, and fatally oblivious guardian get replaced by an old, deceitful, incompetent criminal who mostly wants the position for the money.

The Wide Window

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(Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf playing Jim Carrey as Sean Connery)

It’s another day, another unfortunate episode in the life of the Baudelaires… only this time (sooner than expected), the formula’s breaking up a bit. There’s a subtle, but crucial difference between the book and Netflix endings for The Wide Window.The show, at least in the first two episodes, portrays the orphans as more proactive and uncompromising (though they should probably learn to keep their mouths shut when talking to Count Olaf). I’m interested in where the plot goes next season, because it’s in that point in the books where the Baudelaires break away from their guardians’ cycles of stupidity. Wide Window (the book) ends with a “here we go again” sense of pace; I don’t imagine the next episode will be like that.

More so than the other episodes, Part 3 feels like filler. There are more Vapid, Foolish Detectives acting behind the scenes, more clues taken from the Baudelaires as soon as they find them, more Olaf schemes with very few differences from the last one. Where this episodes stands out is the setting. Not only is this off-season beach town equal parts gloomy, ironic, bitter, and gross, but the trio have to undergo a hurricane, a collapsing house, an escape plan involving eating food that causes hives, and overacting. I’m not sure if the books emphasized this point, but the Netflix series encourages hope for the next guardian, only to snatch that hope right as you run up to it. This is the kind of series Lucy would read to Charlie Brown.

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Wouldn’t you rather read a comic strip about a happy little elf?

Not much to say about this fourth of the season, except that everyone blurts out their lines and I like how Aunt Josephine receives more development in personality than just being neurotic. I hope the show runners realize that this book series (or the first half, at least) can be more than an ironclad equation.

The Miserable Mill

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Even though this series foretells a gloomy and unsatisfying ending to this show (and they’re kind of right), it’s amazing how Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events wraps up Season 1 with a return to form, highlighting all that was good about the pilot while also addressing some of the complaints I raised before. How considerate of them to forecast a fat twenty-something blogger’s objections regarding a kids’ TV Show, I suppose. Turns out, despite how I enjoyed Netflix's "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," I underestimated this series, and was wrong in my previous appraisal concerning the parents' subplot.

The Miserable Mill recounts the episode where the Baudelaires work at a lumber factory and strive to escape from, in addition to the usual suspects, a sinister hypnotist with an allusion instead of a name. Serendipitously timely allusion too, if bestseller lists are to be believed. The fourth book of the series acted as a middle chapter, and this season finale can’t escape that fact save for some foreshadowing that also wraps up the season’s subplots. Of the books, The Miserable Mill was overall inconsequential and remains one of my least-loved in the series… hence why I love this episode. There’s so much good in this plot that I forgot about! Phil, the optimist in the midst of a woeful environment, charms without grating and without being any less dumb than the other adults. Count Olaf and his henchmen know when to stay in the shadows and when to bring out the hilarious antics that sometimes wore thin in previous episodes. I didn’t mention this element before, but the shots where Violet ties her hair with a ribbon are fantastic— the blocking, camera angles, and music all turn an idiosyncratic motion into a moment akin to Bruce Wayne putting on the Batsuit. Like I said, this episode isn’t much of an ending to anything… though as a series’ continuation, it’s inspiring in a way the season’s final scene would deny.

 

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Now THERE’S an orphan stuck in a series of tragedies. And now that I think about it, both franchises have a lot in common…

CONCLUSION

Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events starts great, and then spins its wheels a bit for Part 2 and Part 3 before ending on a high note. The show takes some liberties with the books, as expected, but those changes help bolster a faithful undertaking. Its comedy leans on a lot of anti-humor, and often isn't belly-laugh inducing; if you can't get in to the weird world, or usually end up interpreting shows literally, then there are other Netflix series out there for you instead. Still, the show provides a silly and morose time for all! Show the series to your kids, and you might find yourself watching too… though you really should look away.

Published by Nick Edinger