Thoughts on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season One

I’ve watched Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events in its entirety now, and there’s a lot to talk about. This post will be part review, part analysis, and part comparison between the books and the show. The first third of the post contains no spoilers, but the next two thirds do, for the books and the show, and I’ve put a disclaimer in at that point.

For reference, and so I don’t have to explain it later, this is the basic plot: Three children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are orphaned when their parents die in a fire which destroys their home. The parents leave behind an enormous fortune, which cannot be accessed until the eldest Baudelaire comes of age. The children are moved from guardian to guardian, always pursued by the villainous Count Olaf, who schemes to steal their inheritance, and is ruthless in his pursuit of this goal. Violet Klaus and Sunny survive by their inventive thinking, extensive knowledge, and ability bite things (respectively.)

So, here we go:

If You Haven’t Read the Books …

If you’ve never read the books, I highly recommend the show. I don’t know if it’s better or worse to have read the books, but I’m confident that it stands by itself as a terrific work of art. There is nothing like it on TV, and for good reason.

Photo courtesy of Joe Lederer/Netflix

Imagine if a showrunner spent seven years writing hundreds of pages of stories and characters and settings, and wrote all of them in the voice of the show’s narrator. Imagine they worked with a designer who drew hundreds of pieces of concept art detailing the looks of characters, props, and sets. Imagine if the showrunner also composed and performed thirteen songs to go along with different parts of the show (though not to be actually used in the show.) And imagine they had a decade after that time in which they continued thinking about the show, and expanded on the background of the narrator by writing a few hundred more pages about his childhood in this same world.

That, of course, would be absurd, but because of the way this all developed, it’s essentially what happened. And while this could be said of many shows and movies adapted from books, the difference here is that the original creator usually isn’t the one writing the screenplays. Daniel Handler, author of the book series, is also the screenwriter for every episode of the Netflix series (and although he’s not the showrunner, he is an EP.) The result is an uncompromising vision of a world and the characters who inhabit it. The music, set design, and writing are all of a cohesive style—one which is confidently gothic, bizarre, and witty. The show is highly engaging, full of wonderful(ly wry) commentary from the narrator, beautiful(ly ugly) sets, and charming(ly villainous) performances. At times I had doubts about the direction the show was going, the portrayal of a character, or the handling of a particular scene, but never, throughout watching the entire show, did I feel I could look away. I expect that kids will devour it.

If you have read the books, you will also probably love it, unless you love the books for some particular reason which the show has altered. In that case, I’d advise you to pretend that the series has nothing to do with the books, and enjoy it for what it is.

Perform — *cough* *cough* *cough* — Perf — *cough*  P — *cough* *cough* Performances

The performances are all terrific, from Lemony Snicket to Sunny to the new character they created because they realized that vilifying people who don’t look distinctly male or female is offensive, everyone does a terrific job embodying their characters. As a kid I listened to the audiobooks for Unfortunate Events a lot, which were narrated by Tim Curry (you can listen to a sample of that here.) His readings of all the characters are kind of my Platonic ideals for them. However, every actor in this show managed something incredible—they made me forget my childhood conceptions of the voice and tone of the characters, and instead enjoy their own renditions of them.

And K. Todd Freeman was probably my favorite. Whereas Curry portrayed Mr. Poe as a stodgy old Dickensian banker, Freeman plays him as a more energetic, middle-class banker with upper-class aspirations, who is more willfully ignorant than ignorant by nature. Maybe it’s the cough. With Curry’s performance, it seemed like the cough was intentional—like Mr. Poe was constantly needing to cough, and he would take the liberty to clear his throat even in the middle of a tense situation, because he was just so unconcerned. Freeman’s Poe seems to always be surprised by the cough, like it attacks him out of nowhere, which I find hilarious. He tries so hard so speak in this very clear, reasonable, effete voice, and use precise words, and explain those words, and just as he’s explaining something—BAM! He coughs directly into someone’s face. It’s a little twist of irony to the performance that I loved. The biggest laughs I got from this series were from Freeman’s oddly timed coughs, which caught me by surprise every time.

I also have to talk about Lemony Snicket and Count Olaf. Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket is obviously great. You can instantly see this just from watching his narration in the teaser. He’s great.

