Friday, January 13, 2017

Unfortunately Uncertain Audience: Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events Season 1 Is Unsatisfying.

The Good: Good production design and make-up, Acting is generally good, Moments of cleverness
The Bad: Obvious blue screen shots, Repetitive plots, Sheer volume of idiotic characters
The Basics: The first season of Netflix's Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events is appropriately unpleasant, but fails on too many fronts to entertain an adult audience.

One of the interesting things about the age gap between my wife and I is that there are entire phenomenon that she knows about that were so far after my time that I was not even aware of them. The book series upon which the film and new Netflix series Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events were based is one such phenomenon. While my wife knew about the books in the A Series Of Unfortunate Events Saga, they did not hit my radar at all. In fact, I was only peripherally aware of the film Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events that starred Jim Carrey when it was released and when Netflix announced the production of the first season of Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, I made a conscious effort not to track the film down. I did, however, dutifully wake up to binge watch and review the Netflix Neil Patrick Harris vehicle as soon as it was released. As such, this is a very pure review of Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events as it stands on its own; anyone looking for a comparison to the books or other film will need to look elsewhere.

What struck me right away about Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events is that its audience is awkwardly unclear. The villain in A Series Of Unfortunate Events is Count Olaf, a murderous actor who has an overt goal of stealing the Baudelaire orphan's fortune and breaks the fourth wall. Olaf has a violent streak that is legitimately frightening, from menacing children with a knife to making references to STDs. But A Series Of Unfortunate Events is so repetitive and focused on the Baudelaire children that it seems like it is geared toward children. The constant repetition of common words seems designed to inform children less smart than the Baudelaire orphans as to their meaning, but such things are painfully obvious to adult viewers. Similarly, by the second episode, it seems utterly ridiculous that Violet and Klaus ever turn their back on Sunny given that every time they do, Olaf takes her hostage and uses her to extort the other two orphans!

The brief appearances by Cobie Smulders are intended to delight adult viewers who were fans of her with A Series Of Unfortunate Events star Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother (season 1 is reviewed here!), but those who might be so delighted are also likely to roll their eyes every time Lemony Snicket appears on screen to deliver exposition. Snicket's appearances as narrator are unnecessary for an adult audience and are frustrating because the bulk of Patrick Warburton's appearances as Snicket place him on what is clearly a green screen (or blue screen). Warburton appears to have done a great number of his scenes alone in front of a blank screen with footage put in back of him and the superimposed nature of the actor over the background footage is unfortunately obvious.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are out at the beach in a gloomy day, experimenting with their rock skipping retrieval device, when they are visited by Mr. Poe. The children recognize Mr. Poe from the local bank and he informs them that their parents have been killed in a fire that has destroyed the family mansion. Mr. Poe takes the children to his home while he tries to find the nearest relative for the Baudelaire orphans and he quickly places the children with the local actor Count Olaf. Count Olaf claims to be a relation and he quickly starts using the children as slave labor around his dilapidated mansion while he plots with his "acting troupe" how to get the Baudelaire fortune. Count Olaf plans to stage a play where he marries Violet, but Klaus - using the kindly neighbor's, Justice Strauss's, law library - quickly figures out the scheme. Despite Olaf taking Sunny hostage to extort the children, Violet and Klaus work vigilantly to save their baby sister and expose the villainy of Count Olaf.

Following the disastrous attempt to marry Violet, the Baudelaire children are sent to live with their obscure relation, Dr. Montgomery Montgomery. Monty is a herpetologist who quickly recognizes Count Olaf when he shows up posing as the scientist's new assistant. The quintet (including "Stefano") go to the movies where Monty gets a secret message telling him to take the children to Peru. Olaf kills Montgomery before he can take the children out of the country, which leads to a brief caper within his reptile room. The Baudelaire children learn of the existence of their Aunt Josephine right before they are sent to live with her in Lake Lacrymose. Olaf and his henchmen are right behind the children and when Aunt Josephine goes out on a date with Olaf's latest persona, she appears to kill herself. While Mr. Poe tries to transfer custody of the Baudelaire children, the children follow clues to their aunt. Following the clues, the Baudelaire children end up at the Lucky Smells lumber mill where they encounter another person who knew their parents . . . and another incarnation of Olaf!

A Series Of Unfortunate Events exists in a very strange anachronistic time period. While the pilot episode opens with narrator Lemony Snicket telling viewers that the story begins a long time ago, there are references that make the show increasingly modern - from James Brown to credit cards to the internet to streaming television. So, while vehicles, Justice Strauss's wig, and the attention to newspapers have a much older feel to them, there are a lot of contemporary references that undermine the idea that the episodes occur in the past.

The volume of idiotic characters in A Series Of Unfortunate Events quickly becomes frustrating as well. Viewers are expected to believe, for example, that when Justice Strauss sees the mysterious telescope Klaus brought from the ruins of his family's mansion she does not recognize it at all. The front of Count Olaf's mansion - which is directly opposite her home - bears the same symbol. Strauss sees that symbol every time she looks out her front door, but she shows no sense of recognition of it when she sees it on the telescope.

