[WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1.]
The tale of the Baudelaire children, orphaned and sent to live with the horrid Count Olaf is not a happy one. It is a story filled with tragedy and woe and many an untimely death. That the three Baudelaires manage to persevere would be a miracle if not for the series demonstrating what capable and independent children they are, each with their own abilities – Violet’s inventiveness, Klaus’ keen mind, Sunny’s very sharp teeth – which allow them to survive the titular string of unfortunate events.
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a weird show, reveling in the bleak prospects of the Baudelaires and the absurdity of their situation. It is also a show that aims to educate its audience not only in vocabulary and story structure but in acceptance – whether that be learning to cope with loss, accepting the finality of death, or learning to recognize the truth, no matter how awful, and accepting it as reality. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a story with a dark and foreboding atmosphere that hints at a larger and far more complicated mystery, suggesting that the tale of the young Baudeliares and their plight is only one piece of the puzzle.
It should come as no surprise, then, that choosing to adapt this series of novels (no matter how short) across a season of eight episodes proves to be a much wiser decision than adapting those same novels (even just three or four of them) in the span of a single film. Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events benefits immensely from its length, with the events of a single novel given a full two episodes in which to be told. That not only allows for a pattern to emerge, with each pair of episodes seeing the Baudelaire children put in a dire situation and then cleverly navigating out of it, but it allows for its season 1 finale to deviate from that pattern ever slightly – toying with our notions of what will happen and setting the stage for where the series goes in season 2.
The final two episodes, “The Miserable Mill Part One & Two” sees the Baudelaires again escape the clutches of Count Olaf by sneaking away to the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. It’s the first place they go to that they themselves chose to visit, having found a photograph of their parents standing in front of said mill. And while being a destination of their own choosing doesn’t make Lucky Smells more pleasant than any of their previous stops, it does bring them a little closer to their parents – not literally, of course, something that the ending of “The Miserable Mill Part One” makes abundantly clear, but closer to understanding the sort of people their parents really were and their own role in that legacy.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is, in part, the story of the Baudelaire children and the terrible things that happen to them after their parents’ deaths, but it is other stories as well: Lemony Snicket’s re-telling of the Baudelaire’s misfortune, often interspersed with asides about his own sad life, and the story of the two other secret agents, also a married couple and trying desperately to return home to their children. The reveal that the Mother (Cobie Smolders) and Father (Will Arnett) we’ve been following alongside the Baudelaire children are, in fact, not their parents is a huge surprise, one the series manages to keep hidden through some great misdirection. Unless viewers were well-read on all the books (as your humble reviewer was not) then it’s a reveal that upends much of what had been assumed about the series’ direction, making where A Series of Unfortunate Events goes next season all the more intriguing.
There’s a reveal concerning Lemony Snicket, too, that is sure to surprise – Count Olaf and he not only attended the same school but, at least judging by the photograph shown, were close friends. It isn’t nearly as shocking as the prospect that the Baudelaire’s parents are well and truly dead (and so it seems are the mysterious Mother and Father by the end of season 1), but it does clear up why Snicket feels so compelled to relay to us the truth. Snicket, the Baudelaire’s parents, the other married couple, Aunt Josephine, Dr. Georgina Orwell, and even Count Olaf were all at one point members of the same secret organization. And learning the purpose of that organization, how the Baudelaire children factor in, and whatever else they discover about it and its agents while at boarding school, is what’s ahead for next season.
In addition to its growing mystery, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a compelling watch because of its unusual mixture of styles. One the one hand, it’s very dark and moody and reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, but it never becomes overly macabre like a Burton production would. It’s also charming and very twee, not so unlike the work of Wes Anderson, but again avoids over indulging in that sort of hipster vibe. The series’ tone, as well, is pitch perfect for the story being told – it’s funny, sometimes dryly and other times more outright, but always in a way that points towards the ridiculousness of what’s happening.
There’s also a commentary running throughout which suggests that just because someone is an adult or put in charge of something, it doesn’t necessarily make them responsible or trustworthy or deserving. Repeatedly, the Baudelaire children are pitted against adults who, even when they do have the children’s best interests in mind, fail to actually help them – either because they are incompetent (like Mr. Poe or Charles) or because they’re actively working against them (like Count Olaf or Sir). The lesson here is to be self-reliant and question authority, just as the Baudelaires do, and to understand that accepting the truth of reality doesn’t mean we must be satisfied with it.
As already mentioned in our premiere review, the cast of A Series of Unfortunate Events is fantastic. Neal Patrick Harris plays Count Olaf and his many alter-egos in earnest, making him both a sinister and pathetic villain. Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket is sublime, elevating the adaptation with his woeful account of the Baudelaire’s misfortune while also slowly letting us in on the larger mystery at hand. As the three Baudelaire children, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith are wonderful, with Weissman and Hynes in particular bringing a maturity needed for such sensible young persons. And the long list of special guest stars – Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Catherine O’Hara, Don Johnson, Rhys Darby – are each great additions to the cast, playing up the often ridiculous nature of their characters to great effect.
Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is weird, charming and quaint, but also honest in its portrayal of people – especially the seemingly responsible adults – as fallible, flawed individuals. It’s a witty show, filled with clever wordplay and asides that not only further explain the multiple stories being told but the very structure of story-telling. As children’s entertainment goes, A Series of Unfortunate Events is special in that it’s enjoyable for all ages but also enlightening, imparting lessons that everyone would do well to keep in mind.
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1 is available to stream on Netflix.