A Series of Unfortunate Events has a Charismatic Charm

Genre: Adventure/comedy

Synopsis: Three siblings, the Baudelaires, suddenly find themselves orphans. They’re sent to live with a nearby relative, Count Olaf–who, it turns out, only wants their money. He puts them in poor living conditions, uses them as servants, and abuses them verbally (and once physically). The siblings are left to survive their dreary situation, foil his schemes, and fight for a happier future.

Series: One season. There will be a second season. 

I’ve Watched: The first 4 episodes.

Verdict: Fun to watch, but more because of its style than its character work.

The great strength of this show is its style of storytelling. This is a comedy, but it’s one that relies on a serious and sophisticated tone to highlight how absurd the plot is. The story is defined by the deadpan delivery, in an almost literary tone, of the over-the-top material. This gives it its unique charm, the personality that draws the viewer in.

Because the story is absolutely ridiculous (in that positive, intentional way):

  • The siblings each have improbable skills, and not just for their age. Violet is a gadgeteer who uses a home appliance to lift herself up a piece of fabric. Klaus sways a judge through some philosophical presentation. Sunny uses her teeth to whittle down a key.
  • Count Olaf appears in various, obvious disguises, but only the Baudelaire siblings recognize him. The adult figure with power over their fate keeps falling for Olaf’s ruses, and dismissing the siblings’ concerns.
  • In the background, unexplained spy-shenanigans happen with the intent of keeping the siblings safe–but conveniently fail to keep danger away from them.

For all the humor, the material is thematically serious. The siblings are the ones with the most to lose, and the ones most aware of the risks to themselves. But no one ever takes them seriously. They’re in a nightmare situation where no one will believe that their reality is real.

At times, the story is a little too bleak to be enjoyable. A good example is when the plot of an episode revolved around a child bride situation. 

While I generally liked the story, the style is what makes the experience. There isn’t much else drawing me in. The show doesn’t do deep character work, and for the most part, that wouldn’t fit into this story. Still, while all the characters are portrayed well by their actors, I feel sympathy for them more because of their circumstances than any attachment to these particular people.

The one exception is Monty, the uncle who takes the children in after they escape Olaf’s clutches. In the first four episodes, he was by far the most well-developed character. He displayed a sense of adventure and daring, but also a softer side towards his new charges. Then when dealing with his rival herpetologists, he’d confront them in this ferocious, swashbuckling manner. He was fun, and he showed off different sides of himself. In a story that had been fairly dark up till then, he brought a spark of hope. I was pretty disappointed to see him go, because he added so much to the story.

The show is mostly good, and its charm is worth experiencing. It’s not flawless, and there are still disappointing parts. But overall, I’d call the first half of the season an entertaining experience. And even as the fourth episode closes and the siblings are getting shuffled off to another unknown relative, I’m compelled to find out what happens next. To discover what quirky personality this new guardian will have.