"A Series of Unfortunate Events" is back and darker than ever

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/17/18 2:20am

The Baudelaire Orphans are back for a second season in Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and fortunately for us the show hasn’t lost its gothic charm, idiosyncratic humor or heartfelt sincerity. Once again, producer and director Barry Sonnenfeld and his team of writers adapt the books from the beloved book series by Lemony Snicket (nom de plume for Daniel Handler) into two-part episodes. In doing so, they allow each book the chance to shine, breathe and grow in what is essentially a 90-plus minute mini-movie. This season tackles books five through nine: “The Austere Academy,” “The Ersatz Elevator,” “The Vile Village,” “The Hostile Hospital” and “The Carnivorous Carnival.” As the titles suggest, the show remains as erudite and obsessed with literary allusions as before.

In my glowing review for the first season, I wrote, “When I was younger, I remember my favorite books came after the halfway point in the series.” At the time, I was surprised by the quality of the first season considering that it adapted some of Handler’s weaker entries. Thankfully, my memory served me well. The second season isn’t better due to improved writing, directing or acting — “Unfortunate Events” is nothing if not incredibly consistent in execution. Rather, this season is better because the source material is darker, more intricate and a little less episodic.

Admittedly, the first few episodes follow the same basic formula set up in the first season: The Baudelaires are taken in by a new guardian, prompting the villainous Count Olaf to show up in disguise to steal their family fortune. No one aside from the orphans recognizes that it is Olaf and the Baudelaires barely manage to escape with the murderous Count hot on their tail — yet the series do so with such aplomb and style that one hardly notices their repetitive nature. “The Austere Academy” episodes in particular do an excellent job of hiding this structure beneath hysterical joke after hysterical joke.

But it’s during “The Vile Village” episodes where things get interesting. As with the original books, this story serves as a real demarcation point for the series. Given that it is the precise middle of the Baudelaire saga, adapted from the seventh book out of a total of 13, the status quo is quickly upended as the orphans become fugitives of the law and Count Olaf gains immunity when he is falsely declared dead. As a result, “The Hostile Hospital” and “The Carnivorous Carnival” episodes are the most twisted and exciting that the show has yet produced. While they never quite recapture the infectious humor of “The Austere Academy,” they successfully deepen the show’s mythology while raising the stakes for all the major characters.

Speaking of which, it is once again the large ensemble of unique and quirky characters that truly makes the show memorable. Neil Patrick Harris is at his best when he gets to sink his teeth into Olaf’s sadistic side, conjuring up an antagonist who is often amusing and frightening in a single sentence. Patrick Warburton returns as Lemony Snicket, the dutiful and downtrodden in-universe narrator whose interjections become, if possible, even more meta than they were in the first season.

We’re also introduced to a host of supporting players, most of whom are improvements on their book counterparts. Lucy Punch turns a character I loathed as a child, Olaf’s vain girlfriend Esmé Squalor, into a truly deranged delight, something of a maniacal Lady Gaga. David Alan Grier leaves an indelible mark by bringing real heart and soul to Hal, a visually disabled hospital clerk who befriends the Baudelaires. Unsurprisingly, though, it’s Nathan Fillion who steals every scene he’s in as Jacques Snicket, Lemony’s dashing and adventurous brother.The few scenes Fillion and Warburton share are some of the season’s highlights.

This season also properly introduces us to Duncan and Isadora Quagmire, orphans who become the Baudelaires’s best friends after it is revealed that their parents also died in a mysterious house fire. Avi Lake and Dylan Kingwell acquit themselves admirably but suffer from some of the same stiffness that plagued the Baudelaire actors in the first season. By contrast, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes have grown substantially as Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, together bringing a sense of sanity to this insane, anachronistic world. Even their baby sister Sunny seems better integrated. Although still mostly used for punchlines, she’s starting to feel more like a real character.

While this season lacks any weak episodes, it certainly has a few such moments. Its style of comedy often repeats or extends certain jokes, almost excessively. While this can be funny, it can also grow immensely tiring. The central joke surrounding Esmé is that she only likes things that she considers fashionable and “in,” a gag which becomes increasingly wearying during “The Ersatz Elevator” episodes. The consistent dourness of the plotlines can also be rather exhausting, though that’s really more of a fault of the books than of the show.

As was the case with the first season, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” remains oddly theatrical. The acting especially seems more suited for a Broadway show than for a cinematic endeavor. Episodes often seem as though they are itching to break out into explicitly staged moments, permitting Harris and company the occasional chance to jump into a variety of song and dance numbers. This is often part of the show’s oddball charm, but is at times off-putting. If nothing else, it keeps the story and characters at an arm’s length away from the viewer.

While the first season ended on a sad note, it still possessed a degree of closure. Season two opts for both a figurative and literal cliffhanger. In many ways, the ending is emblematic of the tonal shift that occurs during the last few episodes. Some fans may miss the bizarre and often satirical humor, but I suspect most will appreciate the show’s growing maturity as it hurtles toward its next and final season.