Binge-watching is Netflix’s brand, but their original series have often suffered from too much binge and not enough watching: 13-part seasons that would have played better as 10, sprawling plotlines that slopped from one episode to the next without hitting any satisfying marks in between. The eight-episode seasons of Stranger Things and The OA brought some welcome concision to the Netflix universe, but the unrelenting push toward serialization at the expense of standalone episodes meant that the former show, at least, played more like one long run-on sentence than a succession of finely tuned paragraphs.
A Series of Unfortunate Events has been heralded as a second chance, both for Daniel Handler’s novels, the first three of which were adapted into an ill-fated movie in 2004, and for that adaptation’s original director, Barry Sonnenfield, who was removed before production began. But it also makes important adjustments to the Netflix formula that future series would be wise to heed.
Series’ first season is composed of eight episodes, but it’s essentially four miniature feature films, one for each of the first four Lemony Snicket novels. The halves are labeled “Part 1” and “Part 2,” and if you hit the “Play Next Episode” button at the end of one, you’ll seamlessly skip past the second’s opening credits and jump right into the action.
But the scripts, which were written by Handler himself, don’t assume you’re watching every episode in a single sitting, or that you’ll perfectly recall everything that’s gone before. Netflix shows tend to eschew the “Previously on…” montages that help viewers of prestige shows like Game of Thrones keep track of their winding plots, presumably because it would muck with the idea that you can always skip back and re-stream something you might have missed. But when Episode 12 picks up that plot thread from Episode 3, a little pre-episodic memory jog would have come in handy. A Series of Unfortunate Events doesn’t recap—if anything it pre-caps, with a verse in the opening theme song changing to forecast the adventure to come—but the onscreen narrator, played by a sonorously deadpan Patrick Warburton, offers the occasional reminder of what’s come before, often buried in the prologue to one of his many circuitous digressions. These turn out to be especially helpful given Handler’s deliberately tortuous and not infrequently nonsensical plots. My second-grade daughter had no trouble with the series’ macabre touches, which include the re-orphaning of the three Baudelaire children several times over, but was perplexed by the proliferation of blind alleys and misdirections. (Netflix will be happy to know that this merely convinced said second grader to watch the whole thing a second time.)
Both the scope and the scale of the material are well-served by the presentation, which is deluxe by pre-Peak TV standards but without the inflations necessary to justify a feature-film budget. Neil Patrick Harris’ villainous Count Olaf is a wonderful creation, an endlessly vain and self-inflating actor-turned-swindler whose elaborate plans are matched only by his inability to carry them out, but he doesn’t overwhelm the story the way Jim Carrey’s leering Count did on the big screen. The Baudelaires, plucky Violet (Malina Weissman), bookish Klaus (Louis Hynes), and voracious infant Sunny (Presley Smith) are the heart of the tale, not merely the pretext for a movie star’s flight of fancy. Sonnenfeld, who directed the Addams Family and Men in Black movies, has often been a purveyor of the glossy grotesque, a Tim Burton you could take home to meet your folks. But Series walks the line between lighthearted children’s adventure and Gothic nightmare; someone turns up dead in nearly every story, but it’s always an adult, and usually one who’s failed to heed the Baudelaires’ warnings.
In these stories, adults are always more easily deceived than children, because adults trust in authority even when it’s unearned, where children can spot a fake a mile away—even without a spyglass. Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), the perpetually coughing executor who places the Baudelaires with a string of transparently unfit guardians, is taken in again and again by Olaf’s cockamamie schemes and overwrought disguises: a bearded herpetologist, a peg-legged sea captain, and a buxom secretary with a wig that looks like it was carried over from Harris’ Hedwig run. Children are knowledgeable but powerless; adults are too busy running the world to pay attention to it.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is calibrated to appeal to children and adults alike, but without the hectic back-and-forth that characterizes much children’s fare, where the adult-skewing jokes are thrown in as sops to keep parents from losing their minds. It’s doubtful that children will absorb Olaf’s periodic comments about the superiority of streaming entertainment to theatrical films or broadcast TV, an analogue to the books’ metaliterary asides, but the malign music of Handler’s dialogue is such that it’s engaging just to listen to Harris talk, regardless of what he’s saying. And for adults, the show’s Gothic lite may come as a respite from the gloomy miasma of much prestige TV. It may have a higher body count than House of Cards, but at least Series doesn’t expect you to take it seriously.
Given especially streaming TV’s positioning as the utmost in grown-up entertainment, it may be mildly heretical to suggest that future Netflix shows should follow the example of a series whose ideal audience is a precocious, mildly morbid 9-year-old. But for all their superficially “mature” trappings, most Netflix series don’t skew much older in the first place, and their pretentions to being “one long movie” are undercut by the use of contrived plot twists to keep viewers in perpetual binge mode. A Series of Unfortunate Events adds some danglers as well, in the form of new characters whose largely discrete stories hint at the existence of a larger conspiracy that even after eight episodes the Baudelaires are only beginning to understand. But those red herrings are practically labeled as such, a deliberate goof on the Lost-ian promise that if you only watch to the end, all will be revealed. In its way, Series reminds us of what children know and adults often forget: that mysteries don’t always have a satisfying explanation, and that the darkest problems are the ones we most need to laugh—or at least wryly grin—at.