‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ goes out on a relative high

Had I the genuine belief that any children at all were tuning in to Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I would say how great it is that young people are being exposed to such a deep bench of literary references and mini English lessons. But something tells me this show’s audience has gotten smaller and smaller over time as it has leaned into the farcical tedium of the later novels in Daniel Handler’s 13-part series and become so daftly, impossibly convoluted in its intricate plotting that even I — an adult man, who once read these books twice each — could barely follow what was happening.

Last Easter’s 10-episode second season was the most exhausting binge-watch I completed in 2018, so it was itself a relief to see that the third season has only 7, while adapting books of much greater length. It’s instantly obvious: these episodes are much sharper, faster and less reliant on *ahem* stupid time-wasting nonsense than previous instalments. For example, the second season tried to buffer episodes by giving Neil Patrick Harris free reign over a number of appalling musical numbers; Season 3 has none of these.

This season begins with the Baudelaire orphans (Louis Hynes, Malina Weissman) trapped atop a perilous mountain, Harris’s Count Olaf in cold pursuit. Immediately we’re given a thorough lowdown on the VFD secret society business the 2004 Brad Silberling film never dallied with; Alison Williams shows up as Lemony Snicket’s sister, and we meet Olaf’s mentors The Man With A Beard & No Hair (soon-to-be Oscar winner Richard E. Grant) and The Woman With Hair & No Beard. Then we’re brought underwater for a submarine adventure that stretches the show’s very low CGI budget for all its worth. Then to a hotel packed with familiar faces that allows director Barry Sonnenfeld to fully flex his Wes Anderson homaging/haemorrhaging. Then the final episode sees the Baudelaires and Olaf shipwrecked on a small island, confronted with all sorts of secret conspiratorial business.

The show’s decision to sacrifice comedy and silliness for a ton of exposition and mythology-building sounds like a downside to this season, yet said comedy and silliness was so weak to begin with, it’s actually a welcome exchange. I hate to say it, but with the show finished, Harris’s Olaf simply did not work. He played the role five sizes too big, never once the menacing figure I had nightmares about after watching the Jim Carrey iteration in ’04, merely a clown who lowered the standard of every scene he appeared in. The show around him was silly in a more charming way; Olaf should, and could, have been the one dark factor. Not a clown, but a genuine source of terror. And for god’s sake he should have had less screentime; in some episodes Olaf became the effective lead of the show, undermining the rather excellent work (par some troublesome mumbling) of Weissman and Hynes, to whom I wish the best of luck for future careers. Insufficiently-likeable kids would have killed this show completely; but Weissman and Hynes kept it constantly afloat.

The adult supporting cast was never less than crammed with recognisable faces, but after a point it became stale that these are all rather middling sitcom actors: Season 3 almost took this too far, with one scene that featured Harris, Williams, Patrick Warburton (the MVP of this show, I must add), Lucy Punch, Morena Baccarin, Tony Hale and Max Greenfield. There must have been room for one or two movie stars in this show.

Bo Welch’s production design is terrific throughout, but the show suffers from over-reliance on tiny sets (it literally feels like it was shot in one room sometimes) and green-screen: the final, island episode has an unbelievably bad visual aesthetic. But it took 13 years after the Silberling movie for anyone to try adapt these books again, and a low budget was obviously part of the Netflix arrangement. The actual climactic coda of the final episode is extremely well done and touching; the show’s overall message that reading books when young can help you survive all sorts of dangers a really superb and positive one. This show may have caused me more headaches than I would have liked, and been phenomenally imperfect, but it’s the last adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events we are ever going to see, and I am glad it exists.