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A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Premiere Is Good to Be “Bad” (Recap)

I am sorry to tell you, dear reader, that this recap of the A Series of Unfortunate Events episode “A Bad Beginning: Part One,” has spoilers in the beginning, spoilers at the end, and very few moments of non-spoilage in between. Should you prefer to be surprised, it is suggested that you abscond–which in this case means “navigate away”–from this page, until such time as your constitution is capable of absorbing what ensues.

Netflix‘s take on the Lemony Snicket stories of the Baudelaire orphans wasted no time in setting the tone, with a theme song (which you can watch above) by Neil Patrick Harris (of course!), warning the viewer to look away, while engaging in humorous word play that’s ear-candy enough to ensure we do not, in fact, tune out…all atop some Weird Al-like accordion work. “This show will wreck your evening, your home life and your day/every single episode is nothing but dismay!” That’s one hell of a promise–the only show that usually does that to me is the evening news. It’s also a more creative choice than, say, Danny Elfman.

Presley Smith–a baby–is getting co-star billing in this, which is unusual, and possibly very cool, depending on whether the kid actually wants to act later in life. But who is the person making John Nash-like yarn lines between photos on a wall, like every obsessed detective and/or serial killer in movies, and nobody in actual real life? Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton), of course. “There’s nothing but horror and inconvenience on the way!” continued the theme. Well, I like horror, and having every episode on Netflix is, in fact, convenient. This was your first sign of many that the narrator may be unreliable.


“To Beatrice–darling, dearest, dead” began the episode proper, in typed letters on black. Beatrice, we will learn, is Snicket’s deceased love, and possibly more significant than that, if there are future seasons of the show. This faded into our first good look at Lemony himself, telling us the story happened many years ago, and giving us a chance to stop watching and pick something with a happy ending instead. Notably, he mentioned it’s his “solemn duty” to bring this story to light…but duty to whom? Or what? This isn’t just an errant question; it will become more nagging as the series progresses. “This story will be dreadful, melancholy, and calamitous: a word which here means dreadful and melancholy.” The first of many word definitions to come was an exercise in humorous redundancy.

Violet (Malina Weissman), Klaus (Louis Hynes), and Sunny were then introduced to us, riding in the back of a speeding, Wes Andesron-esque trolley first through cheerful, affluent neighborhoods, but then all the way to a post-apocalyptic hellscape of a beach that looks like the movie The Road. “Festive means fun!” said the cheerful conductor, prompting the first of many similar responses from the children; “We know what festive means.” They pointedly avoided entreaties to go to the fun fair, choosing the gloom of Briny Beach instead, setting a tone for what’s to come. They were sent to said beach, unaccompanied, by their parents, which is as suspicious as the fire truck that was briefly driving parallel to their trolley.

Snicket may have been narrating from the future of the story we’re seeing, but director Barry Sonnenfeld wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to throw Warburton into an old-timey bathing suit and have him sit in the beach lifeguard chair to comment on the action. Good for him. Anyway, this part was where we learned about the respective talents of the Baudelaire children: Violet likes to invent and fix things, Klaus is intelligent and loves to read, and baby Sunny can understand English (though she cannot speak it yet, but fortunately her siblings understand “Baby”) and use her freakishly sharp teeth to perform superhuman tasks like chewing a rock into a smooth skipping stone.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

A point was also made of Violet being right-handed. This will come up again. James Brown lyrics were dropped just so we know this is supposed to be reasonably present-day, despite the elaborate, retro-style clockwork grappling hook the kids just deployed to retrieve their skipping stone. And now I wish Warburton would do a whole Shatner-style spoken-word album of James Brown covers.

Anyway, along came Mr. Poe (K. Todd Freeman), who was most definitely not Timothy Spall-like this time around. It’s not just that the character is now black, but he’s also thin and way more socially awkward, with a supremely dorky lack of tact and a never-ending cough. “It IS a nice day. I have some very bad news for you children. Your parents have perished in a terrible fire.” I mean, it’s not like he was being mean, per se, just that he had absolutely no idea that his joy in a message well-conveyed wouldn’t outweigh the awfulness of said message. But even casual cruelty has a disproportionate effect on children. As we shall see, repeatedly.

