Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” can be a rather complicated show to explain succinctly, but the new Netflix original series is clear about one point at the onset and throughout: You shouldn’t watch it.
Though I have to vehemently disagree with such advice, each episode opens with Neil Patrick Harris begging audiences to avert their eyes (via an opening song, aptly titled “Look Away”). Patrick Warburton (as Lemony Snicket) then cautions, directly to camera, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you’d be better off somewhere else.” Even the musical number closing Season 1 circles around the line, “You might dream that justice and peace win the day, but that’s not how this story goes.”
Yet despite such adamant counsel from adult characters, the children at the center of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” — much like its expected and deserved audience — continue to push onward. Faced with unfathomable despair, Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and baby Sunny never give up hope. The Baudelaire kids persevere using reason, logic, truth, and kindness as weapons against the ignorance and anger that oppress them; ignorance from those meant to protect them, and anger from those meaning to do them harm.
Could children watching at home ask for lessons more suitable, skills more pertinent, or an allegory more fitting for the world facing them in 2017? I think not.
With America in upheaval after a contentious and potentially catastrophic election, many citizens see the future as an unwelcoming, frightening place. Stories have been written imploring readers to fight back, now more than ever, but the temptation to distance ourselves from such fears is instinctive. As we’re drawn — daily, it seems — to recede from reality and give in to the self-serving powers that threaten our freedom, we all need a rallying cry; a reminder of what’s right; a role model, hero, or exemplary individual from which to draw courage.
And from the doom and gloom threatening to suffocate Lemony Snicket’s imaginary world springs to life a person fit to embolden those of us in the real one — three persons, really.
The Baudelaire children, in Netflix’s expensive new adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” represent so much more now than they have in the past. For those unfamiliar with the popular novels (and less popular 2004 feature film), Season 1 covers the first four books in a 13-book series by splitting up each book into two episodes. Wisely keeping run times between 42-50 minutes (sans one episode), the challenging transformation from page to screen comes across as smoothly as possible — despite the tremendously tragic story being told.
As touched upon above, Lemony Snicket isn’t a real person. He’s a character. Despite Snicket’s name being listed as the author of the novels, devout readers are well aware Lemony is the story’s narrator and pen name for the real writer, Daniel Handler (who writes and produces the series using his real name). Here, executive producer and creative force Barry Sonnenfeld (who also directs four episodes) uses Snicket as an onscreen character guiding viewers from plot point to plot point as he deftly unveils the tragedy he’s beholden to tell. When Patrick Warburton wanders on screen, pops out of a sewer grate, or stands in front of the most magnificent sets built for the small screen, he speaks directly to the camera as both an omniscient narrator and a largely invisible yet still present character in the story.
Snicket’s personal story is relatively hidden until the end. [Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 1 follow.] As eluded to in a photograph shown near the end of episode eight, it turns out Snicket and Count Olaf were classmates at the Prufrock Preparatory School, where the Baudelaire children are left at the conclusion of the season. Book readers know a bit more about what’s coming next, as well as Snicket and Olaf’s relationship, but how that will be explored in future seasons should still prove fascinating for all viewers.
It might be tricky given the primary focus of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is always that of the highly intelligent Baudelaire family (even if Snicket’s retelling of their story proves equally charming): Nary a second passes in the series before we know the clan’s darkest tragedy: The children’s parents die in a fire and, before they can be sent to their proper guardian, the evil Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) takes on the role by tricking a gullible banker (K. Todd Freeman). In search of the family fortune, Olaf tries many a tactic to steal the children’s trust, all while making Violet, Klaus, and Sunny absolutely miserable.
To go along with this, the first season’s biggest twist is two-fold: First, we’re made to believe the Baudelaire parents are still alive. Rather than dying in the fire that consumed their home, it appears as though they were taken against their will. (The fact they’re played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders is a nice little surprise by itself, and one Netflix executives were very strict about protecting until the series’ release.) Throughout the eight episodes, we watch as the couple tries to get back to their children…only to learn in “The Miserable Mill: Part One” (Episode 7) that they’re not the Baudelaire parents at all. They’re merely fellow members of the Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) who had their own, different children in need of help.
How they play into future season should prove fun, especially as we learn more and more about the real Baudelaire parents. There’s quite a story there, as readers know, and the way in which Sonnenfeld and Handler set up the big reveal in Season 1 leads us to believe future shocks should be equally rewarding.
[Editor’s Note: No spoilers will appear from this point forward. Everyone can read from here on out.]
Yet anyone in need of extra inspiration need look no further than these three kids. No matter what Olaf throws their way, the unshakable trio meets it with optimism, creative thinking, and carefully researched facts. While older audiences may go googly-eyed for the lavish production (and rightfully so), viewers of all ages shouldn’t overlook the overall resiliency of the Baudelaires. Not only does the trio provide hope in their good character and unending pursuit of justice, but they may also remind those twice, thrice, or four times their age (and even older still) just what’s needed to set things right again; for the light to conquer the dark.
And “A Series of Unfortunate Events” doesn’t skimp on the dark. Its world as black as night, a dark, desolate space absent of life save for a few quickly vanishing shelters, “Lemony Snicket’s” sets blatantly parallel the black or beating hearts of the residents with these appropriately shadowed or vivid dwellings. Count Olaf’s home is designed to be a filthy, unwelcoming pit from entrance to exit. Each new room is constructed to amplify just how awful its new inhabitants’ plight has turned. Dishes ooze with molded leftovers. The backyard is utterly devoid of greenery. Newspapers (opened and rolled up) litter the ground, as if the roof above is the only thing separating Olaf’s lair from a life on the streets (as noted by Violet). There are bright spots here and there, but even when in sight, they remain out of reach for the Baudelaires — such as a loving judge (Joan Cusack) living in a beautiful home just across the street.
Yet hope springs eternal, even before the children are forced to confront their new lives. When they visit the beach at their parents bidding, it’s overcast and cold, filled with gray sand that looks like dust, and generally devoid of the traditional joys associated with the setting. Yet, unperturbed by the sight (or their trolly conductor’s advice to go somewhere else), the three children use their natural talents (Sunny has some strong teeth), acquired knowledge (they’re budding inventors and scholars), and inexplicable hopefulness to find joy in their frightful setting.
Such traits should be embedded in our nation’s youth. Whether children of varying ages pick up on the topical content or not doesn’t matter, for they’ll be delivered their future survival gear nonetheless: knowledge, perseverance, and hope. Just as the blunt-in-message and beautiful-to-behold production design works in the series’ favor by leaning into its allusions, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” proves as inspirational and endearing as it claims to be forlorn and heartbreaking. Not enough can be said for Neil Patrick Harris’ extensively ranged, yet perfectly measured performance, nor Sonnenfeld’s dedicated eye for depraved detail amid a story built on heart and hope.
But it’s the kids that drive this series — for all of us.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 1 is now streaming all eight hour-long episodes Friday, January 13 on Netflix.