“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Netflix Review

As I’ve documented, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is very much not superversive. That said, after writing two articles on the series I thought I’d give my first impressions on the Netflix series. Currently I’m almost done with the first half of “The Wide Window”, the fifth episode in the series (each book takes up two episodes; since “The Wide Window” is book three I’m on episode five of eight in the first season).

Rapid Fire:

– First off, I loved it. I want to make that clear now so all criticisms are remembered in that light. These are minor flaws I’m picking on. That said…

– Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf is a mixed bag. He wasn’t sinister enough in “The Bad Beginning” but his acting gained more range and subtlety by “The Reptile Room”, and now that I’m in “The Wide Window” (which I consider one of the series’ better books) I think he’s managed the perfect combination of terrifying and hilarious (“Please call me by my first name: Julio” cracked me up).

– The death of Uncle Monty (oh come on, the book is 18 years old now, I’m not going to bother with spoilers) was perfectly executed. That was legitimately heartbreaking, and DARK.

– Like NPH, I wasn’t sold on the children’s performance as the orphans at first, but I thought they did better and better as the series has gone on. They were all somewhat stiff in “The Bad Beginning”, but their acting in “The Reptile Room” was spot on, and so far they’ve done quite a good job in “The Wide Window”.

– I am REALLY unsure how much I like all the integration with the larger conspiracy subplot in the background. Don’t get me wrong, some integration was necessary, but I think this might be a step too far. We know too much too soon. I’m especially unsure of how much I like the big twist at the end of “The Bad Beginning”, though I would bet money that those people aren’t who we think they are. Maybe they could make it work – we’ll wait and see.

– As I was worried about, they unfortunately weren’t willing to commit to all of the darkness in “The Bad Beginning”. The scene in the book – which I recently re-read – where Klaus confronts Olaf on his plan to marry Violet, and Violet reveals he has kidnapped Sunny, is not funny AT ALL. Not in the slightest. It is absolutely terrifying, and disturbing. There isn’t a hint of a joke in any of it.

But the Netflix version added some subtle jokes to the scene. The jokes were very dry, and they were in keeping with the tone of the series, but they were still jokes. The show wasn’t able to commit to the full darkness, and it was a bit disappointing.

Ditto with the scene where Olaf slaps Klaus in the face. In the book, the whole theatre troupe laughs at him, but in the show, everyone goes silent. The book makes it clear that not only do they have no allies, everyone even approves of their mistreatment. The show lessens the sting, even if only a little bit. It was slightly disappointing.

Now the good stuff!

– The hook handed man and the person who looks like neither a man nor a woman (hereafter “the androgynous person”) were a delight. I cracked up when Olaf yelled to the children what they were supposed to do while dinner was cooking and the andogynous person suggested “We can wait patiently”. Also, apparently there is honor among thieves, because when the hook-handed man gambles with Sunny, he keeps his word when he loses.

– There is so much fan service it is ridiculous (in a good way). Throwaway lines, background shots, hints and references, there are TONS of Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed fans to catch.

– The tone is dead-on pitch perfect. Awesome! It’s a terrific adaptation.

– Most importantly of all, Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket is PERFECT, and I mean perfect. I can’t imagine anybody executing the character better than the series has done. He’s so freaking good, and so funny, that just by having him there I’m willing to forgive a ton of the series’ (in my view, minor) flaws. Seriously. I can’t emphasize enough what a dead-on flawless portrayal and interpretation of the character it is.

A final note: I was in the comments section of a review article cheerfully joining in on an active discussion with other ASoUE fans, a scenario that as you might imagine doesn’t happen particularly often. At one point, after a long, interesting conversation where many intelligent points were made, I linked to my Castalia articles on the book series, so people could see in more depth why I had an issue with the ending without me having to spell out my full case in detail again.

Later I again respond to somebody making a case why I thought the ending of the series – which is an explicit endorsement of moral relativism – is morally repugnant. Instead of an attempt to refute my points or offer an intelligent disagreement, a commenter wrote this:

I find it funny that somebody who writes on a website for Vox Day’s publishing house is trying to criticize someone else for promoting a “facile and evil philosophy.”

That was his whole response.

There you go. Doesn’t matter how intelligent my points are or how well I articulate them, I write on the blog of a publishing house that employs Vox Day as the editor-in-chief. So clearly I’m evil.

Sometimes there’s not much more to do but shake your head and hit “block”.

For the interested, my comment:

Snicket stacks the deck so much that by the end of the series he has essentially creates circumstances that force the orphans into a position of moral relativism – a lie.

Moral relativism is the philosophy of hip faux-Nietzche teens. Adults learn, ultimately, that just because bad people do good things and good people do bad things doesn’t mean you’re forced into a pattern of secrets and lies. Heroes and villains exist, and you can always choose what to be. But Snicket takes away agency and presents a facile and evil philosophy as unavoidable truth. It’s not. It’s a lie.

I expand here:

By book the twelfth, it becomes more clear than ever that Snicket has stacked the deck completely. He essentially forces the Baudelaire children into a situation where they are forced to burn down a building and leave people for dead. Stacking the deck is good to create conflict and amusing situations; it is not good to convince people that sometimes it’s necessary for children to burn down buildings and leave people for dead.

Now we reach book the thirteenth. In book the thirteenth, Snicket goes even further and tries to make the case that good and bad are a relative thing that doesn’t exist at all. To do this, he sets up Ishmael. Ishmael is essentially a man “Beyond good and evil”. The island’s customs, in very clear terms likened to religion, (Snicket uses the term “opiate of the masses”, a term Marx uses to describe religion), are set up by Ishmael as a way to control the unthinking people.

The Baudelaires, abandoned with Olaf for the apparent crime of rejecting the religion of the island, are forced again into an alliance with him, further cementing the idea that, as people beyond good and evil (religion, which they are smart enough to reject) they, Olaf, and Ishmael are in fact of a kind; they are the overmensch.

Later, some members of the island plan on a revolution, to overthrow Ishmael, and a false choice is set up: Olaf or Ishmael. Nobody tries for the third option – rejecting both and living according to an objective morality, where nobody is beyond good and evil and morality is determined not by customs but by natural law, discoverable by human reason and that all humanity is answerable to. People are either too stupid or too wicked, you see, to do the right thing, or else are forced into circumstance to do bad things – which means those things really aren’t good OR bad either way; morality is relative, right?

Ultimately we learn that Olaf, the Baudelaires, their parents, and Kit Snicket are really not so different, since they all lied at various times. This, itself, is a lie; just because people sometimes make bad decisions doesn’t mean you can’t choose to be a hero – a volunteer – or a villain. But no; we all either go with Ishmael and die, or stay with Olaf on an island alone.

And the series ends with the Baudelaires keeping secrets from young Beatrice; the opportunity of them simply telling the truth is something Snicket doesn’t even consider, because he doesn’t see a problem with lying. Everybody lies, said Dr. House.

It’s a wicked lie itself.