Just eight months after season two dropped, Netflix released the third and final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series saw some warranted critical acclaim, a phrase which here means it currently has a well-deserved 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Series Review
The Appealing Aesthetic
The series, developed by Barry Sonnenfeld, is an aesthetic masterpiece. As has become a standard of Netflix productions (see Stranger Things, Black Mirror and Daredevil), the art directors of A Series of Unfortunate Events have gone through a comprehensive worldbuilding design defined by scummy grays and browns, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them motifs and an overarching sense of a gothic sublime. Each destination that the Baudelaires visit contributes to this gothic sublime whilst maintaining individual features that maintain the intended feel of geographic isolationism.
For instance, the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill, which our protagonists visit in season one, looks and feels like a singular entity, around which an entire season of a show might be based. But the grime and visual decay seen at Lucky Smells is revisited again and again at Briny Beach, Heimlich Hospital and the Gorgonian Grotto.
The Charismatic Cast
The greatest strength of the series, however, is in its characters. The nature of the series’ antagonist requires a great deal of scenery-chewing, and Neil Patrick Harris‘ resume has demonstrated that he can ham as well as anyone in the business (see How I Met Your Mother, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). His cheese is well paired with the straight-laced and straight-faced omniscient narration from Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. Warburton, who is perhaps best known for his outlandish (and yelly) characters like Kronk, Joe Swanson and Brock Samson, plays the melancholy of the middle Snicket sibling brilliantly.
Violet and Klaus Baudelaire will be the breakout roles for the young stars, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes. Weissman and Hynes play their characters with striking consistency as the series progresses, to the point that these consistencies seem like a lack of character development. This is no fault of Weissman and Hynes, but rather seems like a valiant attempt to stay true to the source material. These two certainly have bright futures ahead of them.
The cast is rounded out with several established talents (Joan Cusack, Nathan Fillion, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders) and a number of should-be stars (Usman Ally, Roger Bart, K. Todd Freeman, Lucy Punch) to provide life for the show’s grand collection of terrific characters. (Side note: I think Matty Cardarople should have a cameo in every television show ever for the rest of time.)
The writing, which features hints of the snappy banter of a Wes Anderson joint and the syrupy cheesiness of vintage Joss Whedon, plays to each actor’s strengths with pinpoint accuracy. The casting also features a smattering of diversity, an area in which the previous film adaption fell glaringly short.
The Lamentable Lapses
One notable misstep in the casting process was the introduction of Allison Williams as the youngest Snicket sibling. The stony delivery displayed by Williams in her breakout silver screen role (Get Out) and here in A Series of Unfortunate Events failed to match the dry wit of Fillion’s Jacques Snicket or the mournful monotone of Warburton’s Lemony Snicket. Rather, she became a distraction and a break from the immersive design of the series as her character became more central to the plot. This, alongside the late-series appearance of Max Greenfield, seemed more like an unnecessary effort to add hot names to a hot project, although Greenfield’s performance as the Denouement brothers was significantly more believable.
Presley Smith makes her first television appearance as Sunny Baudelaire, Klaus and Violet’s infant sister. Smith is positively adorable in her portrayal, but it’s difficult to determine how much of it is actually Smith. Getting an infant to act under direction is a sympathetically difficult task, but the show gets around this by using CGI. Unfortunately, the show overextends this use, and Sunny Baudelaire often looks more animation than animal. While the show does veer into cartoonish sequences from time to time, Sunny’s computer correction looks and feels more like laziness from the showrunners. Adorable, nonetheless.
A grand criticism I will levy at A Series of Unfortunate Events is its seemingly half-hearted attempt to appeal to the source material’s original audience. The book series, written by Daniel Handler, was published between 1999 and 2006 and was aimed at an early middle-school audience. That audience is now in their mid-to-late twenties, and the show tries to strike some notes that would resonate with that audience. At points, the visualizations of the show’s necessary perils seem a bit much for a younger audience, the kind of age range at which the source material is aimed. The introduction of Lucy Punch as Esme Squalor into the show’s central plotline also introduces recurrent innuendo and a series of questionably adult costume choices that seemed wildly out of place and inconsistent with the costume design up until that point.
However, the show still strives to maintain its PG rating. This adaptation of the book series would have been better sticking with one direction or another. Either track the series as an adaptation for the books’ now-grown original audience and ramp up the terror and maturity or keep the show as the source material was meant and appeal strictly to a young audience and allow nostalgia to bring in the older viewers. The lack of consistency in this area made the final season feel a bit pandering, contributing to a break in the immersion the first season worked so hard to build.
Last Word on A Series of Unfortunate Events
Some of the show’s lower points are struck as criticisms of the source material. The repetitive, formulaic storytelling, the frustrating obfuscation of plot points surrounding the show’s MacGuffins and the extremely unnecessary addition of the show’s final episode on the mysterious island are a product of the show’s valiant efforts to stay true to the source material. In this sense, the show succeeds and can be lauded for its consistency with Handler’s books, and Handler’s books themselves should be lauded for their detailed worldbuilding, innovative educational storytelling, compelling characters and cleverly-wrought direction.
As a whole, the series is thoughtfully crafted and a visual feast. The nostalgia brought upon by the show is a draw in and of itself, but the characters are the show’s leading attraction, and for that, this show is worth a watch. But be forewarned, the show’s relentless tragedy can become grating when binged, much in the same way that Silicon Valley and the Gears of War game franchise do. For your own sake, make some time to look away.
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