A Series of Unfortunate Events 1.01-1.02: “The Bad Beginning” Review

In Loco Parentis

A Television Review by Akash Singh

NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!

The aura of nostalgia is a powerful one in the storytelling era of today. A part of that power has risen out of a desire for comforting stories of the past that are at least familiar, if not perhaps as comforting as one might want. The audience gets something they are familiar with, have some expectations of, and can feel comfortable investing their dollar in. A part of that power is, to indulge in the reality of this specific source of cynicism, studios wanting some semblance of guaranteed returns on their investment. The guarantee is rarely a given, in part due to the lack of quality and some questionable budgetary decisions, but that idea is quite pervasive. One only has to look at the slate of Star Wars films that is expanding beyond the Skywalker episodic storylines, Warner Brothers returning to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with their Fantastic Beasts franchise, and Disney rushing to seemingly turn all of their animated fairy tales into live-action properties. A part of the rush is inevitably fueled by the desire to grab the attention of viewers in an increasingly competitive entertainment market. The nostalgia factor plays heavily into that competitive rush, properties of old that were seen as “not being done right” or “ending before their time” resurfacing in some capacity to draw the original audience right back in with the promise of adding more to their original experience or in some cases, fixing it. Fox brought back The X-Files to decidedly mixed results, Showtime is bringing back Twin Peaks, and HBO is giving a new lease of life with Al Swearingen’s Deadwood saga with a new film. BBC is going the “fixing a previous story” route with the development of a new series based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga after the disastrous film adaptation of The Golden Compass. Netflix has decided to adopt that model with Lemony Snicket’s seminal series A Series of Unfortunate Events, trying to eschew the memory of the film adaptation with the presentation of an adaptation that was much more faithful to its source material.

The involvement of author Daniel Handler is key to this adaptation’s success, his voice that was largely lost in the film coming back and receiving the proper treatment it deserves. The first two episodes are based on the first book in the series, A Bad Beginning, a book that was covered in the film in approximately thirty minutes or so. The first couple of installments in A Series of Unfortunate Events do suffer from plot repetitiveness that seeps through in spite of the new settings and the array of colorful characters, but while the opening of the series is a bit rushed and bumpy, Handler ultimately proves to be quite adept at screenplay writing. His scripts keenly add in additional elements that weren’t necessarily fleshed out in the books to avoid the sense of a story trudging along. Handler has an additional understanding that some mysteries that work on the page for a while may not necessarily work on screen. The medium is simply suited for mysteries that are capable of being written and presented in a fashion where the patience of the page isn’t necessary. In essence, the show doesn’t try too hard at being mysterious with its presentation of its mysteries and that is critical to its watchability. The fleshing out of the secondary characters involved in some sort of secret organization trying to counter Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother) and his evil henchpeople (such as Jacquelyn (Sara Canning) and Gustav (Luke Camilleri)) adds to that sharp handling of the mystery. It’s a great trick for keeping the mystery more alert and obvious and presenting a gently mocking espionage narrative that injects a zany sense of energy into the proceedings. As the fleshing out of the secondary characters raises the stakes by creating a sort of fun games, Handler also creates lovely little winks towards what is coming down the line not just this season, but for the rest of the series as well. If you’ve read the books, the little hints like the mention of the scientist in Mr. Poe’s office to the rhyming of Count Olaf with “rice pilaf” work as hilarious little winks that nevertheless aren’t so bluntly on the nose so as to run the risk of alienating viewers approaching the show without the benefit of having read the books.

The story begins with the mournful recollections of Lemony Snicket (a thoroughly terrific Patrick Warburton, The Tick) as he traverses in some sort of mystery of his own while recounting the sorry tale of the Baudelaire orphans. He has a disarming charm that is nevertheless acutely intertwined with a sense of self-inspection and wistfulness that gave Snicket’s narration a sense of grounding calm in a series where that is a considerable luxury. Harris toes the line between being as dramatically campy as the material requires and outrightly menacing, but he does a fine job here. He is better at the camp than he is at the menace, but there are plenty of opportunities for Count Olaf to display to everyone just how evil he can really truly be. Joan Cusack (Shameless) is simply perfection as the well-meaning but easily misled Justice Strauss, while K. Todd Freeman’s (Dangerous Minds) Mr. Poe adds to the sad hilarity of the adults in this particular world. Out of the Baudelaire children, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire is the standout. She’s hilarious, sharp, and expressive, which is particularly impressive considering that she is an infant. Violet (Malina Weissman) and Klaus (Louis Hynes) aren’t as dynamic as their predecessors from the film, but they do shine when their story gets them actively engaged in a plan or when they are able to go in a different direction besides the understandable grief and gloom that pervades their lives. One could argue that the real tragedy of A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t even related to the villains as they’re not particularly impressive or even frankly that competent. Olaf’s wedding plan, for example, is foiled by a particularly impressive stroke of thinking where Violet signs a marriage certificate with her left hand instead of her right, but it is also foiled by his very public display of his heinous actions. The real tragedy of the series is how well-meaning adults in their naiveté and wishful thinking endanger the Baudelaire orphans over and over again, how their self-preservation and self-care blinds them to the needs of those who don’t have access to that privilege. It’s a dark statement on the traditional notion that adults know better than children, that the world is better in the hands of some simply because they may have lived in it longer. Experience is a valuable tool but it would do the world wonders to recognize that sometimes it can become a great impediment as well.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (Part One):

+“If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else.”

+The vocabulary is deftly handled

+The acting overall

+“That’s gonna make a wonderful headline.”

+The Oxford comma strikes again!

+Olaf striking Klaus was a dark moment and the show handled it with the appropriate maturity and darkness

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (Part Two):

+The design of Mr. Poe’s office is so great

+Yessica Haircut

+Standoffish

+Olaf not knowing the meaning of “nuptial”

+“…Marriage is an inherently patriarchal construction…”

+“Men intimidated by my profession.”

+“Why would anyone listen to a consultant?”

+Sunny and poker

Great

8/10

Episode Title: The Bad Beginning – Part One

Written by: Daniel Handler

Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld

Brilliant

9/10

Episode Title: The Bad Beginning – Part Two

Written by: Daniel Handler

Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld

Image Courtesy: Collider

Musings:

Every review from now on will have links to organizations who are in need of resources. Please contribute if you are able:

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