In Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the adult world is a terrible parent to our kids, a broken culture of exploiters, predators, and dumb, dulled, despairing people who can’t be trusted to properly care for themselves, lest the most vulnerable among us. It’s darkly comic fantasy about child endangerment and timely evil that adds up to a miserably pessimistic philosophical statement. Somehow, it’s not thoroughly depressing, but an entertaining screwball fable for these topsy-turvy, post-truth times.
Meet the Baudelaire siblings, keen of mind, strong of spirit, savvy about their limitations, better together — role model heroes for our quagmire culture. They’re impeccably cast and well played. Klaus (Louis Hynes) is a lover of books and knowledge. Violet (Malina Weissman) is a natural-born engineer. Sunny, their baby sister (Presley Smith, stealing scenes with some CG assistance), is a human bulls— detector with a single tooth that can chew through anything. They are blessings in bloom, the incarnate promise of all that ‘children are the future” pop song jazz. They are also linked to a fantastic fortune, so when their beloved but often absent parents die under suspicious circumstances, they become hunted by a villain who’ll stop at nothing to become their guardian and seize their treasure.
He is Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a vampiric con-man and washed-out thespian insistent on his own greatness. For this hideous ham, all the world is a reality-show stage, and we are but chumps to play or clapping monkey to praise him. He embodies the corruption of our times – a vain, craven prevaricator, and starved for significance by any means necessary, and transparently so. And yet, only the Baudelaires have eyes to see through his evil, not to mention his wardrobe of ridiculous disguises that he employs to infiltrate their lives. Nerd scientist. Salty sea captain. Breathless, big-boobed secretary. Every attack on the Baudelaire kids is an opportunity to both press his agenda and perform, just like a Donald Trump press conference. He’s assisted by a troupe of goons who serve as muscle and extras in his vaudeville of evil.
His shtick and schemes make an absurd mockery of the truth. But it resonates as all-too-believable in this alarmingly gullible, fake news age. Every grown-up in a position to help the kids – including the ones genuinely interested in their flourishing – is too blinded by their own flaws to recognize the bad actor in their midst, too compromised by their own pain to not be easily manipulated by this cunning creep, from the righteous judge (Joan Cusack) across the street from Olaf who always wanted to walk the boards herself, to the perpetually grieving widow (Alfre Woodard) who can’t let go of her sadness. The Baudelaires move from guardian to guardian at the direction of the well-meaning but utterly clueless banker who manages their trust, and every story is the story of Count Olaf blowing up their shot at happiness or stability but failing to get what he really wants. There’s a bigger story playing out in the margins – details concerning a secret society of do-gooding adventurers that communicates via coded films — and in a subplot that reveals the Baudelaire parents are very much alive, albeit also constantly imperiled. Can this family survive their hijacked lives and reunite? What will these kids lose – who will they become? – as they come of age amid mounting, unchecked mayhem that makes mincemeat of truth, justice, and meaning itself?
I know the answer to the question; I’ve read the books. Adapted from the 13-volume cycle of slender, densely clever tomes written by Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler, A Series of Unfortunate Events comes from Handler himself (safeguarding his creation and voice with great care) and filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family), who was originally slated to helm the 2004 movie directed by Brad Silberling (Land of the Lost, TV’s Jane the Virgin), a franchise non-starter with Jim Carrey as Olaf. A phenom buoyed by the trailblazing success of Harry Potter, the Unfortunate Events series was a more idiosyncratic work that nonetheless helped establish characteristics of the current YA pop deluge – subversive; dystopian; tales of lost innocence featuring kids forced to grow up way too fast. The first season takes on the first four novels, each book getting a two-part episode, à la the ’60s Batman TV series. Sonnenfeld directs five of the eight installments, and he tackles the lost opportunity with a vengeance. It’s his best work in years.
