Friday, February 17, 2017

"A Series of Unfortunate Events," Part 2 of 2: Why the Netflix Series Works

Wednesday I spent a great deal of time doing something I don't consider at all fun: talking about why I think something wasn't good. I would honestly rather spend my time talking about good, nice, fun things. And I realise that makes me sound quite a bit like our dear Mr. Snicket, but the fact of the matter is appreciating just how right the new adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events gets it is helped along (as I said before) by looking at what went wrong 13 years ago.

For a start, it helps that Daniel Handler himself is a producer and the main writer on this series. (One teleplay in season 1 is penned by Emily Fox, but nothing about it stands out as being the "different writer" episode -- if anything, it's one of the more challenging ones and has some of the best moments of comedy.) You can feel his grip on the series from nose to tail, and there's something quite comforting about that.

No more is Snicket the brooding silhouette in the attic. Now he's a Rod Serling-esque presence portrayed by Patrick Warburton, dressed (unless he is blending in) in the same unassuming suit-and-tie wardrobe that Handler himself wore to book tours. It's important to remember that just as Snicket is the writer, though, he is also a character who is an essential part of the story -- and this hasn't been forgotten in his portrayal here. His narration is even, calm, and authoritative, as one would expect it to be; but wistful sighs and occasional looks askance betray ties to the meat of the plot that fans of the books will notice, and that new fans will gasp at on a second watch once the full story is revealed.

But in all fairness, and to keep things even with my previous entry, let's examine the series based on the four points I raised earlier: the villain, the aesthetic, the children's autonomy, and the metaplot.

Point the First: Count Olaf is a ridiculous incompetent.

I'd never in my life have pegged Neil Patrick Harris for this role, but now that I've seen him I can't imagine anyone else. He's villainous, he's evil, he's angry... and he is utterly useless.

The only reason Olaf ever gets anything done is because the grown-ups around him keep crit-botching their observation checks. That's genuinely it. His disguises are excellent -- as in, the show's makeup department did a genius job of making extremely involved disguises that did absolutely nothing to hide his identity. They really look like he was trying hard and failing... and it's very hard for a skilled creator to do something badly on purpose, but by God they nailed it.

There are definitely times when NPH's Olaf feels threatening -- but it is never in the presence of an observant adult. When he's on the back foot (and much of the time when he's not), it's painfully obvious just how crap he is at villainy. The only time he was truly ever fearsome was in the Reptile Room duology when he pulled a knife on the Baudelaires. And that wasn't "Oh God, Count Olaf is armed" so much as "Oh God, this freaking lunatic has a knife and is unsupervised."

The fact that he's given moments of fourth-wall-breaking humour also helps. It gives us more room to see him as silly and ridiculous, and hands the responsibility for his successes back to the true culprits: the unobservant adults.

Point the Second: The Aesthetic

One look at the imagery of the series -- a mix of saturated suburban pastels and grim Gorey greys (sometimes in the same shot) -- and it should be no surprise that A Series of Unfortunate Events has some Pushing Daisies in its blood. Rather than racing straight for the Burton/McGee palette, they've erred on the side of playing up the indefinite time period.

Which is not to say they don't go full blackity black goth goth death. The flyover of Prufrock Prep that leads into the season finale, for example:

The imagery is spared for when it's needed, and allows us to actually see a genuine difference between "good" and "bad" places. Which is important. Because when the entire aesthetic of the piece is grim, it becomes harder to feel the warmth of good places and the chill of bad places.

Point the Third: The Baudelaires' Autonomy

With Daniel Handler at the keyboard, there were few chances of the Baudelaires' brilliance getting toyed with. Their first scene at Briny Beach was not only endearing and character-establishing, it was also warm and friendly. We knew they were intelligent, they all had talents, they communicated well with each other, and they were extremely likable.

In this adaptation, each Baudelaire owns their respective solo victories, as well as their victories together. Count Olaf doesn't steal any with a cheeky grin, the girls don't become de facto damsels in distress. Even though they may occasionally fail, or get discouraged, or get creepily hypnotized, they are as self-sufficient as they ever were in the books.

Point the Fourth: Vehemently Delivered Facts

Patrick Warburton's Snicket is, as book fans know, far more than just a stolid and somewhat pessimistic narrator. He's there from the beginning, leading us through the story, dropping us tiny tidbits of information that will coalesce as the story progresses.

But books and television are two different media -- and Handler seems fully aware of this. Because any changes he makes are for the benefit of telling the story as visually as possible. Clues to the true story behind the Baudelaires' plight are hidden in the opening, in the wallpaper, on street signs, even in tiny turns of phrase. (Yes, even the omnipresent Sugar Bowl gets a hat tip.)

Beyond this, though, fans of the series who know their Sebald Code from their Verbal Fridge Dialogue still have surprises in store for them. A new character -- or possibly a character previously only name-checked briefly -- has been added. New devices, new mysteries, and a few red herrings are thrown in to keep even the biggest fan guessing. Which is a delight. We may know the ultimate fate of the Baudelaires, but we have plenty of surprises in store along the way.

In short, those issues have been done away with. And from humorous opening to heart-wrenching final montage, the new A Series of Unfortunate Events is not only an effective adaptation -- it's a whole new lease on life for the series. Season 2 cannot come soon enough.