Small Screen Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events

On January 13, 2017, Netflix (www.netflix.com) dropped an eight episode first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events on to their platform.  This is a small screen series based on the widely-popular young-reader novels of the same name authored by Lemony Snicket.  Lemony Snicket, mind you, is the pen name of Daniel Handler.  Handler himself is credited as both an executive producer and as a collaborator in writing the theme music for the program.  The first season is essentially four feature length productions each broken in half to make a total of eight episodes.

There is an ensemble of five central characters in this production.  We have our three heroes: the Baudelaire children:  Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny (Presley Smith).  These are, ostensibly, the orphans and the heirs of the “Baudelaire fortune”.  The stories chief antagonist is Count Olaf, brilliantly played by Neil Patrick Harris.  Finally, rounding out the story is the on-stage narrator named Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton.  Each of the four parts (set of two episodes) introduces a new “guardian” for the children who were orphaned as the result of a suspicious fire.  These placements are generally arranged by Arthur Poe (K. Todd Freeman) the Baudelaire family banker who is entrusted with the “Baudelaire fortune” and the Baudelaire Children until Violet, the eldest, comes of age.

The first “guardian” they are placed with is the chief villain, Count Olaf.  Count Olaf is a generally self-absorbed failing actor who has managed to surround himself with a somewhat prodigious group of accomplices that he refers to as his theater troop.  It appears from the beginning that Mr. Poe is a bumbling idiot who wants to do his job well-enough to ensure the praise of his superiors at Mulctuary Money Management, the Baudelaire family bank, but never actually achieves competence.  Through a odd series of events that are carefully crafted by the conniving Count Olaf, Poe interprets the term “closest living relative” to be the person who lives closest and makes Olaf the children’s guardian.  In doing so he is responsible for the “Baudelaire fortune” until Violet comes of age.  Count Olaf does little to keep up appearances that he is actually caring for the children and begins to weave the tale that they are entitled rich kids and are actually impossible to care for.

The Baudelaire children are definitely unusual, but not difficult.  Violet is a savant with all things mechanical.  There is a tell-tale moment when she pulls her hair back into a ponytail and she gets down to business taking ordinary objects and transforming them in to bits and pieces of fully functional and well-designed machines.  Klaus is a researcher, he is a whiz at digging facts out of books.  Given a library, Klaus can find what he needs.  Sunny is an infant that can comprehend her environment and is able to communicate, at least to the viewer, a fairly wry sense of humor through the magic of subtitles.  Sunny also appears to have a set of teeth and jaws that can be used to transform hardened solid objects into what ever she wants.  Sunny serves as both the voice of sarcasm in the ensemble and is also constantly utilized by Count Olaf as the bargaining chip  that will get Klaus and Violet to stand down when they believe that they have him backed into a corner.  These children have a vocabulary that far exceeds most educated adults but are far from difficult.  Generally speaking, they are exemplary examples of independent children.

It is at this point, that a rhetorical device that is used consistently in this program should be pointed out.  All of the major characters have a fairly verbose vocabulary.  When a “big word” is used by a character it is frequently followed by either that character, or another, or Lemony Snicket explaining the meaning of the word in a very direct way.  This stands out because this devices completely lacks an organic basis in the story and it entirely interrupts the normally clipped flow of inter-character conversation.  This, however, in the first couple of episodes is a bit overplayed.  It should be noted that as the series continues the frequency at which this device is used diminishes greatly.  It is still there but used much more sparingly.  The writers here, in future seasons, need to realize that this gag is fun and intelligent, but in moderation.

Count Olaf’s terrible guardianship is counter balanced by the neighborly efforts of Judge Strauss (Joan Cusack).  It is clear that this is a woman who wants children of her own and by a stroke of fate her neighbor Count Olaf has managed to procure a few.  The Judge has a large library and is very much smitten by her new young neighbors.  She has, however, two fatal flaws.  She is quite stuck on the literal sense and she is extremely gullible especially when it comes to flattery.  She almost manages to hand the entire “Baudelaire fortune” to Count Olaf over being given a small part in a play he created for the sole purpose of absconding the fortune.  In the end Olaf’s attempt fails, he is discovered and Poe moves the children to a more suitable guardian, their Uncle Monty (Aasif Mandvi).

