'A Series of Unfortunate Events' continues its trend as an engaging series

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/15/19 2:05am

In my review for the second season of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” I commented that the Netflix adaptation for the beloved, darkly comic 13-book children’s series by Lemony Snicket (pen name for Daniel Handler), was unique for its remarkable consistency if nothing else. While it might be true that each season is an improvement from the last, the margins of quality difference are slim throughout. As a show, it began excellently and has yet to falter. As an adaptation, director Barry Sonnenfeld and his team of writers and co-directors have managed to not merely be faithful but also complementary to their source material. To paraphrase Mikey Neumann from his video “The Story of Harry Potter Part 3," the books make the [show] better and the [show] make[s] the books better.

The third and final season wraps up the dour — yet often delightful — tale of the three Baudelaire orphans by adapting Snicket’s final four books: “The Slippery Slope,” “The Grim Grotto,” “The Penultimate Peril” and “The End.” The Baudelaires continue to play their cat-and-mouse game with the villainous Count Olaf as he covets their enormous fortune, all while a mysterious organization known as “VFD” looms in the background, pulling a surprising number of strings. I noted in my season two review that the seventh book and its subsequent adaptation break the narrative’s repetitive formula as the Baudelaires become mistrusted fugitives and Count Olaf is given immunity. In part, this explains why the third season feels a little more riveting than its predecessors; everything is a tad more unpredictable. Thus, while past seasons have contained a mix of stand-out episodes and decent but weaker entries, this season hits all bullseyes.

In fact, it's exceedingly rare for a TV series to go out on its highest note. Typically, they hit a peak and then flounder on for a few more seasons, never really regaining the same momentum. However, while I may always have a special fondness for “The Reptile Room” episodes from season one, “The End” is doubtless the show’s single greatest accomplishment. For one thing, while all the other books are adapted as two-parters, “The End” is condensed into a single episode. Occasionally this means it’s a little rushed, but it also feels more concise and contained as a result. Moreover, the story essentially ends in the previous episode; thus, “The End” serves more as an epilogue or philosophical thesis for the show than an actual narrative conclusion. It takes the moral ambiguity at the heart of the show’s premise and runs with it, thoroughly exploring how reductive the categories of “good” and “bad” can be. While this is far from a radical sentiment, it is still expressed and examined in a manner that is surprisingly insightful.

Indeed, the entire third season is more emotionally rich and resonant than its predecessors. The theme of complex, even troubled, family relationships is highlighted to great effect. Parents trying and failing to protect and guide their children becomes a recurring undercurrent in some of this season’s best scenes. Likewise, the in-universe Rod Serling-esque narrator Lemony Snicket, once again played with supreme dry wit by Patrick Warburton, becomes a proper character in his own right for the first time. Just as last season we met his brother Jacques, played by a scene-stealing Nathan Fillion, this season introduces his sister Kit, played by the equally scene-stealing Allison Williams. The writing subtly parallels the relationship shared by the Baudelaire orphans to the fraught dynamic between the three Snicket siblings. It’s a beautiful little conceit and emblematic of the surprising depth that this show is capable of producing.

Of course, Warburton and Williams aren’t the only actors on top of their game this season. Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes give their best performances yet as Violet and Klaus, the elder Baudelaire siblings, and Neil Patrick Harris is at his most deranged as Count Olaf. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; this season has delightful and delirious supporting characters beyond counting. Add on top of that some slick direction and witty writing and you’ve basically got the best possible iteration of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” To be fair, if you didn’t like season one or two, this isn’t going to do much to change your mind. As always, the show’s artificiality creates a certain distance between the story and the spectators that I don’t always think is intended. Yet these little flourishes, whether they be the excessive fourth wall breaks or the theatrical set design, are precisely what make the show so memorable.

Nevertheless, I’m left to contemplate at the end of it all, “What is the intended audience for this show?” Most adaptations of popular children’s books would try to attract the (young) adults who grew up with the books as well as a new generation of children waiting to be swept up by the story. But it must be said that “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is no longer a children’s show. In fact, it seems to have next to no interest in appealing to the age range that once sustained the book series. It’s not that children couldn’t watch the show; it’s a little dark, but not especially gory or foul-mouthed. They just wouldn’t get it. And I’m not trying to be condescending or belittling when I say that. Rather, much of the humor in the show just assumes a certain life experience.

In a sense, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” has become an argument against itself. It may have begun as a children’s show intent on capturing the books’ honesty about the moral complexity of the world. But by now I think the writers have realized that you can’t do that without getting a little too real, a little too honest, a little too melancholy. Thus, the show isn’t aimed at children, but instead at the children who are now all grown up. Perhaps the show’s greatest strength — and yet also the reason for why its appeal might be limited — is that it ultimately isn’t an adaptation, but a re-examination of its source material from an adult perspective. It ponders just how sad the lives of these characters are, and just how admirable and yet also futile their journeys are. The result, as I’ve already mentioned, is oddly insightful, and perhaps at times even a little profound.