Lemony climbed through a manhole with what looked like Dr. Strange’s Eye of Agamotto on it to segue back into the Baudelaire home as the fire which killed the parents was starting. He told us neither he nor his mysterious “associates” (who?) could ascertain the cause of the fire, but you may, if you look closely. Notice how bright spots appeared on the wall and curtains shortly before they burst into flame, as if from a magnifying glass burning ants.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Back in the Baudelaire orphans’ timeline, they wandered the charred ruins of their house as Sunny found a spyglass that seems significant, especially since it to had that Eye of Agamotto-like symbol on it. We also learned the key detail from Poe that the siblings have inherited a substantial fortune, only accessible when Violet “comes of age” (she’s described as 14, so that probably means in four years, but who knows what rules this alternate reality plays by?). And until they could find a new guardian, they would come and stay with Poe, whose wife just so happens to be the Rita Skeeter of the Snicket-verse. Also, damn, that baby is really calm.

Snicket’s throwaway line about what Poe’s two sons are doing today is priceless: one is a banker, and the other lives in a cave and talks to sheep. “They each think the other has it better.”

Poe’s house being the only normal-sized house in a row of much taller ones–and the subsequent appearance of Count Olaf’s castle in an otherwise happy neighborhood–may remind you just how much the original Despicable Me “borrowed” from Lemony Snicket. I’m sure its just coincidence that Olaf’s henchpersons are also bumbling goofs who wear bad disguises.

“He’s employed as an actor, so you know his excitement is genuine.” Depends how method he is, I suppose.

In wordplay typical of the series, we learned that Count Olaf got custody because Poe doesn’t understand what “closest living relative” means–three miles away, Olaf is merely geographically closest. Meanwhile, if you want to make this a drinking game, drink every time a character defines a word they’ve just used in a sentence, whether they did so correctly or not.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) was presented as a potentially perfect guardian for the kids, needing some help with gadgets, her library, and cutting things…so of course, this being a series of unfortunate events, there’s no chance she’ll ever be granted that role. Count Olaf lives right across the street, of course, in the Edward Scissorhands castle. And the first thing we noticed about him is he has that same eye logo tattooed on his left ankle. Neil Patrick Harris’ innate likability actually made Olaf’s initial fakeout as a nice guy semi-believable…at least, until he realized the fortune would not be his for years under the terms of the will. Them the passive aggressive seething began, and after Poe left, all-out tyranny. Anyone who has ever worked as an actor’s assistant (or been babysat by the wrong person) will relate. Snicket’s subsequent monologue about Olaf’s villainy was straight-up Adam West Batman.

So Olaf’s house is like the Addams Family mansion, only inhabited by people who don’t actually like torture and despair. Yes, Barry Sonnenfeld’s the right guy for this.

“The most important substance on earth, besides applause and lip balm” – Count Olaf, describing money.

So, the children were free to go to Strauss’ house to see her library, yet never told her how terrible Count Olaf is? Granted, he poisoned the well by lying to her about their behavior, but still…Anyway, in a neat sight gag, Strauss only partially pulled out a book entitled “An Incomplete History of Secre…” and we didn’t see the full title.

Back at the castle, we got a self-promoting musical number from Olaf and his “thee-AT-ter” troupe. It was everything we hoped.

Wonder orphan powers, combine! Pasta puttanesca was made for dinner, though Olaf retconned his request and demanded roast beef. When they tried to stand up for themselves, Klaus got a slap and a big bruise.

AWW SNAP HOLY PLOT TWIST! The parents are alive? In a prison car? And they’re played by Will Arnett and Cobie Smulders? This is new. But how will it play out in an adaptation that (I assume, because the original author wrote it) still intends to stay reasonably faithful?

Let us know your thoughts on the unfolding Series of Unfortunate Events in comments below!

Images: Netflix

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