Now, Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. He’s also really good. He manages to strike the right amount of silliness with all the disguises Count Olaf comes up with (which is to say, not much silliness—the disguises are so absurd to begin with that Harris just playing them straight works wonderfully) and he can get very menacing when he needs to. I would’ve liked a little more menace and a little less bumble, but that’s partly the writing. Essentially, the biggest hurdle with Count Olaf is that he needs to be able to wear “a turquoise blazer that was so brightly colored that it made the Baudelaires squint, and a pair of silver pants decorated with tiny mirrors …” (The Vile Village 157) and still be terrifying. This duality of Count Olaf is fundamental to the series, the tragedy and darkness of it—Olaf is someone whose charm and conman-swagger are mesmerizing to watch, and who, at the same time, you would never want to be alone in a room with. And Neil Patrick Harris nails this.

Dear Viewer

I’m so glad that the show makes liberal use of Lemony Snicket. Although the impulse in adaptation might be to remove the narrator entirely, or only use him at the beginnings and endings of episodes, that would be a terrible idea for A Series of Unfortunate Events. The narrator is such an integral component of the books—the tone, the humor, the pacing, all take direction from the narrator—that removing Snicket would be like removing all the soliloquies from Shakespeare—or, for a more modern example, removing all of Frank Underwood’s turn-to-the-camera moments from House of Cards. The execution of Snicket’s monologues is perfect, never jarring the viewer out of the scene, and, as I said, wonderfully delivered by Patrick Warburton.

However. I can’t help but feel there are some missed opportunities. The books are supposedly the accounts of the Baudelaire orphans’ various misadventures, as compiled by Lemony Snicket from his research. At the end of each book is a letter to the editor, describing where to find the hidden location of the manuscript detailing the next segment of the Baudelaires’ lives—the next book in the series. On the back of each book, Snicket makes some reference to the fact that it is his obligation, or he has taken a solemn vow, to record the lives of the Baudelaires and make them known to the public. Essentially, there is a story built up around why the books exist, and what they are in the world of the series.

So what is this show, in the world of the series? This isn’t really something wrong with the show, but I can’t help but feel that there are so many missed opportunities here, both to broaden the world, and to meta-textually (meta-cinematically?) reference aspects of television production. To get an idea of what I mean, you can watch this teaser where they essentially did exactly what I’m talking about. The fact that they wrote this teaser in the way they did, and wrote the teaser well after the show had been written, makes me hope that Handler will explore, and make use of this kind of discourse in the next season. If not, it’s no detriment to the show—just a missed opportunity.

Now, past this image of Patrick Warburton I discuss explicit plot elements of the first season of the show, as well as the first seven books of the series. If you do not wish to read any plot information ahead of reading the books or watching the show then, as the theme song of Unfortunate Events advises, “Look away.”

Photo courtesy of Joe Lederer/Netflix

Adoption Law & You

One area where the show improves on the books is the side characters. The show provides an opportunity to spend more time alone with them, and even with Count Olaf. The books are written in a kind of third-person omniscient which jumps between the heads of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, so there’s never a scene that isn’t delivered from the view of one or all of the orphans. It keeps the books moving quickly, with a tight focus. The show dispenses with this, and while it does slow the momentum of the main storylines at times, I think it’s well worth it.

The best example I can think of is Justice Strauss. Part of the tragedy of the ending of The Bad Beginning is not just that Count Olaf escapes, but that the orphans are denied their wish to live with Justice Strauss. I’ve read The Bad Beginning many times, and I always find this turn of events somewhat sad, but compared to the many other horrible things that happen to the Baudelaires, its not so impactful. However, by developing Justice Strauss further, and just showing a single shot of her reading a book titled “Adoption Law & You,” the tragedy of the situation struck me in a completely different way—not only are the orphans disappointed that they won’t get to live with Justice Strauss, but Justice Strauss is disappointed that this chance, which is probably her only chance to have kids, is being taken away. This is one of the best things the show can do that the books can’t—expand on the theme of unfairness, grief, and tragedy by exploring other characters. The show does a similar thing with the Quagmires, which I’ll explain in the next section.

Thank Christ the Baudelaire Parents are Dead

I’m not sure about the handling of the characters “Mother and Father.” “Mother” and “Father” are the VFD agents shown at the end of each episode getting into or out of some kind of trouble, all the while trying to make it back to their kids. Eventually it’s revealed that they are not the Baudelaires (thank Christ), but actually the Quagmire parents, and shortly after they are killed in a fire.

