by ETHAN PETERSON
A Series of Unfortunate of Events
creator Mark Hudis & Barry Sonnenfeld
The children at the center of the eight episode Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events are assholes. The first thing they demand after their parents die in a fire is access to a lavish library owned by a local attorney, Ms. Strauss. The three Baudelaire kids — Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) — can’t stop marveling at this new enclosure, which approximates the tony furnishings provided by their parents from an unknown and probably illicit income. They are so used to being rich that they are constantly clawing to return there in the years before Violett will inherit the family’s money.
It turns out at the end of the very first episode that the Baudelaire’s parents have escaped and were not murdered in a fire at all. Worse, they are portrayed by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders. Perhaps nauseated by their kids’ constant, insubstantial quoting from the books they have read, the senior Baudelaires escape to Peru, where various laws about miscegenation are relaxed. The two never show the slightest bit of affection for one another, and behave more as siblings than a married couple.
The aesthetic that surrounds the story of the Baudelaires being passed from guardian to guardian by Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the family’s banker, can best be described as if Roald Dahl fell asleep. The episodes that take place around the area of Lake Lachrymose are layered in a gloomy mist; the orphans’ custodian Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard) lives on an imposing cliff over the water. She is afraid of absolutely everything except her surroundings, while the kids themselves are only afraid of their surroundings. Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) explains the concept of dramatic irony in a lengthy sequence — these frequent breakings of the fourth wall are the only humor not provided by the antagonist Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris).
Mr. Harris has the advantage of portraying the only fulled fleshed-out character in this entire show. The role of Olaf is perfectly suited to his many talents, even if the singing bits are a bit forced. The extensive disguises he takes on are generally fun to simply look at, and every second that he is off the screen forces us to various dark conclusions about the actual meaning behind A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The thematic point of A Series of Unfortunate Events is that adults are children barely grown themselves, and can be relied upon for no more wisdom that any other potential source of information. Despite the fact that they meet many sinister such people, Klaus and Violet continue to look for adults to provide them with financial and emotional security. They never learn anything more about themselves during this process, and indeed have no actual flaws or recognizable character traits beyond caretaking for a baby.
This aspect itself is most disturbing. Violett and Klaus never change their younger sister’s diapers. The baby never cries or seems displeased, and is most happy chewing on hard things, like a puppy. Author Daniel Handler’s basic perception of young people is that they are blank slates upon which various things are imposed or arranged; he is just as guilty as Mr. Poe for being ignorant and Count Olaf for being greedy. His is the sin of pretending to know it all.
Barry Sonnenfeld is intent on casting many actors of color to replace the mostly white retinue that surrounded the Baudelaire children in the 2004 adaptation of Handler’s books. These substitutions are well-meant I am sure, and putting Alfre Woodard in the role of a grammarian who is frightened of everything does play against her usual type. Race is completely obscured by a flattening that never permits any of the adults in the Baudelaires’ lives to be altered by circumstance.
Without much in the way of character or plot, A Series of Unfortunate Events succeeds on a much more basic level. The show is an astonishing feast for the eyes. Sonnenfeld backed out of the feature film project in 1993 because he was concerned that the $100 million he was offered as a budget would not be enough to do justice to the many effects and costumes required. With Netflix as the major backer, no expense has been spared. The reptile collection of Dr. Montgomery Montgomery (a hilarious Aasif Mandvi) actually gives the kids some of tangible world with which they can interact. Disappointingly, Dr. Montgomery only gets a single evening to engage the children. He wins their trust but never gives his own, leaving them as bereft of answers about their parents as when they arrived on his property.
The sheer amount of time spent going on and on about how awful the circumstances are for the Baudelaires is exhausting after the first couple episodes. Once Klaus is smacked across the face — the rest of the time the kids never suffer violence, never hunger and are frequently housed in massive estates with considerable resources. They complain about going to the movies, about the size of their bedroom, about having to do any kind of household work. Klaus, Sunny and Violet are merely victims of a pervasive mediocrity with which they never quite come to terms.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.