Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events: When Bad Endings Make You Want More
When bad things happen to good people, it's sadistic to grab popcorn. Lemony Snicket tells us this much, lighting a match inside a tunnel and giving the first of many warnings: "Watch something more pleasant instead." Naturally, nothing else triggers the knee-jerk response to marathon Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events like a stranger claiming we shouldn't do it.
On a perfect day at the beach—and for the Baudelaire children, the gray and cloudy sky is what makes it perfect—Klaus (Louis Hynes), Violet (Malina Weissman), and Sunny (Presley Smith) learn that they have lost their parents and their house in a suspicious fire. According to their parents' will, they are to be raised by their closest relative, while every cent of the Baudelaire fortune remains locked up until Violet comes of age. The Baudelaire children are corralled like livestock from house to house by the most incompetent character in the show, Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), who mistakenly leaves them with Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a crotchety man out to steal their fortune.
It might not reach the level of schadenfreude, but the show has a knack for sneaking up on the Baudelaires when they're most hopeful and unguarded.
As early as the pilot, aptly titled "A Bad Beginning: Part One," A Series of Unfortunate Events revels in showering its protagonists in despair. It might not reach the level of schadenfreude, but the show has a knack for sneaking up on the Baudelaires when they're at their most hopeful and unguarded. Later, a house catches fire, a man tries to marry a 14-year-old, and nice people are eaten by leeches. This is the kind of gloom and doom woven into the show's DNA, in which bad people live to fight another day and the adults are wonderfully useless.
Breaking the fourth wall is another tradition of the books, and the TV adaptation honors that by addressing viewers as though they were naturally part of the narrative. “In all honesty I prefer long-form television to the movies. It's so much more convenient to consume entertainment from the comforts of your own home,” says Count Olaf, looking straight-faced at the camera. (Netflix, true to their word last year, has made their programs available for download.)
The way the show peppers cultural references, from Uber to Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, is also very clever. For all its shout-outs and postmodern touches, the show shies away from situating the events in a specific place, so it feels like it could happen anywhere, in a universe parallel to ours.
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off somewhere else." Lemony Snicket is right, to an extent. But disclaimers don't shatter the hope of a happy ending; if anything, they make the notion seem more enticing. After experiencing a certain level of distress from the show, it doesn't feel irrational to expect the Baudelaires will discover a silver lining soon, rather than for their lives to descend further down. It's an odd lesson in marketing, pushing a binder across the table and demanding that viewers read the waiver fully. Maybe that's what makes it harder to look away.