Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”: The Bad Beginning (Review)

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My blog might convince some people that I spent my youth as a Potterhead, or as a Star Wars Expanded Universe junkie. My first literary serial love was always A Series of Unfortunate Events: darling, dearest, dreadfully mishandled by the 2004 movie. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Daniel Handler’s unique humor to be on screen, but I remember, as a kid, for the first time during a film, a sense of betrayal. Well, now Netflix has brought the books to life, with the original author as a producer and a schedule that will give each of the 13 ASOUE books plenty of breathing room. How’d the first two episodes (based on The Bad Beginning) turn out? Great! … except for a subplot that kind of misses the point of the books and might end up tainting the whole production. I’ll get into that.

 

The plot of The Bad Beginning remains intact in the first fourth of Season 1. The clever and capable Baudelaire trio— inventor Violet, bookworm Klaus, and biting baby Sunny— find themselves in the care of the sinister, abusive, and incompetent Count Olaf after the trio’s parents burn to death in the family mansion. The only people in this setting dumber than Olaf, it seems, are any adults who might possibly provide the orphans with a good home. So Sunny, Klaus, and Violet must figure out, on their own, a way to escape the Count before his evil scheme to snatch the Baudelaire fortune comes to fruition.

The actors, naturally and effectively, bring the strange world of ASOUE to life. Special mention goes to Usman Ally as Count Olaf’s hook-handed henchman— funny or intimidating whenever he chooses to be, sometimes changing between edits without straining credulity. It’s a joy when Ally’s on screen, and I hope the writers keep in the development he undergoes later on. Poe finds a good balance between straight man and stupidest man in the room— incidentally, it only occurred to me watching this series that there might be a reason why Poe is coughing after the fire (besides the obvious, innocent one). Though Neil Patrick Harris can charm with anti-humor as Olaf, he can’t find a way to work with the heavy makeup like Carrey could. On screen, the Count always looks like normal-aged Neil Patrick Harris in a disguise (which, for all I know, might actually be a disguise in this adaptation, as Olaf is infamous for them).

So yeah, great score, good utilization of anachronistic setting (a phrase which here means “a location where one can drive old cars and use the Internet”), some laugh-out-loud moments, a well-maintained downer atmosphere, and a climactic play where the show doesn’t cop-out on the original ending like the movie did. Sounds perfect, right? There’s just one thing, and there’s nothing to do but say it.

The parents are still alive.

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I know!

No, there’s nothing ambiguous about it— they’re credited as Mother and Father at the end. It’s not even like they need to be alive (and captured) to hook in the audience. The Netflix adaptation added a Very Funny Distraction concerning two secret agents, which works fine as a continuous arc during what will be a quite episodic first season. Why are the parents still alive? Despite the narrator’s (Snicket’s) assurances that this show will be miserable, I can’t imagine an ending to this plot that doesn’t involve a family reunion, if only briefly. Otherwise, why bring it up? If the show’s good— which it is, in spite of this addition— then you shouldn’t need a hook to bring viewers back! “Temporarily inconvenienced” parents aren’t as tragic as “dead parents.” Hell, maybe this series will have a happy ending, why not. Let’s invite Lily and James Potter back while we’re at it.

Maybe Netflix knows what it’s doing— Daniel Handler is on board, after all, maybe he proposed this addition to interest book fans and will do something unimaginably cruel with it. But sometimes, giving a spark of hope to your audience is the last thing you want to do.

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