Confronting Count Olaf: Unfortunate Events undermines authority

Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events promises to live up to the melancholy implications of its title with a theme song that tells viewers the show will “wreck your evening, your whole life, and your day.” The series is based on the popular children’s books by Daniel Handler. His alter ego, Lemony Snicket, is both credited as author, and narrates the show as a character played by Patrick Warburton. The show follows the exploits of the ingenious Baudelaire orphans—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—who bounce from one incompetent guardian to another while the villainous Count Olaf pursues their family fortune.

What makes the show so uniquely miserable is that, as promised in the very first episode, there are no happy endings. Despite their cunning, ingenuity, and kindness, the Baudelaires never truly emerge victorious. Their bravery might keep them alive, but at the end of every other episode (each book is allotted two episodes), they are invariably handed back to the incompetent banker (and manager of the Baudelaire family affairs), Mr. Poe, who delivers them into the hands of the next adult in line to play guardian to the trio. More often than not, that adult is none other than Count Olaf in disguise, or a distant family member whose irresponsibility or ignorance allows Olaf to usurp their guardianship through any means necessary—more than once, those means are murder.

Despite its depressing subject matter, A Series of Unfortunate events is a very watchable show. Its use of dark humor cuts through the misery. While the villains of the show might be dangerous, they are also very stupid. The decision to cast Neil Patrick Harris as Olaf was inspired—he brings a neurotic pizzazz to the character. The casting choice is especially good given Olaf’s high level of misplaced vanity. Harris has proven he plays arrogance well in past roles, and here it makes such a sinister character humorous.

The world in which the series is set is designed with a similar sensibility. The time period is unclear, but vaguely depression-era, and the sets are teeming with impossible architecture, bursts of bright colors, foreboding shadows, hidden symbols, and secret passageways. It’s reminiscent of German expressionism—the exaggerated angular shapes of Nosferatu or Dr. Caligari—mashed with the candy-colored dystopias in early Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands comes to mind). As bleak as the stories may be, they are never boring, and they are always set in compelling new locations.

What makes the show so unique is not only its characters and scenery. A Series of Unfortunate Events is ultimately a show made for children and young adults, but it never once panders to its demographic. Its message is not “love conquers all” or “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Instead, the series takes a darkly realist approach: the world is run by adults, but age doesn’t indicate intelligence or competence. The greatest survival tool any child can have is knowledge. As kids, the Baudelaires have no legal sovereignty, no money, and no connections. What they do have is a knack for reading, inventing, and learning. Whenever they are faced with impossible odds, Klaus and Violet read books; Fortunately for them, they are rarely far from a library. When Violet is forced into a marriage with Count Olaf, Klaus’ legal research ultimately proves the marriage invalid. When trying to prove that their herpetologist uncle was murdered, Klaus consults literature on snakes, and Violet examines all evidence as if they were “parts of a machine” to reconstruct the murder weapon. Ultimately, while the orphans never get a happy ending, their booksmarts and scientific prowess are what keep them alive and out of Olaf’s clutches time and time again.

Given the current political climate, it seems more evident than ever that the adults in power are often incompetent, short-sighted, or just plain mean. Real life promises no more happy endings than A Series of Unfortunate Events. However, so long as there are books to be read and scientific theories to be proven, there is always, at the very least, a future. The intended audience of A Series of Unfortunate Events is growing up in a world where the future is more uncertain than ever, and, as children, they will often feel helpless in the face of decisions made by adults. They have a valuable lesson to learn from Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, even if the truth of that lesson is unpleasant: the world can be violent, cold, and unforgiving, but you are never powerless if you are willing to learn.