Working with production designer Bo Welch, Sonnenfeld creates a delightfully baroque and busy pocket universe encoded with an array of cultural allusions, much like the books themselves. There’s some Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Olaf’s mansion, some White Zombie! in the plot of “The Miserable Mill.” The sets are massive, expressionist expressions of personality and chockablock with details. Sonnenfeld’s blocking of actors, camera moves, and compositions crackle with creativity and energy; it feels like a musical, and not just the occasional musical scenes. Sonnenfeld’s storytelling showmanship recalls the zany, hyper-genre pop of Pushing Daisies (he helmed the pilot for Bryan Fuller’s cult classic) and his cinematography work on early Coen Brothers films. Like Raising Arizona but bleaker, Unfortunate Events is basically a live-action Road Runner cartoon, with Olaf in the Wile E. Coyote part.
There’s impish artifice to everything, from the visuals to the screwball banter to the love of puns, irony, and meta. Olaf makes cracks about binge watching and TV’s displacement of cinema as the medium of our times. These choices are amusing, but even better, meaningful to a story about children fighting for meaning in a world gone sinister and cray-cray, about a charlatan Mesmer who specializes in gaslighting. In fact, two ways in which our heroes express their heroism – and refuse to be victims – is their scientific orientation in a world swamped with unreality and their command of language. A recurring gag involves the kids recognizing how words are being abused and misused and correcting the dim and deceitful adults in their midst on the definition of words.
Patrick Warburton, playing the on-camera narrator, Lemony Snicket, makes a significant, winning contribution to the show’s voice. He presents as a journalist chronicling the saga in retrospect, although he might be something more, to both Baudelaires and Olaf. He nurses a broken heart; he addresses his missives to a lost love, Beatrice. He delivers his reports and performs his storytelling functions (character intros, explanatory context, segues between scenes) with such deadly serious earnestness and grave language that you expect him to break character, go “JK!” and prove himself an unreliable narrator, but he’s not. He’s an embodiment of everything that’s suddenly missing from the Baudelaire experience of the world – straight-shooting sincerity, grieving compassion, an adult with at least a smidge of integrity. He satisfies on a spiritual level: he’s wish-fulfillment for metaphysical metanarrative and reason for our suffering; he’s our hope that life isn’t just some tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The episodes I liked best were the ones that had a lot of him in it.
Unfortunate Events walks a tightrope of making light of child endangerment and the other serious-minded themes it sweeps up – grief, loneliness, capitalism, class – and creating subversive allegory about those things. Harris, absolutely marvelous as Olaf, embodies the effortless ease of that tricky navigation. The star’s dynamic range and theatrical experience serves the character, and in turn, the character allows him to entertain in a myriad of ways. He’s having a blast, and we share in his delight. He plays the winks and gets his laughs without subverting the reality of the show; he is the reality of the show. He finds the sweet spot of rollicking mirth – potently expressed by the witty, galloping theme song, sung by Harris, warning viewers to “look away, look away” — and biting nastiness. He nails his part in a risky moment in the first hour in which Olaf strikes Klaus across the face, a raw shock that gives Olaf a necessary charge that lingers. (I don’t wish to overstate the edginess, though I’m not sure how to calculate it, either. There’s no blood, no cursing, no sex, nothing unnecessary. Parents, if your kid could handle the books, they can handle the show.)
Unfortunate Events isn’t perfect. The Baudelaire kids are admirable yet static, limited in their expression of virtue and weakness. While each novel is different in setting, supporting characters, homage, and details, there’s a structural sameness to each of them, too. Not all of them are meaty or compelling enough to justify two episodes, which puts more pressure on the directors who aren’t Barry Sonnenfeld to bring the storytelling pizzazz and maximize the performances. Not all of them do. The drop-off between Sonnenfeld and everyone else isn’t nearly as severe as, say, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, also on Netflix, where no one could possibly match the auteur’s template. Still, the difference is palpable.
Mitigating tedium and repetitiveness: a steady, invigorating stream of great guest actors (including Don Johnson and Catherine O’Hara); 40-minute running times, unusually short for Netflix dramas; and the smart choice of threading into each episode the ongoing intrigue involving the parents, played by a pair of actors I’m not at liberty to identify, gives the show some alluring mystery and a big saga shape that helps keep you hooked for the three-year long haul. A Series of Unfortunate Events is pop culture for dangerous, uncertain times, and a cathartic fantasy to inaugurate the age of Trump. A-