Jan 30, 2017

TV Retrospective: "A Series of Unfortunate Events" - Season 1

Scene from A Series of Unfortunate Events
Based on title alone, there's few series that feel as timely as A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the Lemony Snicket books of the same name, the story revolves around a group of orphans who are thrust into the adoption circuit only to be continually thwarted by Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris). The series manages to be a dark comedy for kids, reflecting a familiar brand of macabre yet whimsical adventures that wouldn't be out of place in 1990's movie staples like The Addams Family. Of course, it helps that co-producer Barry Sonnenfeld has his name attached to both, and does an excellent job of keeping the tone alive in both formats. With a short but sweet first season, the new series not only gives kids plenty to enjoy, but should be a blast for anyone needed an absurd escapist tale in binge form.
It would be one thing if this series was as miserable as it was unfortunate. Even the narrator (Patrick Warburton), who feels like a riff on The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, feels like he lays the grimness on thick. However, it is all in a satirical tone where the tongue is firmly in cheek. The show is obsessed with playing up the dark imagery while also deconstructing the language of cinematic tropes that help to progress the story. It even bleeds into the narrative, which produces plenty of inspired running gags that are hidden under the heightened characters that populate the even more heightened world. Snicket's universe is so peculiar and odd that it elevates itself above the generic kids shows that Netflix tends to release. Instead, it's merely an age-appropriate look into the struggles of introverted kids who are unsure of the world. 
The show revolves around the Baudelaire children, of whom become orphans following their parents' death. While that part is itself a twist that develops over the series, their story begins with a visit to Count Olaf: who is a washed-up actor whose schemes to get their fortune grows increasingly hackneyed as time goes on. He is cartoonishly evil, even having strong narcissistic tendencies that force his band of weird rejected actors to perform traps on the kids in hopes of getting them, well, murdered or in a compromising position. With an excellent score by James Newton Howard, it's hard not to at least agree that this macabre landscape is thrilling in its danger and entertaining in its subtle wit.
What works most about the series is that it doesn't talk down to its audience. It instead cleverly sets up different plot devices that allow the climax to make sense. There's plenty of grammatical jokes mixed in as well as a few sight gags that keep things from getting too heady. The show is very much for the smart kids who don't just fall into blind trust games. It's one of the signature traits of the Baudelaire clan, whose traps become more and more inspired in their silliness as time goes on. While it could largely be given credit to the book, the episodes manage to have engaging plots that balance darkness with unabashed silliness with an ease that never feels forced. This is a show that wants to have fun, even amid its knowing tropes. It succeeds on all fronts.
Yet what the show may likely have the best legacy for is how it reinvented the binge-watching format. Where Netflix has moved to series long arcs for most of their premiere shows, A Series of Unfortunate Events relies more on shorter and more cinematic narratives. Each story is broken up into two episodes. While the "Part 2" collection is infinitely stronger, the episodes as a whole are fascinating to watch as extended pieces of TV binge watching. It is enough to fulfill a lengthy story while not committing to 13 hours of programming. It may be due to it being geared towards kids, or that Snicket wrote the books that way, but the results are far more satisfying and make the show as a whole stronger. One can only hope that more shows adopt this model as time goes on.
The cast is especially strong and features a parade of great character actors. Harris gives his best performance since Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, managing to be both over the top unlikable as well as secretly great comedic slapstick. The kids also have their fair share of moments, of which requires them to often be understated and quizzical. The rest of the cast manages to fit perfectly into this strange world that evolves over time into something that kids needing their goth-lite fix would eat up quickly. This is a show that embraces its weirdness, and Netflix is better off for it. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a blast of fresh air in a format that likely felt stagnant to many tired of Tim Burton's shtick. With a short run, it's hard to not just blow through the episodes in a weekend. With that said, the real unfortunate event that this series has is not having enough episodes. Come back soon, Snicket. We miss you.


OVERALL RATING: 4.5 out of 5

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