Exploring the brightness of the dark children’s show.
Execrable is a word which here means “extremely bad or unpleasant.” It is a word which, although appropriately dour in tone, does not actually describe Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is actually an exceptional, thrilling adaptation of a series of thirteen children’s mystery books by Daniel Handler. The show’s freshman season covers the first four books of the series, and follows the unhappy lives of three recent orphans as they bounce from caretaker to caretaker, outwit nefarious plots to steal their parents’ fortune, and uncover countless secrets along the way. Its clunky title and avoidance of easy categorization (it’s billed as a very dark children’s show) may be turn-offs for the uninitiated, but, for many reasons, A Series of Unfortunate Events is actually a bright spot of television that shouldn’t be missed.
1. The ad campaign
Long before the series made its much-anticipated Friday the 13th debut, it was hinted at through an elaborate online ad campaign during which Netflix inspired fans to play detective. First, there was this wonderfully creepy teaser which was originally uploaded by YouTube user “Eleanora Poe” (a journalist in the book series), quickly dismissed as fan-made, and ultimately dissected with the sort of conspiratorial attention to detail that ASoUE fans are known for. Though the jury’s still out on the validity of the teaser, Netflix is definitely responsible for the December promo which led observant fans to valoriousfarmsdairy.com, a website offering “Unhappy Holiday” messages. Since the series’ announcement in 2015, it’s been consistently teased in a way that’s at once fun, mysterious, and grim – everything longtime fans hope the series will be.
2. The title sequence
What’s not to love about this theme song? The equally peppy and dark intro is mostly composed of sepia-tinted close-up shots of an intersecting corkboard of photographs, implying that there’s a mystery here that’s too big to be seen all at once. Neil Patrick Harris, using villainous Count Olaf’s campy acting voice, briskly gets us up to date on the Baudelaire orphans’ story while repeating the show’s unofficial mantra (”look away, look away”) – one which makes us eager to do anything but. In just over a minute, the song manages to be as creatively disturbing as the warnings on the back of Snicket’s books, and the catchiest Netflix tune since the great Kimmy Schmidt autotune of ‘15.
3. Lemony Snicket
Patrick Warburton originally seemed like an odd choice for the role of dogged, lovelorn storyteller Lemony Snicket, but the series author himself (actually Daniel Handler, who penned five of eight season one episodes) brings the mysterious man to life in an endlessly entertaining frame narrative. As he tells the tale of the Baudelaire orphans, warning us all the while not to expect a happy ending, Warburton dips in and out of sewers, makes costume changes and meta-comments, and follows characters around while remaining vaguely removed from the present moment. This iteration of Snicket makes the series’ larger mysteries (What happened to the Baudelaire parents? What’s with all the images of eyes?) seem as if their answers could lurk around any corner, and Warburton’s calm delivery of melodramatic and enigmatic lines makes his scenes some of the show’s most compulsively watchable.
4. The Baudelaires
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are like prodigies straight out of a Wes Anderson film, only they’re more motivated to push past their inevitable ennui and preserve their own threatened sense of childhood. They’re a rare and perhaps old-fashioned type of role model for kids, unapologetically academic, with endless collaborative spirit and a set of highly specific skills that always comes in handy. Violet (Malina Weissman) could be the cover-person for girls in STEM, as whenever she ties up her hair to focus, she can be counted on to produce some marvelous mechanical invention. Klaus (Louis Hynes) is an avid researcher and bookworm, while infant Sunny (Presley Smith) is a pro at biting whatever needs bitten, along with baby talk. The trio may be odd, but their constant cleverness in the face of misfortune is enthralling and inspiring.
5. The sets
Geographically, the unnamed and anachronistic settings of A Series of Unfortunate Events could best be described as sister cities with the land of Pushing Daisies, neighbored by the places in Tim Burton’s mind. Dull grays contrast with splashes of blinding brightness, while richly decorated sets like Dr. Montgomery Montgomery’s reptile room parallel scenes of tragedy and danger. This lends the series an absurdist tone: it seems poised to be either funny or tragic at any moment. The setting, which changes regularly along with the orphans’ caretaker, sets an impressively high bar for attention to detail in children’s television.
6. The cast
Neil Patrick Harris is the obvious standout of the ASoUE cast. As the villainous, money-hungry actor Count Olaf, Harris takes on several roles within his role, and injects a devious glee into each accent and costume change. Harris earns by far the most laughs in the series, yet he’s also thoroughly terrifying when the scene calls for it, especially when he threatens – and sometimes even resorts to – violence toward children. The child actors themselves deserve plenty of credit as well, although their characters’ defaults lean toward wary gloominess, and most of the comedy is left to the adults. Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, and Alfre Woodard are all well-cast as eccentric yet well-meaning guardians, but the most delightful casting choice is also the most unexpected: Cobie Smulders and Will Arnett also appear, playing serious, for frustratingly short sequences that seem to tie in to the show’s biggest overarching mystery.
7. The uselessness of adults
When you’re a kid, it can sometimes feel like adults don’t understand you. When you’re the Baudelaires, these misunderstandings could kill you. This is an idea that Handler and series developers Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld explore to an awkward and hilarious degree during the show’s first season. Estate executor Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) is the clearest example of incompetence, constantly failing to recognize Count Olaf’s threats and disguises, and making several ill-timed reassurances of the children’s safety. Even the show’s most helpful adults end up sidetracked or confused, but their failures are usually the Baudelaire’s victory. When the stakes are highest, there’s little doubt that these children won’t come up with a plan to foil Olaf’s plots through their own ingenuity.
8. The love of words
A Series of Unfortunate Events may claim that the world is largely filled with misery, but its love affair with the English language shows a softer side of the show. Two great allies of the orphans, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (Mandvi) and Justice Strauss (Cusack), impart them with wisdom about the importance of enthusiastic learning. They love books, films, and research, and the kids are at their happiest when they’re given resources to love them as well. Less directly, the show plays with language through humor (“N is for knowledge ’cause I’m very, very smart!” Olaf sings) and explanation, with Snicket often pausing the drama to creatively illustrate the difference between figuratively and literally, or explain the ominous usage of dramatic irony. In a message that’s fit for all ages, the show repeatedly and reassuringly posits that the greatest hope in the face of adversity is knowledge.