Does Everyone Remember How Dark A Series Of Unfortunate Events Actually Is?

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Netflix's A Series Of Unfortunate Events premiered Friday, January 13, to relatively warm reception. The New York Times called it a "fortunate reinvention" of the series. (Fortunate because the books deserved a better on-screen iteration than the 2004 Jim Carrey vehicle.) Entertainment Weekly declared it a "cathartic fantasy," and I myself, an avid fan of the books, will admit that the series is none too shabby.

So it seems there is applause all around for the eight-episode adaptation. But all the hubbub around this "reinvention," to borrow from the Times, makes me wonder if everyone's fully aware of how dark A Series of Unfortunate Events truly is.

It seems fairly obvious — the show's title says as much. This is a series of sad occurrences. Lemony Snicket's relentlessly upsetting narrative makes no moves to hide its macabre foundation, either. The Netflix series opens with a narrator (played by Patrick Warburton) encouraging you, the viewer, to not even watch the series, because it's so dark.

"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else," he says. Heck, even the opening theme chants, "Look away!" And then, in the first 30 seconds of the episode, the Baudelaires learn that their parents have died. Cheery stuff.

The series is characterized by its gloom, and yet somehow its Netflix incarnation still feels jaunty, mainly due to the comedic stylings of Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. Harris is a nimble comic actor, and I'm a fan. But in this arena, his performative humor actually feels out of place.

Count Olaf's central mission in the series is to marry Violet Baudelaire, the eldest sibling. Violet is 14. Do you see where I'm going here? Olaf wants to wed the eldest daughter so he can gain access to the Baudelaire's vast fortune. So no, this isn't necessarily about an older man forcing himself upon a prepubescent inventor. But the premise is still quite sinister, and watching it in action is jarring.

The second episode of the Netflix series features an unfortunate that forces Violet (Malina Weissman) to agree to marry Count Olaf. (I don't want to give any spoilers, but suffice to say I would have done the same.) When Violet dons a white wedding gown and stands at an altar, the cognitive dissonance could not be more glaring. Here we have Violet, who starts the series in a pink, printed frock. And over here we have Neil Patrick Harris chewing the scenery in what looks like Seinfeld's puffy shirt.

"Violet is only a child — she is not old enough to marry!" Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman) helpfully points out.

The show has other dark aspects in store — a grieving widow, a dead carcass, plenty of rotten teeth — but these nuptials are the most disturbing. Granted, this type of atmospheric juxtaposition can be productive. Many critics have already declared this contradictory narrative fertile ground for discussion. Entertainment Weekly almost compared Count Olaf with our president-elect. (Tomorrow, our president.) "[Olaf] embodies the corruption of our times — a vain, craven prevaricator, and starved for significance by any means necessary, and transparently so," critic Jeff Jensen wrote.

Perhaps therein lies my greatest discomfort. In an age when zany-haired wannabe entertainers can actually ascend to political power, the menacing Count Olaf feels all too real. And when he reaches for Violet, even in the guise of financial gain, I see the government reaching for me, my friends, and little girls everywhere. When I laugh at Harris as the Count, part of me wonders if I'm partaking in the tomfoolery that got us here in the first place.

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