“Look away, look away,” proclaims Neil Patrick Harris in the eerily catchy theme song of Netflix’s TV remake of A Series of Unfortunate Events. ASOUE is a darkly humorous book series circa early 2000s that gained popularity at just the right time for adolescents like myself to become hooked on every unfortunate word. More than 10 years after the thirteenth book in the series, “The End,” came out in 2006, the Netflix adaptation – starring Neil Patrick Harris as the villainous actor Count Olaf – is like a dream come true.
And the series delivers impressively, which is not surprising considering that all eight 45-minute episodes were telecast by Daniel Handler, the real name of ASOUE writer and narrator Lemony Snicket. Handler effortlessly transforms the first four books in the series into a TV show, even changing the characteristic back cover rhetoric (“I’m sorry to say that the book you’re holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant”) to fit the onscreen portrayal (“Ask any stable person, ‘Should I watch?’ and they will say, ‘Look away'”).
I enjoyed every minute of the first season, from the portrayal of the blighted Baudelaires – especially Malina Weissman, who makes Violet Baudelaire’s strength in the face of countless obstacles believable – to the fourth-wall breaking narration from Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket, an excellent nod to the way his voice permeates throughout the books; to the countless literary quotes the children use to epitomize their plight (“What was that thing Haruki Murakami said?” Violet asks at the end of The Wide Window, Part 2. “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in….you won’t even be sure, in fact…whether the storm is really over,” Klaus answers).
In addition to being poignant, the show is also genuinely funny. Some of the characters, like Alfre Woodward as the once-formidable, now-panophobic Aunt Josephine and K. Todd Freeman as the always-coughing Mr. Poe, provide needed comic relief as unhelpful but well-meaning characters in an otherwise dark situation.
The writers also make some blatant references to the fact that the show is now a Netflix series rather than a movie, like the 2004 feature starring Jim Carrey (which, actually, I also quite liked). For example, in the last episode, as Mr. Poe drives the children off to Prufrock Preparatory School (the setting of my favorite of the books, which will hopefully make more of an appearance in Season 2!), he says, “It’s the end of the season – I mean semester – and you’ll have to catch up.” There are also a number of references to future books in the series, which are both exciting for those who’ve read the books in the past and a hopeful suggestion that the series will in fact be green-lighted for Season 2.
In summary, the show is well worth the watch – maybe more than once – for the story alone. But ASOUE also provides a sense of catharsis at a time when, for many of us, the world really is beginning to feel like a series of unfortunate events, or rather, a series of harrowing and inappropriate executive orders from our president of 10 days. In fact, the lyrics of the surprising musical number at the end of “The Miserable Mill, Part 2” (ICYMI: here’s the Youtube link), while meant to sum up the sad tale of the Baudelaires’ lives, feel more like a summary of more recent, nonfiction unfortunate events:
Yes there’s no happy endings, not here and not now,
This tale is all sorrows and woes,
You might dream that justice and peace win the day,
But that’s not how the story goes.
The Baudelaires enter each new chapter of their story with determination, grit, and an attempt to hold onto the hope that everything will eventually be okay, that they will eventually find their home – all despite the fact that the theme song literally predicts bad times. Like the protestors who flooded airports around the U.S. yesterday as travelers were detained and prevented from reentering their home country, they can’t and won’t look away. The Baudelaires are active participants in their own story. They never sit idly by and let the so-called “adults” handle what happens to them: they tie up their hair, do some research, and bite down on the patriarchy. They are resistant.
It’s something we can all learn from the Baudelaires – that there are places where the world is quiet, that in dark times, the good can still outweigh the bad, and that if you are strong enough, the worst isn’t inevitable, no matter what the song says.