Montgomery Montgomery, Uncle Monty, is where the Baudelaire children are taken by Mr. Poe after they are snatched from the greedy jaws of Count Olaf.  Monty is an eccentric herpetologist who has a somewhat mysterious past.  His past become even more mysterious when the Baudelaire children attempt to extract the nature of his relationship to their parents.  One of the most interesting things about Uncle Monty is that he has a pet called the Incredibly Deadly Viper.  This pet is interesting because it is actually an incredibly gentle snake deliberately named by Uncle Monty as a bit of an inside joke.  Monty is both quirky and protective.  Despite this combination Monty falls victim to a plan that again puts the children at risk.

Olaf has arranged for the sudden disappearance of Monty’s assistant Gustav.  In the void, he has created Olaf arrives on the doorstep of Monty’s home in the guise of Stefano.  At this point, we get a taste of the breadth of characters that Neil Patrick Harris is going to treat his viewers to.  The brazen, bombastic, and theatrical Olaf is now the diminutive and timid Stefano.  Harris is literally playing both characters simultaneously trying to hold together Stefano while he occasionally slips into full blown Olaf to communicate with his henchmen and when he a bit of Olaf just “seeps out”.

One of the big themes of the whole tale is developed during this story arc.  The children are really learning that their world is not what it seems.  Their parents’ lives have facets that they could never have dreamed of.  There are people who they have never met who care for them.  There are people out there that have so little regard for them that they are willing to hurt them to get what they want.  Life is complicated and difficult.  Security is all an illusion.  Even those who are entrusted with your care are limited in their ability to do so.  Childhood myths of the kindness of people are being shattered left and right.  This is a tale that draws you in and puts you in the place where children move from blissful ignorance to trying to catch up because they realize how actually ignorant they are about their world.  The actual moment where this break happens is back when the Baudelaire children are still with Olaf.  There is a painful and stark moment where Olaf strikes Klaus.  No one does anything.  There is a pregnant pause where the audience catches up to the situation at the same time it becomes painfully real to Klaus, Violet, and Sunny that this man can hit them an no one will do anything.  Keep in mind that these children are being constantly subjected to the deaths of people who are near to them.  This is indeed a very dark, sad, and stressful world.

Monty, only after a strange trip, to the movie theater and an amazing display of cryptography begins to realize that his new assistant Stefano may not be who he says he is.  He, ultimately, still misses what the children are trying to tell him and assumes that Stefano and the immanent threat is from the Herpetological Society and not Count Olaf and his henchmen.  Monty escapes capture by Olaf’s gang with assistance from what appears to be an active underground of supporters.  However, he is ultimately killed and his death is made to look like an accident caused by the aforementioned Incredibly Deadly Viper.  The Baudelaire children are, of course, however, in on the joke of the snakes misnomer.  Klaus’ ability to research ties matters up and the children are now free from the clutches of Olaf in the guise of Stefano.  At this point, we come to realize the Baudelaire children have a mysterious and resourceful “guardian angle” who is serving as Mr. Poe’s assistant and in other remarkable capacities.  Said mysterious woman directs the children to find their Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard).

Aunt Josephine is the third “guardian” in the tale.  Josephine is an eccentric widow who lives in a dilapidated  house in the middle of the leech infested Lake Lachrymose.  We get the impression that Josephine was once a worldly, confident, and adventurous woman.  Today, she is an extremely skittish, naive woman who has a stern passion for good grammar.  On cue, we learn that Josephine has a new love interest Captain Sham.  Sham is, of course, none other than Count Olaf in disguise.  Olaf has studied the interests of Josephine and his created a buzz around his new character then sets his hooks to snare her heart.  Josephine, like all the adults in the Baudelaire children’s lives, can not see that Sham is Olaf.  Ultimately, the stage is set and the children come upon a scene that appears to be that of Josephine’s suicide.  There is a suicide note in the scene.  The tip off that something is not right, however, is the imperfect grammar of the note.  Through careful examination of the note, the Baudelaire children work out that Josephine is still alive.  Again, they convince Poe, who is readying the documents to hand over the children over to their new “guardian” Captain Sham, that Sham is in fact a sham.  In this revelation, though, we learn that Josephine is sent to her death by the Lachrymose Leeches by Olaf.