There are good aspects and bad aspects. The good aspect is that this gives the viewer a more direct connection to the Quagmires, and makes their situation more tragic. In the books, I’ve never felt much for the Quagmires (at least not in the first half of the series) because we don’t get to see their grief the way we do with the Baudelaires. And while the scattered scenes with the Quagmire parents aren’t exactly in-depth, it did strike more of a chord with me to see Duncan and Isadora alone at the end of episode eight than it did to just read them saying that their parents are dead.

The bad aspects. First, it is way too heavily implied that they are the Baudelaire parents, to the point where I was one hundred percent convinced that they were the Baudelaires for the first four episodes—and it left a bad taste in my mouth whenever they were on screen. The Baudelaire parents being alive would undercut so much of the sadness, and the scariness of these books. The fact that the orphans have no home to return to, and no parents to solve their problems for them, is critical to the story. Implying that this is not the case, for someone who has read the books, sets a bad expectation for the show. For someone who hasn’t read the books, this probably isn’t a problem.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the books, I disliked that the parents act like such emotionless creeps. Whether they’re Quagmires or Baudelaires, they seem like psychopaths. They’re members of a secret society whose enemies are always a mortal threat, and they’re away from their kids—aren’t they scared, even a little bit? Aren’t they tense? Why are they so ridiculously suave? (Compare to this scene from The Incredibles to see what I mean.) That was another reason their scenes left a bad taste in my mouth. Also violence. I’m not sure how I feel about them being so quick to jump to violence, rather than other, more intelligence-based methods. They’re Quagmires though, so I guess it’s fine.

Photo courtesy Joe Lederer/Netflix

Villainous Cabal

A change from the books is the fact that each book (except the first) featured just one of Count Olaf’s accomplices, or two in the case of the pair of women with powdered faces. In the show, for books two and three the entire troupe shows up. On the one hand, I like the way that each book was able to put a spotlight on a particular member of the group—but on the other hand, the troupe works terrifically as an ensemble in the show, so getting to see them all is fun. The only reason I’m even bringing this up is that I think they mishandled it at the end of book two. There’s five of them (six with Count Olaf) against two children, a baby, and Mr. Poe. They so greatly outnumber them, and they’re out in this house in the countryside, far away from any people, and yet they still go through this charade that they’re detectives and police officers. They could murder Poe, or knock him unconscious, and steal the orphans if they wanted. It makes Count Olaf seem soft, like some kids show villain that inexplicably never resorts to violent force.

That said, this is probably specific to the fact that this is the only one of the earlier books where everyone’s in an isolated location, so I look forward to seeing more of the gang in the next season.

Uncle Monty vs. Aunt Josephine

It seems that with this series Daniel Handler is taking a second pass at the books, making changes that he would’ve made when he first wrote them, if he knew what the whole series would be at the time. There’s the deepening of some side characters, and also the explanation of some things that don’t quite make sense, like why the Baudelaires are first sent to Olaf, and why they’re then sent to relatives that they’ve never heard of before. He also introduces VFD, or at least the element of a secret society, from the very beginning, and weaves this plot throughout every episode. I’m generally pleased with these changes, but at times they seem mishandled, and rather than making more sense, they confuse. To demonstrate this, I’m going to compare Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine.

Uncle Monty’s fatal flaw is his arrogance—the fact that he regards himself as such an important member of the Herpetological Society that he doesn’t realize his new assistant Stefano is Count Olaf, and he instead believes that Stefano is a spy trying to scoop his research. In the show, he is also a member of VFD, and an encoded message from the secret society is what prompts his trip to Peru, rather than scientific purposes in the book.

This alters his character, and how we understand his downfall, in a few ways. First of all, it is unclear whether his interest in herpetology supersedes his interest in VFD. On the one hand he’s willing to drop everything he’s doing and take a voyage to Peru for the sake of VFD, but on the other hand he’s still fixated on his research enough to believe that Stefano is a herpetological spy. If you were a member of VFD, entrusted with the care of the orphaned children of other VFD members, and you received a message saying that the children were in danger, and coinciding with your adoption of the orphans some stranger showed up and inserted himself into your life, would you be sooner to suspect that the stranger was out for you, or out for the kids? Maybe you’d be sooner to suspect that they were out for you, if you had intense tunnel-vision and only cared about your research. That could be a really interesting wrinkle in Monty’s character, but from the way he’s presented, it seems like his research takes a backseat to his VFD membership rather than the other way around. Essentially, Handler added the VFD thread without adjusting anything else about Monty, and instead of clarifying things, it made his character more muddy.

