Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events adaptation is everything we hoped it would be–entertaining, fun, mysterious, theatrical, murderous, and quirky. And it’s just season one!
Many of the series’s decade-long fans feel like they’ve waited most of their young adult lives for an ASOUE adaptation that stayed true to the novels. We wanted Count Olaf painted as a hilariously bad actor but also a creepy, unqualified guardian. And, we wished for mystery, a little bit of merriment, and lots more of VFD.
I’m not the first fan to tell you that Netflix did not disappoint. I’m sure Lemony Snicket himself would break the fourth wall to sing the show’s praises in a handsome wool suit and newsboy cap. The adaptation gives fans everything we hoped for and more (including musical numbers and a theme song that grows on you as the series extends.)
The first season, as expected, closely follows the lives of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. Violet, an already expert engineer and inventor, is the eldest and therefore, most responsible of the Baudelaires. A teenager when her misfortune begins, Violet leads the trio, made up of pre-teen, bookish Klaus and baby Sunny with sharp teeth and wit to match, to Briny Beach on a dreary morning.
At the beach, Violet and Klaus Baudelaire–the only two siblings who can talk without the help of subtitles–sing a bit of James Brown and test an invention Violet has crafted. Interrupting their day, the siblings watch Mr. Poe advance from the street and onto the sand. He has come to tell them that their parents have perished in a terrible fire. The faces of the three young children express bewilderment and immediate loneliness.
Thus begins their fate, made up of a series of unfortunate events. The children become orphans on Briny Beach. Their lives have changed forever at the inception of the series and will continue to change as it goes on. And, for a short time, they are tied to a banker who doesn’t really care about their situation or their sadness, which is quite unfortunate, indeed.
We, in a bit of dramatic irony, already having read the books and presently watching a well-crafted TV show, know the Baudelaires aren’t really alone in the world. They have each other. They’ll soon break ties with Mr. Poe after he proves, time and time again, to be useless and without sympathy. And, they have Lemony Snicket.
Snicket’s character appears only to move the narrative along and clue the audience into the world of secret societies and schisms that the Baudelaires (and their parents and friends) inhabit. Snicket doesn’t interact with other characters. The audience knows he visits places that the Baudelaires trod to recount their story and never interact.
It’s a perfect gig for Snicket. Played by Patrick Wharburton, his character is charming, forthcoming, blunt, and void of emotion but full of empathy for the orphans. He’s able to push the agenda of the novels without annoyance. He interrupts scenes to teach words and phrases to the children viewers all the while reminding us that the world is not just black and white. His character is also a bit of comic relief. Snicket adds some much needed fun to the story by tying in a mysterious sub-plot and changing outfits with each new setting.
The first season gives the viewers four settings in all. Each two episodes span one of the early novels, bringing viewers eight, forty-ish minute installments.
Episode one starts at the beach, moves to the Poe’s home, and ends at the home of Count Olaf where episode two kicks off. Episodes three and four move the children to Uncle Monty’s mansion; characterized by its glass reptile room and sunny skies. Episodes five and six take place at the grim Lake Lachrymose with Aunt Josephine. And, episodes seven and eight move to the equally depressing Lucky Smells Lumbermill.
Each setting utilizes drab colors and well-thought out sets to mirror the misfortune the Baudelaires feel. Each new place pairs with a new cast of minor characters. These new guardians add fluidity and freshness to each block of episodes. And, they help to move the narrative along in an near-perfect pace.
Netflix’s long-form format is perfect for the tales of the orphans. Count Olaf makes a snide, and meta, aside to confirm this belief. The format allows the viewer to get comfortable and familiar with each new character, setting, and plot. It also allows the rug to be yanked from under the viewer’s feet as each new character, setting, and plot prove to be unhelpful to the Baudelaire orphans.
Season one manages to explore tragedy, death, secret societies, good vs. evil, and the dissolution of innocence without feeling heavy-handed or too-grim-for-children. These same characteristics played a huge part in the book series’s success and 2004 Nickelodeon movie’s failure. The season allows the villains to be evil and kitschy while remaining horrific. It allows the children to be witty, useful, and knowledgeable without making them seem like they have nothing more to learn or are void of vulnerability. And, the series allows the adults to be drab, sometimes useless, and clueless by making them clouded by their own sorry situations and experiences. This, in turn, makes the plight of the orphans all the more believable and a lot of fun to view.