“Look away, look away. This show will wreck your evening, your whole life, and your day. Every single episode is nothing but dismay.”
Those lines are from the opening song to Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the delightfully bizarre and joyfully melancholy show adapted from the series of children’s books. The show is really quite an interesting animal, being something of a black comedy intended for children, but with the worldbuilding and thematic depth that makes these episodes worth revisiting, and that not only for children.
The basic thrust of the show is that three children became orphans by a tragic fire, and are then shuffled from guardian to guardian. All the whole, however, the villainous Count Olaf (played here by Neil Patrick Harris) is trying to find a way to get them under his care so he can ultimately gain the children’s fortune left by their parents. Mostly as a result of the villainous Olaf, horrid and tragic things continue happening to the children throughout the show, as they always just barely manage to escape his wretched plans.
But to keep things lively – and that’s absolutely necessary, given the dark subject matter of the show – it infuses an enormous amount of character and dry humor. The narrator himself, author Lemony Snicket, is a key character in the show, played by Patrick Warburton. He’s frequently the best part of the show, coming in to explain the meanings of words for the children, or illuminate the meaning of irony or sarcasm, and always does so with a perfect deadpan comical sensibility. The writing is quirky, pun-filled, and frequently winks at the fourth wall, as though it were written by a clever English teacher with a morbid sense of humor.
The quirkiness extends especially to the children, where Violet is a genius inventor, Klaus a brilliant bookworm, and the baby Sunny who speaks a language only her siblings can understand, and has teeth that can cut through wood. As the season goes on, the show also inserts various allusions to a deeper world beyond the Baudelaire orphans, with secret societies and cryptic symbols being constantly alluded to. From a world-building aspect, as well as an aesthetic perspective, the show is something of a marvel, with a mastery over conflict and a sense of adventure that will pull in adults just as easily as children.
Because of the grim nature of the show’s subject matter, however, some caution must be given. It is a black comedy, and so there is death in this show, and not all of it is implied. One of the children is once physically struck, as well. With those cautions given, however, this is one of the more edifying shows I’ve seen on television in recent years. The children, while rightly mourning the passing of their parents and vulnerable to bouts of depression and despair, respond to their oppression in ways that are laudable and inspiring. They never resort to reacting with the treatment they’re being given, and they always find a way to persevere, no matter the circumstances. Here, at the very least, is a great lesson for us all: as far as our character is concerned, horrible circumstances do not make us victims. We always choose how we respond. In the case of the Boudelaires, they choose correctly, and they make those correct choices consistently.
In a lesser show, this would make the story ripe for a boring story with no conflict. But the story keeps its conflict because you want to see justice brought to the orphans, despite Snicket continually telling you that you shouldn’t be watching the show, because nothing good is going to come of it. And therein lies the show’s charm. Between its gothic atmosphere, overflowing puns, and endearing protagonists, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a show that is equal parts drama, comedy, and parody, and does so to great effect.