Jan 14, 2017

Channel Surfing: A Series of Unfortunate Events - "The Bad Beginning: Part 1"

Scene from A Series of Unfortunate Events
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
It may only be the second week of the New Year, but Netflix isn't wasting any time presenting one of their most subversive series to date. Based on the Lemony Snicket books of the same name, A Series of Unfortunate Events perfectly balances macabre jokes with madcap stories and illustrious set designs. One could be forgiven for even mistaking them as being from films such as The Addams Family or Men in Black. In fact, this makes total sense given one of the show's co-creators and director of a handful of the season one episodes. Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the world of family horror comedy without missing a step. What he has created is an inspired, intelligent, and engaging series that also manages to be one of Netflix's most accessible shows yet, and their most successful children's show to date.
It could be the presence of Count Olaf, played by Neil Patrick Harris in his best role since Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Along with a narrator named "Lemony Snicket" (Patrick Warburton), the story follows the journey of the Baudelaire children following their parents' deaths. As the title suggests, the comedy is driven from unfortunate events that the three kids are put into. In the case of the first two episodes, this means being in the presence of the series' main villain Olaf. The episodes serve more as an introduction of the man who will try to steal the Baudelaire fortune while being a narcissistic actor. With plenty asides and an exploration of literary plot devices thanks to Snicket's Rod Serling-like presence, the show manages to break the fourth wall in intelligent and fun ways that compliment both the youthful sensibility and older audiences who just don't want to be pandered to.
What is probably the show's secret weapon is the series' structure. While telling a seemingly continuing story, each arc is broken up into two episodes (Part 1 and Part 2). Each story has a rise and fall that is rewarding and makes the overall season play more like 90 minute episodes than one long movie. It helps that the show's manic charm never makes for a dull moment. However, it is refreshing to see this in an era where Netflix series meander for long stretches of time, losing momentum and appeal - I'm looking at you, Orange is the New Black. What is left is a convenient form of binge watching without the guilt. Admittedly, A Series of Unfortunate Events is shorter than the average series (both in average running times, and in episode total), but it cleverly uses what it has to tell satisfying stories that reward pressing the "Next" button on the remote without the guilt of having to dedicate 10 hours to the endeavor.
While it is far from the first family show that Netflix has created, it is one of the first to capture a wider audience. It appeals to the horror kids who like weird set designs, Harris being kooky, and smart kids protagonists. It appeals to adults who want something fun to watch. None of it is necessarily offensive, even with a few stabs at gallows humor. It is why the Snicket books were so popular in the first place. There's unbridled creativity on display here, and it reflects the capability of what TV can be. One can only hope that the show continues to be entertaining and that more shows learn to break up its cliffhangers into smaller chunks than season-long arcs. Whatever the case may be, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a delightful experience, and one that gives the remaining 50 weeks of 2017 a run for its money.

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