A Quirky, Hilarious, Unfortunate Show for Kids and Adults Alike
Season 1: Netflix/2017
Season 2: Netflix/2018
What’s the very best show on Netflix you’re not watching? It very well may be the series of episodes you dismissed as childish fare.
The third and final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events dropped this month, which is as good an excuse as any to revisit the first two quirky, hilarious, and unfortunate seasons, especially as there’s a good chance you haven’t watched them. Whether you missed it because of Netflix’s excessive content output or because you thought the 2004 Jim Carrey movie was more than enough, you might consider giving the Baudelaires’ tale of woe another shot.
Even as one who grew up reading those quirky, hilarious, and most unfortunate Lemony Snicket novels, I know why the previous movie adaptation would scare you away. Adapting three short novels into one film made more business sense than narrative sense, and even Jude Law’s British narration couldn’t smooth a rushed plot into a satisfactory rhythm. Netflix’s almost-miniseries style fits these novels better, splitting each book into two episodes nearing an hour each. Unlike the feature film, this format provides time for every beat of mystery, comedy, and character development the saga needs.
This series has reminded me how much these books shaped my sense of humor and sparked my interest in ongoing adventures…I suspect the same will be true for this generation as well.
Said saga begins when banker Mr. Poe informs Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith) Baudelaire that their parents have perished—a phrase which here means “were killed”—in a fire. Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) sends them to live with their nearest—a word which here means “most geographically nearby”—relative, Count Olaf (Harris). With more interest in their fortune than their wellbeing, he proves to be as terrible a caretaker as he is an actor. The children escape and shuffle from guardian to guardian, but he always follows in disguise with his acting troupe henchpeople. Because Mr. Poe and the rotating guardians are either hopelessly clueless or hopelessly evil, only Violet’s inventions, Klaus’s research, and Sunny’s sharp teeth can save them from Olaf so they can find a real home.
This version of Unfortunate Events is also more inviting thanks to Neil Patrick Harris. Jim Carrey’s manic and bombastic Count Olaf was a fair interpretation of the tattooed, unibrowed villain, but his scenery chewing chomped through pretty much everything else around him. Harris’s Olaf is more calculating. He sits back as his plot unfolds and draws you to him with his fourth wall-breaking dry wit, not his wild gestures or eccentricities. Whether sporting a fake beard, fake limb, or fake accent (or all of the above at once), Olaf continues to be both the funniest character and the most foul villain across all 18 episodes. Neither of these is an easy feat, but they’re even less likely together in a series with guest stars including Will Arnett, Joan Cusack, Nathan Fillion, Tony Hale, Catherine O’Hara (who, funnily enough, also graced the film), Lucy Punch, Cobie Smulders, and Alfre Woodard.
Perhaps it’s because in Olaf, Snicket developed the perfect antithesis—a word which here means “complete opposite”—to the Baudelaires. The children think outside the box, and Olaf thinks outside the rules. They empathize with others, and he exploits others’ insecurities. They use their intelligence, and he chooses willful ignorance. They refine their talents, and he games the system. The cruel, deluded Olaf is the perfect foil for the kind, self-aware Baudelaires.
Not that he’s the only contrast from our resourceful heroes. The children are our viewpoint characters, just as baffled as we are by this new world of greed and secret societies. In the first two seasons, they traipse through a dilapidated mansion, huge herpetarium, seaside town, dangerous sawmill, boarding school, penthouse suite, rural village, crumbling hospital, and traveling circus. Each setting comes with a visual style inspired by the novels’ original illustrations and with guardians and villains just as colorful. Sweet and skittish, bitter and bratty, dashing and devious, cowardly and cantankerous, vain and volatile, their personalities vary as much as the Narrator stays monotonous.
Said Narrator (Patrick Warburton) is the other secret weapon in this series’ arsenal. Though cryptic about his own identity, he delivers thorough “research” of the Baudelaires’ misfortune in an even-keeled baritone that anchors the wild events unfolding behind him. He pauses to define unusual words and idioms, not just for the benefit of young viewers but to foreshadow events to come and reinforce thematic development. Whether he’s skewering trends, mob mentalities, gossip, poor education, fearmongering, or censorship, he brings an extra dose of humor and needed clarification to this bizarre book adaptation.
The Narrator also creates a focal point in the overarching conversation in this series about the precision of language. The Baudelaires’ bad luck often stems from miscommunications and misunderstandings, accidental or otherwise, and our Narrator is our only reliable source of truth, even as he acknowledges he doesn’t have all of the facts.
His explanations and warnings fit perfectly in this phantasmagoria of tragedy and comedy. Unfortunate Events can be tender when needed, letting us feel the children’s losses, but it never fears to be silly when given the opportunity, all while threading a mystery with perhaps more twists than Harry Potter. This series has reminded me how much these books shaped my sense of humor and sparked my interest in ongoing adventures, and because the distinct vision and strong voice has remained in this adaptation, I suspect the same will be true for this generation as well.