Here, the tale deviates from the script.  Before Poe can whisk them off to their next guardian the Baudelaire children, armed with a picture of their parents in front of a lumber mill that they have taken from Josephine’s home, slip his attention and strike out on their own.  This brings us to the Baudelaire’s fourth “guardian”, Sir (Don Johnson).  Sir is the grizzled owner of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill.  Though not technically a legal “guardian”, Sir becomes the children’s default caregiver.  Sir is running an unusual workplace.  His workers live on the grounds and are completely happy receiving nothing other than coupons for remuneration for their labor.  We later learn, that a local optometrist, Georgina Orwell (Catherine O’Hara), is also a wicked hypnotist.  She has struck a deal with Sir.  Sir ensures that all his employees will have regular eye exams and Orwell ensures he will have content employees despite their horrible working conditions.  This is the environment where the Baudelaire children land and become child labor.

Sir is the holder of the history of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill.  The Baudelaire parents are part of the story of the Mill.  They are being blamed, in the current telling of the story, for a disastrous fire.  Given this, the Baudelaire children are held in suspicion by the denizens of the Mill.  There is an official history of the mill written by Sir, but in every single copy the pages pertaining to the fire are redacted.  The children are being told, now, that their parents are actually the villains in this mill town.  This is unsettling.

Orwell, though has a nurse names St. Ives.  St. Ives is Olaf in drag.  Orwell and Olaf are former boyfriend and girlfriend now reunited for the sake of stealing the “Baudelaire fortune”.  Of course, no adult can see that St. Ives is a man, let alone that he is Count Olaf.  Klaus falls victim to Orwell.  He is hypnotized and causes and industrial accident at the Mill.  Again, however, the ingenuity of the children causes the plot unravel.  Eleanora Poe (Cleo King), the wife of Arthur Poe, the editor-in-chief of the local paper, The Daily Punctilio, dusts off her investigative journalist skill from her younger days as a reporter and finds the children.  We end the story, for the time being, with the children being sent off to a mysterious boarding school.

The first observation that needs to be made about this series is that it is not nice.  The story is not nice.  The characters are not nice.  This is a dark world.  This is not a world for small children.  This is not a world for some young adolescents.  Though this world is clearly fictionally but is not entirely so.  People really get hurt.  Children really get hurt.  People die brutal deaths.  The adults in this world don’t seem to care.  There is a coldness and a starkness in this world that many children may not be able to deal with.  That said, there are young adolescents for whom this set of stories are perfect.

Many of our young adolescents are, in their own lives, rapidly having their lives shattered.  Their developing minds are, for the first time, able to comprehend that their parents are not perfect.  As they are getting older the adults that surround them are handling them with less caution.  They are able to fully, for the first time, comprehend that things don’t always work out and that, in adulthood, people are just muddling through.  For these young men and women the world is becoming an increasingly frightening place.  They are both aware of this and powerless to deal with it.  They are children.  These young people will probably see this story as a distorted mirror of their own life.  This story can give them a safe way to first, look at the things that frighten them at a safe distance and second, laugh at the absurdity of them.

That said, this is a program that a child should not be watching alone.  This is a program for kids and parents to watch together.  These awful stories can be awesome fodder for parent/child discussions.  The key to these stories are their sense of empowerment.  Not only can’t the adults in these help the Baudelaire children, they won’t do it.  Yet, the children survive and continue.  They are never entirely safe, but they continue.  This survival is not achieved by adult intervention.  This survival is the result of the children own initiative.  Intelligence and industry are both celebrated in these stories and are found in the possession of children.

It is clear that this story is not done and there is more to tell.  We will look forward to season two of this Series of Unfortunate Events, the next installment of the story of the Baudelaire’s survival and the adults who are putting it at peril.

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