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Throughout A Series of Unfortunate Events, the viewer is constantly encouraged to avert their gaze and watch something more cheerful. At one point, the series narrator, Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), actually begs viewers to cease watching the series and imagine that it has a happier ending than the one they are about to witness.  Despite the highly-rated cast, there were many moments in which I questioned my decision to ignore Snicket’s advice.

Considering the tale’s seemingly severe case of triskaidekaphilia (each of the thirteen novels had thirteen chapters; this series was released on Friday 13th) it feels as if the producers of the show have missed an opportunity by commissioning only 8 episodes in the first season, with two episodes dedicated to each of the first four novels. Based on the thirteen-volume book series by Daniel Handler, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, the series revolves around the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith respectively). After their home is engulfed by a suspicious fire in which their vastly wealthy parents seemingly perish, the children are sent to live with their very distant actor-relative, the conniving and ridiculous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). Olaf has eyes only for the Baudelaire fortune that Violet will inherit when she comes of age and so the crux of the plot involves Olaf and his rag-tag troupe of actor friends embarking on ridiculous and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to secure the orphans’ wealth. Schemes vary from attempting to marry Violet in a sham wedding, to trying to hypnotise the children in order to secure their custody, and usually end with the untimely deaths of the children’s various guardians.

‘there is not a lot wrong with A Series of Unfortunate Events, but there is not a lot right about it either’

Although Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are undoubtedly the victims of the series, it feels hard to sympathise with the unfortunate orphans at times, owing to their frequent outpourings of pretention: quoting Einstein, Proust, and requesting the music of Tito Puente, for example. While the genius and broad knowledge of the Baudelaire children is a useful device to aid them in thwarting Count Olaf’s plans, they seem at times a tad pernickety or even stuck-up, although this is not really a fault of the acting of Weissman and Hynes, which is certainly respectable. This lack of sympathy for the children is also probably aided by the sheer lack of menace demonstrated by Olaf himself. While Harris’ portrayal of the Count succeeds in capturing the flamboyance of the character, it only occasionally shows glimmers of the sort of wicked temperament one would expect from a genuinely evil antagonist. As such, the viewer never really feels as if the children are in any kind of serious danger. Olaf’s troupe of ‘actors’ also bring very little to the series aside from the occasional humorous quip and have the effect of making the ‘bad guys’ seem like a cabal of clowns. The scrabbling awkwardness of Olaf’s hook handed assistant when attempting to use doorknobs, etc. – also at times feels in poor taste. The children’s third guardian, Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard), is absolutely unbearable during episodes five and six and it felt like a relief when her high-pitched pusillanimous rantings about grammar were ended by the leeches of Lake Lachrymose.

The fate of the series is not entirely unfortunate, however, and the final two episodes of the series show great promise for future seasons, of which there are two in the pipeline. The reveal of the characters known only as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ (Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett), of whom we see snippets throughout the series (the parents of Duncan, Quigley, and Isadora Quagmire, characters book readers would not have expected to appear until next season) was brutal and had the effect of really hitting home that the orphans are, in fact, orphans. The link of the Baudelaire children to a secret organisation gains more context in these episodes and successfully leaves the viewer curious for more to be revealed on the subject. Genuine sibling emotion is also shown between the orphans in these final two episodes, something which the other episodes seem a little devoid of. Patrick Warburton’s deadpan portrayal of Snicket also provides useful segues and a splattering of dry humour, but the character’s incessant explanation of terms simple to adults does become quite grating, and also makes it unclear if the show is aimed at children (in which case its language is too advanced) or adults (in which case there is not enough going on).

‘there were many moments in which I questioned my decision to ignore Snicket’s advice’

All in all, there is not a lot wrong with A Series of Unfortunate Events, but there is not a lot right about it either. The show fails to captivate the viewer, despite some reasonable cast performances, and takes on a rather strange air that comes across as neither charming nor quirky. To paraphrase Snicket’s character, there are almost certainly better things to do with you time than to watch this series.

Pete Bartholomew

2/5

Image: Joe Lederer / Netflix

2 replies on “A Series of Unfortunate Events

  1. Totally disagree. This was Netflix’s first attempt at engaging all four major audience demographics and in my opinion, has succeeded. The novels are clearly cyclical and structured as such. That is largely what emphasises the orphan’s plight. Whilst there might be performances that are not to your taste, they are accurate to the novels. The tone also captures what the film could not and is true to the novels, with fantastic art direction and design. I think this review focuses solely on negatives, without even attempting to find positives. That’s a prerogative but seems unfair when other reviewers (having read the novels or not) have found so much to discuss – good and bad. I’m not trying to be inflammatory but I think a closer look at the source material and attempting to find balance would have been helpful when reviewing this!
    P.s: I’m a big fan of you guys at The Panoptic but this review really got up my goat but hey, I’m a fan! Sorry Pete!

    1. I’m sorry you think the review is unfair to the show. You raise good points and if I’m honest I’ve probably been a little harsh here. Certainly compared to the film this is a success, but my personal opinion is that it still doesn’t do the books justice (not yet at least). Perhaps it’s nostalgia for the books (which I read and enjoyed) clouding my judgement. Balance is all well and good, and you’ll notice not all of what I wrote was negative – some areas even received praise – but in order to justify the relatively low mark I gave it I need to explain what I didn’t like about the series. The art direction and design are indeed very good, but for me personally that didn’t do enough to keep me engaged with the show. I hope the following seasons will take their direction from the final two episodes, which I did actually enjoy watching and felt did the books justice. I won’t be writing off the subsequent seasons and hope they are able to change my mind about the series as a whole. Thanks for the feedback. Glad to hear you generally enjoy reading The Panoptic; don’t let my review put you off, some of the other writers are actually quite good!

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