When Season 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events came out I cringed because I knew, unfortunately, that no matter how much I disliked the show I would end up watching it all. I don’t know why, but I just can’t give up on it. Unlike Godless, which I hated hands down (only to have that hate doubled in the finale) A Series of Unfortunate Events does enough things right that I want it to be good. It just does enough things wrong that it never clears that hurdle.
A few things to get out of the way right off the bat: yes, I did read the series when I was young (but that must have been a good fifteen years ago now, if not more) and no, I never finished them. And, yes, some of my problems with the show are my problems with the books, so it’s not as if the show has somehow betrayed the books in its mistakes. They’re baked into the concept, and I can imagine some of the things I dislike about the series, in either incarnation, are the very things that endear it to other people. But the show does a lot of things to accentuate some of the mistakes of the books, when it could have used a second time up at bat to course correct. It’s rare a creator gets a chance to go back through and try to fix the mistakes of their own work. Dan Handler was given this chance. Again, it’d be unfair to say he squandered it… but I can’t say the decisions made by the team make a whole lot of sense to me.
First, the issues I have with the series in any incarnation. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a grim story. It’s pretty upfront about that… in fact, Snicket stops by every few minutes/pages to reassure us that bad things happen to good people, sometimes your best efforts aren’t enough, the universe is chaotic, etc. It’s a perfectly fine message, as far as I’m concerned – different from traditional children’s stories but refreshingly so.
It’s the way it’s communicated that becomes problematic. It’s fine to tell us that the world is cruel and unfeeling, but it’s boring to be given the same example time and time again. A new guardian arrives, the Baudelaires feel safe, Olaf arrives, adults are incapable of recognizing bad accents as fake, and the guardian is killed or disposed of in some other way. If you’re trying to prove your thesis, it’d be a good idea to go about it multiple ways instead of submitting the same example over and over again. The series even gives evidence of this! Most everyone I’ve ever spoken with cites the back half of the series as the better half, because they are actively more diverse. From The Hostile Hospital onward the books have more serious stakes.
The sour tone, however, lowers the stakes even in this back half. Hopelessness works best when contrasted with hope, but that’s never an option. In both incarnations the formulaic nature and the constant Snicket interjections squash hope any time it rears its head. We aren’t afraid that the Baudelaires are in danger (they won’t get killed, because as subversive as The Series of Unfortunate Events attempts to be, it’s still a kid’s show for sure) and we already know that they’ll be forced to move on by the end of the episode. With the ending already laid out the journey is the only thing that can build any tension or intrigue (a la Romeo and Juliet). In the books the journey mostly holds up (again, as far as I recall) but the show fails in this regard.
It’s for a few reasons, but most of them stem from a change in perspective in the show. The books are told by Snicket, but other than his allusions to previous events we largely see what the Baudelaires see and know what they know. The show, however, decides to split the perspective with Olaf.
Giving Olaf perspective weakens the show in a number of ways, and effectively strips the character of any menace he might have. In the books he would appear suddenly, in disguise, with only the Baudelaires aware of his arrival. By placing so much focus on him in the show we end up seeing him arriving, formulating a plan, etc. There is no shock and, because you’re already privy to his plan for the most part, little for you to try to figure out. By thrusting him into the light the show eradicates any serious danger he might pose. Again, The Hostile Hospital serves as a good example. It would be much more menacing, shocking even, if the first time we encountered Olaf was while he announced his take over of the Hospital over the P.A. system. It would allow the children and the viewer a bigger reprieve beforehand, and would more effectively rip the carpet out from under them when he inevitably arrives.
What’s more, Olaf is utterly incompetent. It’s true in the books too, but by placing us in such close and prolonged proximity to him, it’s accentuated. We build some sort of sympathy for him and the show becomes not a show about three brave protagonists whose happiness is constantly destroyed by Count Olaf, and instead becomes a show about three brave protagonists who are constantly defeated by a fourth protagonist, who is also constantly defeated. Making Olaf so desperately bad at what he does makes the Baudelaires seem equally bad at stopping him: their middling escapes don’t seem to rely so much on the Baudelaires’ intellect and perseverance but rather on Olaf’s failings. Even the VFD is drained of all power. Take Jacques Snicket: in the books he is presented as a potential savior who is outdone by Olaf’s greater menace. In the show Snicket fails to save the children multiple times over and then foolishly loses his life to a truly foolish man. Are we supposed to mourn his death? Why? We know he couldn’t protect the children because we’ve watched him fail to do so already.
I’m not suggesting the thesis that the world is an unfortunate, uncaring, chaotic place is maligned, and I’m not suggesting that Olaf should be less ridiculous. Olaf can and should be ridiculous, but, as the real world so often shows us, ridiculous people can still inspire fear. Olaf could be a pompous, blowhard, theatric, sad, sycophantic man in constant need of approval – that’s who the character is, but by keeping his mechanisms more in the shadows his unpredictability and instability could inspire worry without betraying that central trait. He could appear to be part of the unfortunate, uncaring, chaotic place as opposed to another victim of it (the show does this ably with multiple characters: Poe and the early guardians aren’t actively malicious but still part of the tapestry of the unfortunate events). And if, down the road we discovered Olaf was both a perpetrator as well as a victim of these unfortunate events (as we no doubt will) that would pack more of an emotional punch. By adding him as a protagonist and then smashing all four protagonists continuously under an unwavering, unseen, unchanging “unfortunate series of events” the series offers no mystery, no hope, and nothing for us to learn.