This review contains minor spoilers.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events returned to Netflix for its second series at the end of last month, and now that I’ve had a chance to watch all ten episodes, I thought it was about time that I put my thoughts into a review.
But first, let me provide a brief overview for the uninitiated. Back in 2004, there was a feature film starring Jim Carrey that covered the first three volumes in a series of children’s books by US author Daniel Handler. However, the current Netflix Original series will bring all thirteen books to the small screen – two episodes per book, and the second series covers books five to nine.
The books tell the sorry the tale of the three Baudelaire siblings who are orphaned when their wealthy parents are killed in a fire that burns down their family home. Initially placed in the care of Count Olaf, a distant relative who the children have never heard of, it soon becomes clear that he is intent on stealing their inheritance at any cost. Arthur Poe, a banker in charge of the Baudelaire fortune, ships them off to one set of unsuitable guardians after another, all the while pursued by the villainous Count Olaf, who dons a variety of disguises in his attempts to get his hands on the money.
As far as plot goes, that’s pretty much it, and I must admit that on watching the first couple of episodes of the second series, I got more than a little sense of déjà vu. I mean, I enjoyed the first series immensely, but was each subsequent story going to be a rehash of the last? Fear not, I’m happy to report that as this wonderful series progresses, a richer plot begins to unfold, and by the end of episode ten, events are finely poised going into the third and final season.
There are several outstanding elements that make this series worth a watch. First up is the production design. The look and feel that the team have achieved with this series is astounding. The thing about the story is that you’re never quite sure what era events are taking place in – most of the cars and clothes suggest bygone years, maybe the 1940s or 1950s, yet every so often, technology only available in the latter part of the 20th century appears. Regardless of when it is set, the sumptuous visuals served up give the feeling of a finely detailed theatrical production beamed into your home. So, whether it’s the penthouse apartment of The Ersatz Elevator; the evocative desert location of The Vile Village or the crumbling Soviet-era look of the Heimlich Hospital (in The Hostile Hospital), it’s all got that ramshackle fairy tale feel that wouldn’t look out of place in a major Hollywood production.
Then there’s the outstanding cast of characters. The episodes are introduced by narrator Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton. American viewers may know his resume far better than me, but to an Englishman with many visits to Walt Disney World under his belt, he’ll always be flight attendant Patrick from the Soarin’ attraction. The same eloquent delivery that makes Patrick perfect on Soarin’ is on show here but in addition to introducing proceedings, he also gets to wander through the scenes – unseen by the other actors of course – and adds an additional layer of depth to the story as it progresses. He frequently warns viewers to “look away, because nothing pleasant happens in this story.”
Neil Patrick Harris is excellent as the scheming Count Olaf, and in this second series, he continues to play Count Olaf in various disguises to great effect. A major strand of all stories is that Klaus, Violet and Sonny Baudelaire all see through his disguises with ease, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t tremendous fun to observe for the viewer. In this second series, he dons a turban to play gym master Coach Genghis, dresses as the “cool” Detective Dupin and perhaps best of all, poses as fake surgeon Dr Medicalschool. When challenged by a hospital receptionist, he must invent the name on the spot, and it’s fun to hear him attempt to disguise such an absurd made-up name by comically pronouncing it as Dr Madycle-Skull. Harris also sings the catchy earworm theme song “Look Away” – echoing narrator Lemony Snicket’s continued advice to viewers – and serves as executive producer.
Count Olaf is aided and abetted by a ragtag bunch of misfits, best of which in this second series is Lucy Punch as the improbably-named Esme Squalor. She gets to join Harris in a series of choreographed musical numbers that add to the on-screen fun. Other delights include the Volunteers Fighting Diseases – a cruel, but excellent send-up, of do-gooders who travel to hospitals in their van and believe that no matter how grave an illness, a strummed acoustic guitar and a spot of harmony singing will boost the patient’s morale. Best character name goes to Larry Your-Waiter (“Hi, I’m Larry your waiter”) who seems to be one of the good guys.
Special mention must be given to Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes who play Violet and Klaus Baudelaire respectively. Whilst Count Olaf, his henchmen/women and most of the other characters are dialled up to 9.9 on the wack-o-meter scale of caricatures, Weissman and Hynes play the Baudelaires with admirable restraint. Both have mastered their pained expressions that make the viewer feel the increasing hopelessness of their character’s predicament. (If you’ve wondered why I’ve not mentioned Sonny Baudelaire, it’s because playing a toddler probably doesn’t require quite the same range of acting skills, but Presley Smith does a fine job of being cute).
Perhaps best of all is the plot that begins to evolve: suggestions of secret societies, the possibility that one of the Baudelaire’s parents may have survived the fire and previously unseen connections between some of the characters make the narrative stronger as it rattles along to the series finale, and this bodes well for the final series.
In summary, I think that the second series of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is well worth your time. Despite the potential repetitiveness of the set-up (Count Olaf’s schemes have less chance of bearing fruit than Wile E. Coyote’s) this series has got more than enough going for it, from the stunning production design and quirky feel of the world, to the gradually evolving plot and an outlandish cast of characters that you can’t help but enjoy watching hamming it up on the screen. I can’t wait for the third series.