A Series of Unfortunate Events is a darkly humorous melodrama about the lives of three orphaned siblings. It was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and others, and written by Joe Tracz and others, based on the children’s books by Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket is the pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who was closely involved as co-producer of the series. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a Netflix Original series; season two comprised ten episodes each (two per story) and was released globally on 30 March 2018.
Season 2 of this Netflix Original series covers books 5 to 9 in the continued adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (books 10 to 13 will be covered in season 3, hopefully next year). There is a very brief recap at the beginning of episode one; just enough to jog your memory, but not enough that you can make do without watching season one, at least to understand what some of the minor characters are on about. So this review, like season two itself, will assume you are already familiar with Snicket’s world and have watched the first season.
Like season one, each pair of episodes forms an adaptation of one book in the novel series, and the stories follow the same sequence as the books. And so episodes 1 and 2 give us The Austere Academy, set in the Gothic looking Prufrock Preparatory School. As in the book, there isn’t much excitement from Count Olaf in this story (he finds another daft disguise, of course, but is unprepared, and has rather a lame scheme), but it more than compensates with some new characters. The Baudelaires’ new enemy, Carmelita Spats, is spot on: egotistical, rude and annoying. Their new friends, Isadora and Duncan Quagmire, are useful yet bland; another perfect transfer from the book.
Interestingly, some of the filler scenes (such as inventing noisy shoes for scaring crabs) have been left out in favor of expanding on the members of the secret organization. We meet Jacques Snicket a couple of stories early (to give him some perfectly valid run up to his main part), and Nathan Fillion portrays him valiantly. And an attractive librarian takes a friendly liking to the orphans. Verdict so far: good, but not as good as season one.
Episodes 3 and 4 present The Ersatz Elevator, in which the Baudelaires go to live in a wealthy and fashionable apartment and we meet the absolutely fabulous Esmé Gigi Geniveve Squalor. I really do think she would have been perfect played by Joanna Lumley, but Lucy Punch pulled off the role beautifully nonetheless. We also find out some more about the secret organization and a baffling secret passageway. The overall story arc starts to get wider. Oh, and when I say fashionable, I’m talking over the top stylish, with pin-striped suits and art deco interiors the norm.
This one is somewhat flawed as an adaptation, but a good deal of the wit in the source books was based on the wordplay and narration, and therefore it made good sense to apply some alterations. So the additions work particularly well for TV, especially some farcical scenes, and some song and dance. Sunny truly came into her own here, too; and this story surprised us by turning out to be the funniest one yet. (Oh and now that we see a bit of coupling-up between grown-ups starting, a little innuendo is sneaking in. But it was mild, humorous, and way over the head of my Smallboy.)
Halfway through the season now, episodes 5 and 6 form The Vile Village. Olaf is exactly as I pictured him in the book, Esmé is still fabulous, and Jaqcues Snicket – lamentably – has his day. The village, a Wild West-style place with a severe-looking Council of Elders, is indeed quite creepy; it could just as easily be the Village of the Damned, or the one in Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” that Mr Poe refers to idiotically at one point.
There’s something particularly fabulous about the visuals in this story. The sunsets were all vivid as to appear almost like paintings or theatrical backdrops. The murder of crows migrating from one end of the village to the other was quite mesmerizing. And the self-sustaining-hot-air-mobile-home was better than I imagined; like a steampunk version of the balloon from Up.
Next, we come to The Hostile Hospital. The Baudelaires are well and truly on their own now, on the run, and without any guardians. This was the book that I found most sinister, and the Netflix adaptation didn’t let me down: Olaf is in disguise yet again, but no longer bothering with any pretence at good intentions; there is talk – nearly more than just talk – of craniectomy; and then there’s that scene that Olaf calls “Let’s scare Babs to death”, presented as a very effective homage to both The Shining and It.
The other thing that this story is notable for is that the orphans start considering moral dilemmas in relation to their own actions. Snicket – as narrator – often explains what awkward situations are like, but this is the first time they have to do something underhand in order to find out more about what happened to their parents. Indeed, in each story, there is one good and kind character who is flawed just enough to be unable to help them. This is the first time they have to use that flaw against a friend, and it’s a tough moment in their growing up. Yes, this is one of the more serious and creepy stories (even the daft hippies are unbalanced), but don’t worry: it’s still funny and exciting too.
The last story of the season, episodes 9 and 10, is The Carnivorous Carnival. It opens with a lovely sequence about the VFD headquarters, Beatrice, and a sugar bowl… And I must say – as a fan of the book series – it was really gratifying to see played out an event that had only been alluded to by the narrator until now. This story has the Beaudelaires in disguise for a change, not Olaf, and shows us some more of the dynamics between the members of his troupe, and see Olaf being his natural self a bit more.
After finding out more about secret societies and conspiracies, and seeing the orphans become steadily more independent, the story ends with a death (though one less death than in the book) and a terrific cliffhanger.
So those are the stories that make up season 2 of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The cast has widened, so Olaf isn’t quite as central as he was, but he compensates with some extra flamboyance given half the chance; Neil Patrick Harris sings and dances in several episodes, as well as singing the theme tune. And the new cast members are terrific, fitting right in with the ones we knew from season one; most notably Sara Rue as Olivia (the one secondary character who was not in the books), Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats and Lucy Punch as Esmé Squalor. The Baudelaire orphans were never the type of heroes that things simply happen to (like Katniss in The Hunger Games, for example), and the actors certainly hold their own too, as they did in the first season: Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, and Presley Smith are maturing nicely (especially Smith, who is no longer just a baby, of course!) and will certainly have made their names through this show.
The true casting genius is still Patrick Warburton, as Lemony Snicket, the narrator. As before, his visual and verbal styles are spot on, and he pulls off the blend of quirky prose with emotional wisdom like well frankly no-one else I can imagine.
Besides getting several paper cuts in one day, or receiving news that your worst enemy has been awarded free ice cream, one of the most unpleasant experiences in life is a job interview.
Season 2 built on season 1 beautifully, and I am really looking forward to the final season. My son watched it all with me, and at the end asked if he could have a time machine to go forward to next year. At least I was able to take him to see the Netflix “misfortune teller” at Waterstones Birmingham so he could bring home a souvenir.
So if you loved season 1, do carry on with season 2. And read the books. If you’ve not watched season 1 yet, get on with it! And read the books.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.