Television

Free of the Movie's Shadow, 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' Makes the Case for More

Deborah Krieger
Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) and Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi) in "The Reptile Room".

The first six episodes grappled with the necessity of the reboot; the last two episodes make the case for a second season.


A Series of Unfortunate Events

Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes
Subtitle: Season 1, Episodes 3 to 8
Network: Netflix
Air date: 2017-01-13
Amazon

Note: This review contains potential spoilers for those fans who have not read the books.

With the first six episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, there was always the opportunity -- and temptation -- to compare their adaptation of the source material to the movie, which unwisely combined the plot of the first three books into one feature film. Where the film had Meryl Streep as the grammarian Aunt Josephine, whose fears of everything from doorbells to real estate agents turned her from formidable to frail, the series has Alfre Woodard giving her own interpretation. Where the movie lacked any kind of racial or ethnic diversity in the cast, the show is clearly devoted to making sure the peculiar guardians and other sundry characters who work in the shadows represent a variety of backgrounds, most notably, Woodard's Josephine, K. Todd Freeman's oblivious Mr. Poe, and Aasif Mandvi's exuberant, ebullient Uncle Monty. In nearly all cases, the more diverse approach to the casting of the Netflix series pays off.

Similarly, the show has the advantage of a complete narrative from which to draw, as I mentioned in my last review. The only question is really how much foreshadowing to employ in each episode, or even each sequence. In the first two episodes, this element of the story was clunky and ill-fitting, and actually lowered my enjoyment of the show as a whole. I felt as if too much of the intrigue was being given away too early, turning the twisty journey into a more typical conspiracy theory plot.

Yet the next six episodes largely handle setting up the mystery in a more organic way. For the discerning fan, Uncle Monty's secretive behavior during the code-laden screening of Zombies in the Snow, and Aunt Josephine's exaggerated and irrational fears have actual weight and narrative importance, especially the latter example: rather than merely being hysterical and strange, Josephine has real trauma stemming from her past involvement with the mysterious V.F.D. and her past work as a "volunteer", as she puts it. As a fan who was devoted enough to set about reading and decoding the supplementary text, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, the benefit of hindsight allows for a richer understanding of these characters, fleeting as their appearances may be.

Woodard's Josephine, unlike Streep's merely hysterical version, is clearly someone who once had nerve, who was actively brave and devoted to her cause, but then suffered losses that shifted her worldview, her spirit, and her priorities, as we learn over the course of "The Wide Window" episodes. Uncle Monty, as played by Mandvi, is also a successful character in this adaptation because he also feels much more integrated into the larger whole of the series, at least for those more informed fans who will pick up his references and hints that the Baudelaire children miss.

The last two episodes, which adapt the fourth book, The Miserable Mill, therefore have an important opportunity: not only do these excursions work to further the narrative of the Baudelaires' endless tragedy and clear away any remnants of the movie, but also argue for the renewal of the series on its own merits and not merely as a corrective to fans' childhoods. The first six episodes had to grapple with the question: "Did we really need a new version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, especially one covering much of the same ground as the disappointing movie?" The last two episodes answer definitively: "Yes, we did, and here's why we need a second season."

The performances from Malina Weissman as Violet and Louis Hynes as Klaus continue to be engaging and even delightful at times, although I do wish we got to see more of Violet inventing things. We get two occasions where the famous hair ribbon motif is employed, but only one small incident of Violet being her creative, mechanically minded self. Profit-obsessed lumber mill boss Sir (Don Johnson), his meek partner Charles (Rhys Darby), and dangerously optimistic worker Phil (Chris Gauthier) are all perfectly played.

The elements of workplace and economic satire at the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill (which I missed when I read this book as a child) are sharp and ironic: Sir pays his employees solely in coupons, allows a five-minute lunch during which the employees can only chew gum, and has no problem hiring a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old, and an infant because it saves money. True to the novels, much of the humor in the series is to be found in Sunny's (Presley Smith) handy subtitles, which allow her to express her incredible awareness of the world around her even if she can't yet speak; her repeated requests for the music of Tito Puente are particularly amusing.

In "The Miserable Mill" episodes, some key changes have been made that do give me pause with regards to a major part of a second season. First, at the end of "The Wide Window, Part 2", the Baudelaires escape Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) in the back of a truck heading for the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill, leading Mr. Poe to try and find them. Yet in the original text, Mr. Poe actually sends the children to work at the Lumber Mill, and the children don't go on the lam until much later. If the Baudelaires run away so early in the television show, and are found so quickly, will it lessen the impact of when the Baudelaires actually do take their lives into their own hands and escape a subsequent guardian? Since the season ends with Mr. Poe taking the children to a new home, it seems that the status quo of the earlier episodes has been restored, so I'm not sure that having the children arrive at the lumber mill as runaways rather than as wards really accomplished anything.

As for the second alteration, it also relates to the longevity of the show: if we see Count Olaf romancing an old girlfriend, the evil optometrist Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), will his relationship with Esme Squalor beginning in the sixth book even be included in a second season? Won't it also reek of repetition and seem like the writers are running out of ideas?

On the other hand, introducing the Quagmire triplets a little earlier than expected actually makes sense, since they also have a similar situation as the Baudelaires: their home is destroyed in a fire that kills their parents, and they also have a large fortune that people want to steal. The final moments of "The Miserable Mill, Part 2", where both sets of children anxiously await their new lives at Prufrock Preparatory School, sets us up, as audience members, to take an interest in the Quagmires themselves, not just as accessories to the story of the Baudelaires. (I also need a second season if only because I need to see Carmelita Spats on my laptop screen, singing awful songs in order to torment everyone around her.) Additionally, the early introduction of Eleanora Poe (Cleo King) not just as Mr. Poe's wife (rather than as his sister), but as a misguided wannabe muckraker, will likely make her upcoming role in the narrative more satisfying.

The weak links of the earlier episodes are still present, yet the pleasures of the deepening story outweigh them to the point where I'm inclined to give the entirety of the series a higher rating. Harris still isn't scary as Count Olaf, and I've given up hope that he'll ever be able to really capture the requisite terror and sinister quality of the iconic villain. The special effects are not great; Sunny seems to be crafted out of weird CGI half the time, which is incredibly jarring.

I'm also still not sure of the wisdom of the decision to give us Lemony (Patrick Warburton) himself in such an open and simple way right off the bat, especially since so much of his character in the original text was based on secrecy, disguises, and all manner of clandestine behavior. Yet some lesser aspects of the first two episodes, as I mentioned earlier, are integrated in a much more satisfying way, especially the inclusion of Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders as a married couple of unknown significance.

By the end of "The Miserable Mill, Part 2", the disparate threads of the Baudelaires' journey, the emerging truth about their parents, the role of Arnett and Smulders, and the connection of Count Olaf to it all, are beginning to tangle. Little mentions of "pony parties" or even a character asking, "if there's nothing [up] there, then what was that noise?" are all gifts to readers like me, who'll recognize their greater significance.

As of this writing, it seems that we'll get a second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events after all. I'm not surprised; nostalgia is seemingly everywhere in media these days, and these books were quite popular when I was younger, even if, unlike Harry Potter, they aren't at the forefront of what the kids are reading these days. The series certainly has potential if it can continue to delicately balance the complex elements, humor, and themes of the books and, after a perfectly adequate start, has managed to ratchet up my excitement in only eight episodes.

7

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