‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Season 2: A little indulgent but a lot of fun

Ten years ago, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events would probably have been considered one of the great TV shows of its time; or at least a beloved cult hit on the tier of Pushing Daisies. But in a post-prestige landscape, where only true masterpieces (The Leftovers) or ironic favourites (Billions) can rise above the conversational cloud, a really high-end family-oriented black comedy such as this simply can’t find its feet in the zeitgeist. It’s sad, because there’s true greatness within this show, even if its latest batch of 10 episode feels on more than one occasion like a prescribed punishment more than an Easter treat. Books of 250 pages, half of which consist of Lemony Snicket’s literate musings, are simply not all able to sustain 90 minute TV movies, and so every single instalment of Events’ second season feels significantly overlong.

There’s a repetitiveness to the comedy, which has become far more slapstick and ‘unsophisticated’ (not necessarily a bad thing) since Season 1, that has a tendency here to become tiresome: the writers’ preferred joke structure is the same phrase being repeated five or six times, which I’m sure I would’ve loved as a child, but find incredibly grating now. People repeating things in films — be it “Hello My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” or “I’m John Coffey, like the drink, only spelled different” — is a pet hate of mine. Events is punishing in this regard. This is balanced, however, by a number of brilliantly-executed, unobtrusive recurring gags throughout the 10 episodes: my favourite being a newspaper delivery boy whose bicycle takes him to the oddest of spots.

Neil Patrick Harris returns as The Inferior Count Olaf: I’m sorry, I can’t help it, Jim Carrey’s Olaf is up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker in my personal canon of great performances, and what Harris is doing is simply clowning in comparison. He’s not bad; the show plays to his strength almost to its own downfall (see: a series of narcissistic musical numbers throughout the season); but his performance lacks any conspiratorial or really fearful element; a depth to his preformative idiocy.

Events has a weird cast structure whereby every male character has a female counterpart (seriously, count ’em) for organic gender equality, and Olaf gets his Countess in the form of Lucy Punch’s Esme Squalor. Punch has been a novel presence in a variety of film and TV the past decade, and her Terrifying Dominatrix act is put to superb use here: she’s five times scarier than Olaf, and that’s what the show needs. She’s introduced as one of the Incompetent Guardians the Baudelaire orphans are endlessly passed between: her husband is played by the great Tony Hale, and we also meet Roger Bart as a violinist vice principal, Ithamar Enriquez as a kindly balloonist, David Alan Grier as a shortsighted librarian and a group of freaks including Robbie Amell. There’s so much packed into each instalment of the Baudelaires’ story, it’s tiresome to recall a whole season consumed (by me, at least) over a bank holiday weekend, but the episodes on their own are truly enjoyable viewing — especially, I imagine, for children the age I was when the Carrey film was released.

Oh yes, the Baudelaire children. If Harris’s Olaf is the marquee figure, it’s Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes who have to carry this series and they are really, really terrific. Hynes’s speech is a tad inaudible in some of these episodes, but after realising he’s actually English I forgave that completely. They don’t get to do light comedy or heartwarming melodrama or anything child actors usually excel at — the Baudelaires are always stressed and scared — but they’re insanely likeable kids. They meet another set of orphans at Prufrock Preparatory School — Dylan Kingwell and Avi Lake — who are a little too fresh-faced in the context of the show, but did a nice job in their small roles.

Other performers deserving credit: Matty Cardarople as Olaf’s Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender, Sara Rue as an extremely helpful librarian-turned-VFD agent, Patrick Breen as Larry Yourwaiter and the two Snickets: new arrival Nathan Fillion as Jacques, and Season 1’s MVP, also Season 2’s MVP, Patrick Warburton as tangential, ponderous narrator Lemony. He floats in and out of scenes, always watching the Baudelaires’ misfortunes with an intellectual resignation, teaching us new words and phrases; he is the heart and soul of this series, a rare instance in this world of perfect casting. (Casting: a word which here means “finding an actor who will suit a role”).

The episodes are as well-directed as longform TV can be, by Barry Sonnenfeld, Bo Welch and others, despite looking pretty cheap at times. This is mostly a case of me holding the production design to the standards of the $120m feature film that precedes this; it really does have good production values for a Netflix series. The style is consistent with Season 1: a mixbag of Wes Andersonian symmetry, Tim Burtonian circus aesthetic and the grim whimsy of the early, Sonnenfeld-shot Coen movies. I would be honoured to let my 10-year old watch such a cineliterate piece of entertainment.

The problem, then, is that most of the books covered by Season 2 were never that cinematic to begin with. One is set at a school — without any magic or dragons, another in a highrise apartment building, another in a fairly unexciting hospital. In an effort to give some structure to the narrative, the writers squeeze every adaptation into a formula, and every second episode concludes almost identically with Olaf about to publicly maim or murder the kids in front of a naively anticipatory audience. If you watched the whole season in a weekend, you’d be pretty sick of it too.

But this is to ignore the genius that runs through this story; the literary allusions of which Eliot himself would have been proud, the homages to Looney Tunes and the Marx Brothers, the embattled cynicism of the Snicket figure and the secret messages and codes that set my National Treasure-loving heart all a-flurry. It’s not perfect television, but it’s as clever and well-intentioned as child and teen audiences deserve, but so rarely get.