On the other hand, the VFD thread is integrated perfectly with Aunt Josephine. By showing her connection with the secret society, and with the Baudelaire parents, we see another side to her character—a “formidable”, brave side, which makes her current paranoid state all the more sad. If her connection to VFD had just been added without any further development of her character, it would’ve made no sense—what use would VFD have for some grammarian who’s too afraid of everything to even answer the phone? It seems like in the book, there are a lot of missed opportunities in Josephine’s backstory. In the book, Josephine has always been afraid, even before Ike died, and always loved grammar too. By joining Josephine’s retreat into fear, and her obsession with grammar, with the death of her husband, the series makes meaning of all these character traits. They’re not just arbitrary quirks, they’re elements of the psychosis of someone who has lost the love of their life.

If the show continues to connect previously unconnected characters to VFD, as it seems it will, I hope they take the Aunt Josephine route, and use it as an opportunity to further develop and complicate the characters, rather than just inserting the connection without any effort to recalibrate the character so that it makes sense.

The Girl and the Boy and the Other Girl who Lived

Remember when I said that if the show altered some particular thing about the books that you loved, then you might not like the show? Well, this is kind of like that, except in some points the alteration doesn’t bother me, and at some points it does. And I still love the show regardless. Anyway:

One of the major themes in A Series of Unfortunate Events that I’ve always really connected with is the idea of self-reliance. The whole series starts with everything being taken away from the Baudelaires, except each other. They have no parents to run to, no home to go back to, no books or inventions or teething rings of their own. And while they do have guardians, the guardians are often too negligent, foolish, or outright callous to help them. So many children’s books involve the children going through some system, being mentored by some special person—but the Baudelaires are really on their own for the majority of the books.

Some people complain that, in these books, all the adults are either evil or dumb as rocks, to which I would counter, art imitates life. I went to a school that had some great teachers, but I had no sense of destiny guiding me, nor any teachers that were really great mentors for the career I wanted to pursue. And there were plenty of teachers who were either willfully rude and abusive, or nice enough, but completely incompetent. While Harry Potter (and books like it) tells a story of a kid progressing, in a more or less orthodox way, through an academic program until he’s competent enough to abandon it and strike out on his own (only a year earlier than when he would’ve graduated), A Series of Unfortunate Events tells a story of a group of kids who are repeatedly burned by the failure of their systematically designated guardians, and develop self-reliance out of necessity, until they eventually (about halfway through the series) strike out on their own. I’m not saying that these are the core stories or the main messages of these books, but they’re there. I think it’s important that kids read both types of stories, but few books really go for the second type as much as ASOUE does.

So I had a bad feeling in the first few episodes seeing the VFD agents running around like the Baudelaires were The Chosen Ones that they were protecting. It cuts down the feeling of desperation and helplessness to see that Jacqueline and Gustav are watching out for the kids in the back of the auditorium. It undermines the feeling of self-reliance and independence when Jacqueline is muttering cryptic lines to Klaus in Uncle Monty’s hedge maze. Things got better in the Wide Window episodes, because in these the VFD agent is almost completely incapacitated, and it feels like there’s really no safety net for the Baudelaires like there was at Uncle Monty’s or in the theatre. This feeling is most present in the Miserable Mill episodes, when there are no VFD agents around. This is part of why I enjoyed the second half of the show better than the first, and I hope in the future the VFD agents are handled the way they are in these latter episodes.

Hopes for the Future

I am so excited for the next season of this show, and the one after that. I’ve mentioned some of my wishes for the next seasons throughout this post, so to reiterate, I’m hoping  for better handling of VFD, continual to deepening of side characters (especially the Quagmires), and more meta-cinematic fun. I’m also looking forward to seeing what Handler has planned. I get the feeling that he’s setting up for some changes in the plot, similar to the changes to plot in The Miserable Mill, and because I really enjoyed those new twists in this season, I’m eager to see what else he has in store.

In the meantime I’m going to keep rereading the rest of the series and posting reviews, because I lugged all the books I haven’t yet reread up to Iowa with me in my carry-on, and I will not let that back-pain go to waste.

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