The telescope is the key element that reveals the existence of a secret society working in the background of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. There is a network of people working to save the Baudelaire "orphans," a network that includes Mr. Poe's assistant, Monty's assistant, and Aunt Josephine. The network knows about Count Olaf and has safeguards in place to try to reunite the children with their parents in Peru, as well as tunnels below the town. The secret society is alluded to and barely explored in the first season of A Series Of Unfortunate Events.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is excellent for detail-oriented viewers, though a number of the details are presumably from the books and translate oddly into the television show. So, for example, whenever Violet metaphorically rolls up her sleeves to leap into action, she very noticeably ties her hair back. There is nothing within the television series that explains why Violet - who is pretty constantly in peril - would ever let her hair down instead of constantly keeping it back. The episodes of the first season of are essentially four two-part mysteries and the clues are often painfully obvious - like the grammar-obsessed Aunt Josephine leaving a note that is riddled with grammatical mistakes that viewers can see when the note is first shown on screen (well before Klaus starts making the argument that Josephine did not write the note).

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is focused on creating a sense of mood that is weird. I love weird, but esoteric still requires characters who are interesting in order to make them empathetic and the show worth watching. A Series Of Unfortunate Events does not quite have that. The show has characters who are more types than intriguing individuals. In the first season of Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the important characters are:

Count Olaf - A villain who has a love of costuming and theatrics, he is an actor who assumes many identities in his quest to steal the Baudelaire fortune. He prides himself on his handsomeness, though he frequently alters it in order to assume other personas. He is terrible at remembering lines and frequently relies upon the help of his five lackeys to keep details straight and pull off his capers. He drinks a lot of wine. He is quickly recognized by Violet and Klaus whenever he pops up, but manages to keep one step ahead of the law in his attempts to rob the children of their fortune,

Violet Baudelaire - The clever oldest daughter in the Baudelaire family, she is inventive and protective of her brother and sister. She is articulate, scientifically-minded and frequently frustrated by Olaf's using Sunny against her. She understands Sunny's baby-talk and is allergic to peppermints,

Klaus Baudelaire - An articulate twelve year-old boy, he is an excellent researcher and uses reason to try to convince others - usually Mr. Poe - of Count Olaf's machinations. Like Violet, he is detail-oriented and articulate beyond his age. He finds the mysterious telescope/decoder in his parents' home after the fire and manages to grab the photograph of the secret society members before Aunt Josephine's home is destroyed,

Sunny Baudelaire - An exceptionally smart baby with a chewing ability that is superhuman. She has complex thoughts (which are subtitled) and a simple speaking pattern, who is able to outsmart Count Olaf's hook-handed henchman,

Mr. Poe - The somewhat idiotic banker, he is the executor of the Baudelaire estate. He is eager to get a promotion at the bank and is often unwilling to believe the Baudelaire children when the assert Count Olaf is in whatever new guardian's home he places them at. He is married with two children and coughs a lot,

and Lemony Snicket - The narrator who is charged with telling the unfortunate story of the Baudelaire children, he is full of exposition and irony. He has a lost love and a past history with Olaf. He or his family members were in the secret society (unless the character on the far right of the "blink and you miss it" photograph shot is supposed to be Lemony, as opposed to the Snicket relation that Olaf alludes to knowing) and does not directly interact with the Baudelaire children.

The acting in A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a mixed bag in its first season. Neil Patrick Harris is undoubtedly going to get a lot of praise from critics for his portrayal of Count Olaf, but it is hard for fans of his to watch A Series Of Unfortunate Events and be thrilled by his performance. Harris is undoubtedly a gifted actor, but the eight episodes of A Series Of Unfortunate Events have Harris playing Count Olaf in the same way he portrayed Billy in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Harris gives viewers nothing new in his performance of Count Olaf than we already saw in the way he played Dr. Horrible.

Similarly, Patrick Warburton's Lemony Snicket plays to the actor's articulate deadpan that we've seen from him in many of his other roles. Alfre Woodard is wonderful in the role of the grammatically-precise, but terrified-by-everything Aunt Josephine. A Series Of Unfortunate Events marks the second Netflix project Woodard has been involved with where she has not gotten "godson" Jonathan Frakes directing work for the series and it seems like Frakes would have been great directing her episodes. Woodard makes Josephine energetic and unnerving to watch with her manic performance of the secret society member! Similarly good in his performance is K. Todd Freeman, who plays Mr. Poe. Freeman's cough for the role is somewhat intermittent (and how is it that he doesn't get Olaf sick when he is constantly coughing in his face?!), but there is not even a hint of the way he portrayed Mr. Trick in the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!) in his performance of Mr. Poe.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is led by Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes. Weissman steps on a couple of lines, but for the most part she sells Violet as being clever and articulate. Weissman plays despair surprisingly well for a young actress as she acts sad through almost the entire first season of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Hynes is tasked with appearing as a young intellectual and he rises to the occasion in a credible way. Hynes is given a number of lines that involve a higher level of diction and jargon and he delivers them as if he completely understands them, which is essential to making his character appear realistic.

Netflix clearly spend a significant amount on the production of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. From the first episode where Count Olaf's mansion includes details like dried leaves on the floor to the cracks on the walls of Aunt Josephine's home, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is lush with visual details in its first season.

Ultimately, I kept watching the first season of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, waiting for it to pop. The characters are all fairly flat (save, oddly enough, Mr. Poe who is given a decent variety of traits beyond simply being eccentric) and the performances tend to hit a single essential note for each character and the plots are so repetitive as to bore. A Series Of Unfortunate Events is not unpleasant to watch, but it is not funny or clever enough to intrigue viewers to make it even worth watching all eight episodes.

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
"A Christmas Special" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Broken Promises" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Flashpoint" - The Flash
"The Chicago Way" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"The Adventures Of Supergirl" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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