What is ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’?
Based on Daniel Handler’s series of 13 books, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the story of the Baudelaire orphans. Teenage siblings Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes) and Sunny (Presley Smith) find themselves in the care of the nefarious Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) after their parents are killed in a fire. It soon becomes apparent that he’s after their sizable inheritance. After his attempts fail and the children are shifted from one guardian to the next, Olaf adopts disguises in a series of attempts to get his hands on their money.
Season 2 picks up following the Baudelaires’ arrival at Prufrock Preparatory School. Prufrock is a heinous boarding school where, as orphans, they’re outcasts. Olaf tracks them to the educational establishment, and his efforts start up again. The season incorporates books 5-9 of the series, finishing with The Carnivorous Carnival.
Sharp and Witty
Handler’s books were ripe for another screen adaptation. The 2004 film starring Jim Carrey feels dated more than a decade on – and disappointingly truncated. It squeezes the first three books into one standard-length feature and changes the order of events to give it a more suitable movie ending.
So, when the first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events was announced, which hit Netflix last year, it presented an opportunity to really exploit Handler’s gourmet penmanship. The greatest joy in ASOUE is the wittiness of the dialogue and its sharply crafted prose. Indeed, the saga is as much about language as it is anything else. Even narrator Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton) is at pains to teach and explain words and phrases during interludes that are all at once funny, informative and useful, at the same time as setting up recurring jokes in the story.
It’s a huge boon to the Netflix series, therefore, that Handler himself was recruited for screenwriting duties. The first season was enough of a success to greenlight a second and third. At which point, all 13 books will have been adapted and the series will reportedly end.
The saga is being adapted methodically – with two 40-50 minute episodes dedicated to each book. But while this worked well in Season 1 which covered the first four books, the approach has mixed results in Season 2, which adapts the next five. That means there are an additional two episodes this time around, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Out-Carreying Jim Carrey
Season 2 begins at The Austere Academy – the most successful of the series’ adaptations. That’s not a bad tactic, since it will hook fans from the start.
Neil Patrick Harris has already proved himself a very watchable and entertaining Count Olaf. He embraces every one of Olaf’s disguises with masses of enthusiasm, out-Carreying Jim Carrey while stamping his own signature on it.
At Prufrock, Olaf shrugs on the guise of Coach Genghis, replacing the absent gym teacher whom he and his cohorts hijacked on the road. As Genghis, NPH not so much hits the ground running as cracking out jumping jacks. Which, incidentally, he says declares he invented while at a bus stop.
Olaf spits out lines like: “As anyone who went to college knows, orphans have unsound bodies,” with such regularity, that if you’re not paying full attention you’ll miss some absolute corkers. These opening episodes in particular demand close viewing if you’re to reap rewards from the humour.
Baby Baudelaire, Sunny, has some marvelous moments. Appointed Administrative Assistant to Vice Principal Nero (Roger Bart) because she’s too young to attend classes, she’s ready to correct Olaf in a heartbeat when he mistakenly calls her a secretary. She can’t talk, of course – she’s a baby – so she squeaks instead, and it’s translated via subtitles for our benefit.
Aside from the delectable wordplay, the beauty of ASOUE is its depiction of children versus adults. And the series does it brilliantly. In Handler’s absurdist world, adults are the ignorant, willfully blind ones, who are easily duped, while kids are sharper; more clued up. Less indoctrinated and not so ground down by life – speaking of the Baudelaires at least – the children see things as they are and question everything. In its surreal, outlandish way, it holds a mirror up to real life.
In the two episodes that comprise “The Austere Academy,” other gems include Roger Bart’s grotesque Vice Principal Nero and the effervescently gross Carmelita Spats (Kitana Turnbull) – a spoilt horror in a frilly pink dress who delights in terrorizing Violet and Klaus.
From Penthouse to Ground Floor
As the series progresses to the next book, however, things take a nosedive. The Ersatz Elevator is the title of the next book, and the next two episodes. One of the main problems here is the introduction of ghastly new guardian Esmé Squalor. Played with palpable glee by Lucy Punch, amid an entire castful of deliberately exaggerated performances, she’s the one who stands out for gnawing at the scenery.
Thieving screen time from NPH, it’s as if she’s competing for attention. But when you compare her to supporting players like Matty Cardapole and Jacqueline and Joyce Robbins (who play members of Olaf’s troupe), it’s clear they’ve got a far better handle on the balance required. More from these three, in particular, could have lifted the sagging midsection of the series several levels. Some golden moments from Sunny and NPH’s Karl Lagerfeld-like Gunther make this part at least relatively entertaining.
Moving on to book seven, The Vile Village, though is where it falls apart. There’s less invention and charm here, and tedium sets in as the series shows signs of fatigue. By Episode 6, you’ll find proceedings agonizingly slow-moving as the series becomes glaringly repetitive and lacking in the flourishes that ignited the first two episodes.
Even Olaf’s latest disguise can’t rescue this part. His scatting Detective Dupont is a one-trick bore. Thankfully, things pick up for Episodes 7 and 8, which shifts the action to a grubby and unsanitary hospital building for the events of the eight book in the series, The Hostile Hospital.
The story progresses slowly once again, and because of Esmé Squalor’s continuing presence — and less time dedicated to funny asides — you feel every slimy glide of the snail’s pace. The show becomes less about the journey and more about when the heck we’re reaching that destination. Which finally comes two episodes later at the conclusion of the adaptation of the ninth book, The Carnivorous Carnival.
Is Season 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events Good?
Despite the presence of Nathan Fillion as Lemony Snicket’s brother Jacques, the series misses actors of the calibre of Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep who both featured in the 2004 film. Both brought something extra to characters who we were able to empathize deeply with.
The series’ unshifting focus on cramming in the witty one-liners – and, indeed, paragraphs – as well as character quirks has hampered its ability to deliver empathetic characters. We’re always kept at arm’s length from any drama, and as such we’re never drawn into any sense of peril.
A stellar start gives way to a dip in the middle of the series before it picks up again towards the end. It’s got smart dialogue in spades and an admirable central performance. But it lacks warmth and resists a high level of emotional engagement. Perhaps if the series had been condensed into eight episodes rather than ten and dialed back the Esmé Squalor, we’d be looking at four stars instead of three – and a pacier, less drawn out viewing experience.