The Bingeworthy Breakdown is an occasional look at new TV shows. An estimated 500 scripted seasons of TV will air in 2017, and to help you sort the wheat from the chaff, we’re going to look at the first episodes of the most notable of these to help you work out whether it’s worth tuning every week for them, waiting to binge later, or using the time to finally catch up on “Carnivàle” or whatever else you’ve been waiting for. After FX’s “Taboo” last week, this time we look at Netflix’s new show “A Series Of Unfortunate Events,” based on the books by ‘Lemony Snicket.’
Have you ever looked for something that was lost, perhaps a set of house keys or a purse of money, that you urgently needed? And in the process of desperately looking for that object, not only failed to find that accursed thing (accursed here meaning a word used to express strong dislike of or anger at something, rather than literally under a curse), but also trapped your finger in an old mousetrap and uncovered evidence of betrayal by a dear friend, and lost another crucial possession in the process? Then you’ll be familiar with the miserable tale of the Baudelaire orphans —
What are you doing?
What do you mean?
You’re doing a bit.
I’m doing no such thing. I’m merely —
Fine. I was trying to give a taste of the style of Lemony Snicket, the author behind new Netflix series “A Series Of Unfortunate Events.”
Lemony Snicket? Isn’t that when a bunch of old men get together and —
No! You and your filthy mind.
That surely can’t be a real name, though.
It’s not. It’s a pseudonym for Daniel Handler, a best-selling and prize-winning author who’s published under his own name (and played accordion for The Magnetic Fields, indie-rock fans), but is best known as Snicket, and in particular for the “Series Of Unfortunate Events” YA novels published between 1999 and 2006, on which this new eight-part series is based.
That rings a bell.
If you’re not a big reader or a millennial (the books were enormously popular in the post-Harry Potter boom in YA during the 00s), you might know it from “Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events,” a 2004 film starring Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Timothy Spall, Jude Law and freshly minted leader of the resistance Meryl Streep. It was hoped to be a Potter-style franchise, but box office was underwhelming and a follow-up never arrived.
Like we needed another one of those franchises. You know they made two Percy Jackson movies? Two! That’s two more than anyone needed.
Actually, this one was pretty good. It wasn’t entirely successful at capturing the spirit of the books, and director Brad Silberling slightly struggled to define it visually beyond the sub-genre we’d call “Wait, Tim Burton Didn’t Direct This? Huh,” but he wrangled the tone nicely, it was consistently entertaining and much smarter than most of its rivals, and had one of Carrey’s best performances at its center. Anyway, what’s done is done.
And now it’s a Netflix show?
It is! The streaming giant announced it a while back, with Handler himself writing five of the eight episodes, “True Blood” veteran Mark Hudis serving as showrunner, and “Men In Black” director Barry Sonnenfeld helming half of the installments and exec-producing.
So let me guess. Chosen-one kids with magic powers who are trying to battle an ancient evil?
Not so much: There’s more Charles Dickens or Roald Dahl to Lemony Snicket than there is J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien. The colorful prose style of Snicket (here played by the honey-voiced Patrick Warburton) —
Wait, Snicket is a character in the show?
Yeah. He pops up on camera a lot, wandering around the action with amusingly dry narration, warning the viewer not to watch lest they be too depressed by the titular unfortunate events, and hinting at lost loves and adventures that he himself has gone through, and which may tie into the macro plot in some way.
It is! And it works really well, on the whole, rather than stopping the story in its tracks, which this sort of conceit sometimes does. Anyway, Handler/Snicket’s prose style — mournful and droll and always warning of worse to come — is ever-present here, and while these adventures are definitely heightened, it’s mostly in a darkly comic way rather than a wizards-and-dragons way.
And what are these adventures?
It begins with the Baudelaire children — inventor Violet (Malina Weissman), bookworm Klaus (Louis Hynes) and bite-y baby Sunny (Presley Smith) at the beach together, only for their idyllic life to fall apart when bank manager Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) tells them, cheerily, that their parents have perished in a fire that destroyed their home.
Jeez, that is bleak.
Well, yeah. But again, it’s nothing that Dickens didn’t do, or that children’s literature in general hasn’t done for centuries. Unless your little ones are particularly nervous of disposition, this should be fine for the 10 and ups. And if they do freak out, maybe leave them outside in the cold for a while like the Scandinavians do to toughen them up.
It feels like your weekend of binge-watching six hours of child cruelty is taking effect.
Yeah, probs. Anyway, their parents are dead, but the good news is that their parents were wealthy and have left a fortune for them, held in a trust fund until Violet comes of age. In the meantime, they’ll be sent to live with a guardian, Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), who’ll look after them until then.
So it’s like “Uncle Buck” or something? Wacky adventures ensue?
Not so much. See, Olaf is, along with looking like what would happen if a goat and a bald eagle had a baby, and being a vain and untalented actor, is also an arch-villain with a mysterious eye tattoo on his ankle, who’s plotting to steal the children’s inheritance and possibly do away with them in the process. He puts them to work at chores as he rehearses with his useless troupe (who are more than reminiscent of the cast of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”) a play that will see the culmination of his plans.
Oh, yeah, I kind of remember that from the movie. So presumably this suffers from Bloodline Syndrome?
Uh, Bloodline Syndrome?
When a Netflix show tries to stretch two hours’ worth of plot over 30 hours of TV.
Ah, gotcha. Actually no. There are 13 books in the series, so there’s plenty of material to adapt, and they’re not being stingy about dragging them out: The eight-episode first season adapts the first four books, with each individual story taking two episodes — the synopsis above only refers to the initial two-parter, “The Bad Beginning.”
Well, that’s refreshing!
It is. Though it comes with some problems of its own, but we’ll get to those in a bit. But yeah, as far as streaming shows go, it’s really well-paced, with none of the mid-season slump that you get in a Marvel show. Between this and “Stranger Things,” eight is starting to feel like the magic number.